What is it that makes a person’s diet successful? Of course, I don’t mean diet in the vernacular “Jenny Craig/Weight Watchers/oh no, I’m on a diet,” sort of way, but the “this is what I eat,” way. I mean some people are successful in meeting their goals with Paleo, some with intermittent fasting, some with constant macros, some with keto, some by being any variety of -tarian. So what’s the answer, with so many options?
There is only one answer, here. Adherence.
Whatever works for you is what works. Whatever plan it is that makes you feel good, that you will stick to, is the most effective plan for you.
If I calculated out the most effective diet ever to exist, and it consisted of eating one banana covered in frog eyes and broccoli sprouts every morning for breakfast, my feeling is that diet adherence would be fairly low, regardless of the promises of such a diet. Low adherence would lead to low effectiveness, you see? You’ve got to be able to stick with something in order to gauge how well it works!
My own diet adherence rests on two things, mainly: intermittent fasting and carb cycling. I’ve touched on both previously, but never delved into them. I want to clarify this: this is what works best for me. I am NOT recommending you try either or both, nor saying either has magical powers or is scientifically better than anything else. These are simply what keep me on track towards my strength and aesthetic goals!
So let’s talk carb cycling.
Carb cycling can be done in many, many ways. Some people eat varying amounts of carbs on a 3, 4, or 5 day cycle. Some keep carbs relatively low for a few days at a time and then utilize a high carb “refeed” once or twice a week. There are any number of ways to complicate things, you just need to choose your own adventure. Because I have far too many things in my brain at once, I keep mine simple, because it just plain works nicely for me. On lifting days I eat high carb and low fat. On non-lifting days, I eat low carb and high fat. I’ve tried to further complicate it, and it ended poorly.
Because I like it like that. And I’m the goddamn boss of me. That’s why.
I began cycling my carbs like this, and my calories too- on lifting days I eat higher calories as well, as set out by Leangains intermittent fasting protocol designer Martin Berkhan. I had decided to experiment with this form of intermittent fasting after joining Fitocracy and seeing it discussed there. It was fun, and, truly, it began my love for all things nutritional science, and launched the beginning of my time reading and researching and learning about macros and experimenting with my diet. I found that, once I adjusted to eating all of my meals within an 8 hour span, I really liked how it freed up the rest of my day to NOT think about food! It was easy to get things done and not worry about stopping for lunch or carrying food with me. When it wasn’t eating time, I simply didn’t think about it. For me, it made, and still makes, sense. There are a number of ways to implement intermittent fasting- Leangains utilizes a typically-8 hour eating window each day, while others utilize alternate day fasts, modified fasts, longer or shorter fasts… I’ll let you do your own research if that interests you.
But more than the hours, more than the convenience, it’s the carb cycling that hooked me. You see, at the end of the week, my weekly average intake of macros looks strikingly similar to that of someone who eats the same macros every day. Percentage-wise, my carbs and fats and proteins are pretty standard for someone who spends as much time in the gym as I do. It’s the daily fluctuations that are quite different.
My protein is kept the same each day, but I split the remainder of my calories after protein is accounted for 25/75, with the larger percentage being carbs on lifting days and fats on rest days. I know. That’s so many fats on rest days!
This means that every single day I’m looking forward to something. If it’s a rest day and all I can think about is frozen yogurt, obviously my very low carbs for the day do not fit that in, and I’m filling my carb macros with mostly veggies, not fro yo, for both fiber and satiety. BUT CHEESE! And tomorrow, if it’s a lifting day, fro yo it is. If I’m craving avocados, oh goodness you better believe my next rest day will see me eating a whole one.
Now some would argue that I could just split my macros more evenly throughout the week and eat carbs and fats together, all in one day.
But when I eat avocados, I eat avocados. I want ALL of the avocados. Not a tiny sliver of avocados. And I want a plate of pasta, not a tiny scoop. Keeping my macros split like I have them is fun! Granted, it’s a pain when my husband and I lift on opposite days and I’m making two versions of dinner, a high fat and a high carb, but, I’ve gotten pretty good at that too.
The theory behind cycling carbs, like I do with a simple high/low format or in a more complicated multi-day manner (high carb/moderate carb/low carb days, high/low/no carb, etc.), is that you can more effectively lose fat AND gain muscle by increasing your body’s insulin sensitivity, allowing you to more effectively utilize nutrients. When your body needs the carbs for immediate energy during activity or for repair after activity, you’ve provided them. On rest days, fats are increased and carbs decreased to, in theory, shed body fat and further enhance the effects of that nutrient partitioning, increasing your insulin sensitivity. It also brings your leptin- that’s a hormone responsible for telling you when you’re hungry- levels in check. Keeping your carb intake consistently high results in continuously elevated leptin levels, and eventually your body stops responding to it, leading to overeating and feelings of insatiability. Interjecting these low carb/high fat days stave this off, and allow you to eat poached eggs with truffle oil and bacon.
The idea is that your body, now low on carbs to burn, will turn to burning fat for energy- both dietary and stored body fat. And while I can’t say for sure 100% that this is true, my research leads me to believe that it is, and my personal experience- that is, my ability to maintain very low body fat- indicates to me that it just might be.
An additional bonus to this cycling methodology is that I’ve learned to read my body really well. I’ve tracked my intake so carefully and analyzed my body’s responses to macro changes that I can, at this point, pinpoint when I have one macro too high or too low. I can tell when I’m overloaded on carbs and need a high fat day to balance things out. If you listen carefully, your body is giving you constant messages, constant feedback based on what you put into it. Cycling carbs and paying close attention to how my body responds has really helped me to figure out how my body is affected by even slight changes in either macro, because there are such large variations in my intake day to day. If nothing else, this acquired knowledge of my body has been incredible, and is truly what allowed me to run my own diet during contest prep. By knowing, through experimentation and years of careful tracking and paying close attention, I was able to manipulate my intake to the gram to get the results I wanted, and continues to help me as I reverse diet- increasing both my fat and carb macros.
Beginning carb cycling can be a bit difficult- I remember asking my husband how on Earth I was meant to eat 70g fats in a day- just eat a stick of butter? But you get better at it. And your cheese drawer soon includes cheddar and feta and chèvre and mozzarella, and your nut shelf includes almonds and cashews and walnuts and pine nuts and pecans and pepitas… Soon, you’re looking at nutrition labels and separating your snack food cabinet by training day and rest day snacks. Obviously, Oreos, pretzels, Cheerios, and rice cakes sleep on one side and my extensive collection of nut butters and nuts on the other.
The thing about both intermittent fasting and carb cycling is that when you try to research them, you find a lot of fanaticism. Layne Norton even jokes about the “Church of Intermittent Fasting” in a few of his podcasts- people get too serious. You are going to find huge variations in beliefs about both topics, and wading through all the opinions to find the facts is time consuming, but to me, it’s been well worth it. I will say that I’ve had a lot of fun and learned a lot about my body through experimenting with my diet, and these are the two things that I have stuck with after seeing the effects on my own body. I encourage you to do your own research and experimentation in these things to see if it fits with your lifestyle.
Again, the best diet for you is the one you will stick to- your diet should fit your life, not complicate it unnecessarily.