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Should you try carb cycling for hormone balance & exercise performance?

You know that I recommend more of a paleo and low carb diet especially to support hormone balance in perimenopause. With a low carb (and high fat and protein) diet, you

teach your body to burn fat and ketones for fuel (as opposed to burning glucose), which essentially keeps you fuller longer and is associated with improved insulin sensitivity, weight loss, and mental health benefits.

I’m not a fan of the Keto diet, especially not long term. I’m actually not a fan of any defined diet as I find that it’s very bioindividual what foods and macros are right for you depending on your lifestyle and activity levels.

Especially for women, it’s much more difficult to get into ketosis and your liver can really suffer. Besides the fact that many people get sick of eating so much fat (mentally and literally) and have a low variety of vegetables and fiber that will have a negative impact on your gut health.

But before I go on, let’s define what this means:

  • On a keto diet, you’ll have up to 50g carbs per day, although for women, it’ll typically be max 20-30g of net carbs per day to get into ketosis

  • On a low carb diet, you’ll eat 50-130g net carbs per day

  • Just consider that ½ cup of steamed white rice has 44g carbs: you can see that with both diets, you are not able to eat much of the high carb grains…

You still need the carbs:

  • Going too low carb can deplete muscle glycogen, the stored form of glucose in your muscle tissue: this means that you’ll lack energy for workouts, especially HIIT, but you’ll also have more trouble recovering from exercise.

  • Too low-carb diets can impact your thyroid health by negatively impacting the conversion of active thyroid hormone (T3).

  • Restricting your carbs too much can increase your appetite by throwing off balance your hunger & satiety hormone leptin.

  • Lastly, a lack of carbs can also negatively impact your sleep in peri and menopause

You may have heard about carb cycling before or maybe you are even doing it?

Read on to learn who might benefit from carb cycling, the potential perks and pitfalls, and tips to do it in a metabolically healthy manner if you decide to try it.

What is carb cycling?

Basically you spend most of your time eating low-carb and you periodically increase your carb intake throughout a week, month, or year. This isn’t the same though as a “cheat day,” where you just eat anything.

There’s no exact definition of carb cycling and depending on what’s your activity level or goal with it, you can find a wealth of different info.

Here’s the general idea though: you’ll eat low-carb or keto most of the time, then strategically eat more carbs on certain days (or at specific intervals) to support particular aims (for instance when you have a hard workout or long hike or something like that).

What happens when you eat low carb: your body is learning to burn fat as fuel instead of glucose from carbs. The body’s ability to switch between glucose and fat for energy is called metabolic flexibility. Consuming carbs in strategic intervals helps refill your muscle glycogen stores and therefore helps building muscle mass. This only works though if you’re working out and using your muscles!

Carbs that your body doesn’t need immediately, will be stored as fat. That means that any sugars or carbohydrates from healthy or unhealthy food sources that you consume on top of what your body needs immediately, will be stored as fat or adipose tissue.

Among people who typically eat at a lower carbohydrate threshold, periodic carb cycles where you’d be consuming higher carbs than usual, can enhance exercise endurance and performance and metabolic hormone output (like leptin, insulin, growth hormone).

What could this look like in real life?

  • For athletes and fitness enthusiasts, working out in a low-carb or ketogenic state may offer a way to burn a higher percentage of fat (including stored fat) for a period of time. This can help improve body composition to hit a desired weight or body fat percentage. Then, consuming more carbs at strategic intervals (e.g., surrounding specific athletic events) could help replenish muscle glycogen, so the body has an additional, more efficient fuel source for high-intensity activities (HIIT, hill sprints, strength training) or long-duration competitive events (a marathon, triathlon, bike race).

  • And for some women on low-carb diets—particularly lean, active women who struggle with issues like low energy, feelings of hunger, and menstrual irregularities—consuming additional carbs at strategic points in their menstrual cycle may provide relief by supporting levels of leptin

Carb cycling can be used by anyone who wants a more flexible diet approach.

What does a typical carb “cycle” look like?

The best approach for you will depend on your personal health goals and what feels good and it will probably take some trial and error to find what works best for you.

For example, you could carb cycle every week by:

  • eating low-carb for 6 days (5-10% of calories from carbs, or 25-50 g carbs on a 2,000 calorie per day diet, is a popular range*),

  • then eating relatively higher carb (1.5-2x your low-carb intake) for 1 day in conjunction with your most demanding workout or a social event.

  • if you typically eat 40 g of carbs, your higher carb days would be 60-80 g. So you see it’s not the aim to “carb up” - we definitely want to avoid the blood sugar spikes - but it will be higher than your typical range.

Another option is to eat low-carb for 6 to 8 weeks, then higher-carb for 1 week - perhaps when you have a holiday coming up or a more intense training block.

*Active people and athletes may need more. If you’re unsure, consider working with a professional who can help you figure out your sweet spot.

What are the potential benefits of carb cycling?

  • Having more flexibility in a low carb diet

  • Increasing energy and workout performance (when doing strenuous and HIIT training) Carbs are important for some, but not all, workouts. In fact, researchers speculate that carb cycling - in which you’re low-carb on low-to-moderate intensity workout days (and rest days) and higher carb for high-intensity workout days - could offer the best of both worlds.

  • Improving exercise recovery

  • Metabolic flexibility - your body’s ability to efficiently shift between burning glucose and burning fat

  • Carb cycling offers more opportunities to pack in beneficial fiber in the form of veggies, fruits, legumes, and other whole-food carbs that will support the good bacteria in your microbiome

  • Hormone balance: While there’s little research on carb cycling and hormones, we know that low-carb and keto diets have the potential to support healthy hormones especially for women. Eating fewer carbs is associated with lower insulin levels and improved insulin sensitivity and fat burning, which women in perimenopause and menopause are especially struggling with.

Performing low-to-moderate intensity aerobic exercise in a low-carb state has been associated with benefits such as:

When cycling carbs, keep these tips in mind for optimal metabolic health:

  • Choose nutrient-dense whole food sources

  • Avoid refined carbs and sugars

  • Always prioritize non-starchy vegetables (greens/salads, cabbage, green veggies, bell peppers) with sparing amounts of nutritious starchy vegetables and legumes (sweet potatoes, beets, carrots, squash, peas, lentils, beans)

  • Emphasize fruits that are high in fiber and antioxidants, and low in sugar such as berries, citrus, and pears

  • When eating higher-carb foods, pair them with fat, fiber and protein to help minimize glucose spikes

  • If you eat a meal higher in carbs, take a walk after eating to curb elevations in blood sugar and insulin


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