Posted by: SLS | November 13, 2011

Discovering carb cycling

Title is a bit misleading as I am not discovering the concept of carb cycling for the first time but rather, some effects from what may have been unintentional cycling, or perhaps put better, radical diet change as a result of moving to Germany.

Here’s the skinny (literally): prior to moving to Germany in August, I maintained a cognizant limit on my carb intake, which usually averaged out to around 100g per day whenever I would bother to recant my food intake on fitday. This worked well for maintaining my semi-active life-style of occasional biking, kayaking, heavy weight lifting, and brief interval training. It also allowed me to see strength gains, muscular development, leanness or a “cut” look and even energy levels without those awful dips in blood sugar. I could eat desserts, burgers, processed food, fried food, or restaurant cuisine once in a while without destroying any of the above positive effects. However, I wasn’t as lean or fit as I could be from an athletic perspective, just comfortable, healthy, happy. Yet, when I moved to Germany, my world was tossed upside down and my previously well-managed diet became a haphazard hodgepodge of whatever I was fed in the cafeteria and whatever I could afford at home. So I was eating maybe a croissant and some cheese for breakfast, boiled potatoes and meat for lunch (cafeteria), carrots and cheese for snack plus whatever chocolates were laying around, and then a skillet hash of potatoes, some form of protein and a smattering of vegetables. Curiously, for the first two weeks or so, I was regularly ravenous, eating a large lunch portion and topping it off with a bowl of soup. Dinners had to include potatoes to come remotely close to satiating, and then there was lots of beer from spending nights out with new friends. Activity was ok, practicing parkour two nights a week, lots of walking, biking, a form of sprint kayaking and hand paddling, and very random spurts of intensity involved in moving furniture, supplies, or whatever else the situation necessitated. From the end of August through the end of September, this routine saw me drop some significant weight, possibly 3 to 5 kilograms (from a starting weight of 58 kg and small 163 cm (5’4”) frame). Probably for the first time since being 12 my legs looked bandy (and yea a bit ‘lived-in’ but I haven’t exactly done the nicest of sports).

What I at first attributed the weight loss to was perhaps the higher quality and standards of European food (it’s finally REAL food), the increased walking, loss of muscle mass without all the weight lifting, and even this retarded optimistic notion that I was somehow better suited to German food based on my German heritage. This is all major speculative crap bordering on inanity. Just at the height of my excitement for this mysterious diet hack of perpetual gratification, I got slammed with some sort of flu after having not been sick in years followed by a stomach bug just weeks later. In the meantime, I was noticing serious food cravings, persistent bloat feel, jeans fitting tighter, and then energy swings and low blood sugar symptoms (shaking, perspiration, dizziness, weakness, hot flash). It was enough to finally set off some alarm bells that shook my common sense into realizing that changes needed to happen immediately. However, it also left me wondering why what seemed like such a great and uplifting thing at first, turned into such a bad debilitating experience. For the last few weeks following my “low-carb reawakening” I have shunned the potato laden cafeteria meals in favor of home-brought salads, snacked on carrots and salami instead of croissants and cheese, swapped milk-chocolate for dark chocolate (85% or higher), reduced coffee intake to max 2 mugs a day, and generally reverted back to my 2 meal a day practice, depending on how hungry I feel. One week has brought me back to my pre-Germany balanced state quite easily.

This is maintainable. This is familiar. This is how life should generally be. However, I believe the past two months of upheaval have taught me a lesson with regard to diet. At a point in low-carb existence when all the juices are flowing, the neuropeptide sensitivity is high, vitals and energy are all in check and things generally feel good, it may be beneficial to rapidly swap metabolic substrates for a brief period of time. The behavior? Consume a majority of carbs. I see this having advantages beyond athletic or body sculpting goal-oriented regimes. I think this may play into a natural and healthy rhythm of existence but should vary depending on sex, activity, prior metabolic status, and plain old genetics.

My ideas of mechanisms at play are the following: after achieving a substantial degree of insulin and leptin sensitivity along with frequent dips into ketogenic states facilitated by a low-carb (or low-calorie, but hopefully not) diet practice, refeeding with carbohydrates triggers an acute signal of satiation via insulin and leptin working in concert (because the previous low-carb state balanced any underlying metabolic problems) and sends a potent signal of “excess” energy that should be dealt with. The reason this looks like excess energy to your body is because the previous low-carb state is very similar metabolically to a starvation state without actually being starvation. So after sort of tricking the body into a starvation mode (not that it is using less energy, only that it is able to fall back on endogenous fat stores and ketosis), refeeding with carbohydrates can let the leptin signal spike which tells the brain there is energy to burn or otherwise use. With the prevailing insulin sensitivity, those carbs can go into metabolically active tissue rather than inert fat tissue. Even if it does temporarily go to fat tissue, the leptin that inevitably releases is a powerful appetite suppressant such that the brain will simultaneously think it has energy to expend while not requiring more energy to be consumed while insulin responses are acute not chronic, allowing rapid lypolysis. So the result is that perhaps little metabolic processes turn on all over the place that may have previously been subdued. In a wild animal or indigenous human, this may actually be signals to facilitate reproduction. In that regard, the latest research on orangutan fertility cycle coinciding with environmental output will be very illuminating. In a person currently enjoying the comforts of Westernized industrialized civilization, this may mean release of growth hormone and transcription factors to build and replace tissue with even more efficacy than that seen while low-carbing. Regenerative processes require an enormous devotion of energy and substrate and if there is a premium on energy acquisition, then often the body will not choose to overspend the budget, conserve in some areas, and only invest in what the current situation dicatates.

The take home for me is that at some point the system needs a jolt to induce an acute response that is ultimately healthy and beneficial. Over time the reduction of leptin on a low-carb diet reduces the energy “seen” by the brain and perhaps utilized by the body. Reinstating the leptin signal by way of a carb refeed can crank up the metabolism for a period of time while leptin sensitivity is high. While I believe in reducing promoters of inflammation and errant growth factors, carbohydrates and sugars are ultimately a part of organic metabolism and therefore, life. Once in a while, we need to blow on the coals a bit to keep them lit, just don’t let them get too hot.

I’d like to learn more on this subject if there are any well written scientific explanations of this sort of metabolism tinkering, a call to the world wide void, speak up.


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