It wasn’t until somewhat recently that hormones — chemical messengers created in the endocrine gland —were recognized for their powerful and influential control within the human body. These little messengers, formerly relegated to female menstrual cycles, play integral roles in both the male and female body, controlling “most major bodily functions, from simple basic needs like hunger to complex systems like reproduction, and even the emotions and mood.”
As a woman, I’ve personally experienced this power with constant fluctuations, the impressive waves of emotion, and even serious physical effects. While powerful, hormones can also be fickle. Whether it’s birth control, diet, or a host of environmental elements, hormones are easily thrown off balance. This imbalance has been known to cause a long list of side effects including difficulty managing weight, manic states and mood swings, sleep problems, headaches, changes in appetite, and skin issues, to name just a few.
With that said, there are ways to get those hormones balanced once again. One of these tricks is called carbohydrate cycling, in which you cycle through days of high carb intake and low carb intake. How does this carbohydrate cycling work? Are there certain carbs that I should be consuming? What are the downsides?
Quick Carbohydrate 101
Carbohydrates are macronutrients — “compounds that the body can’t make or can’t make in sufficient quantity” — which include fat, protein, and carbohydrates. These compounds also happen to be the body’s main source of energy.
While carbohydrates “are an important fuel source for the body including the central nervous system and brain,” too many carbohydrates in your diet can be detrimental to your health. If carbs are essential, how are they also harmful? It all depends on the type of carb you’re consuming and their natural makeup “which is essentially sugar.” In fact, “carbohydrates can be broken down into three different types of sugar structure: monosaccharides, simple sugars such as glucose, disaccharides, two joined units of sugar such as lactose, and polysaccharides, complex sugars such as starches and glycogen.”
With that said, there are three types of carbohydrate: starches, sugars, and fibers. Starches and fibers are the favored “healthy” carbs, while the sugars are the ones you want to minimize or avoid.
Unhealthy carbohydrates lack nutritional content, while healthy carbohydrates are rich in vitamins and minerals such as “whole grains, beans, and fiber-rich vegetables and fruits instead of refined grains and products with added sugar.”
The Relationship Between Carbohydrates and Hormones
Insulin is one of the most influential hormones in your body. This powerhouse of a hormone is “made by the pancreas [and] allows your body to use sugar (glucose) from carbohydrates in the food that you eat for energy or to store glucose for future use.” Plus, insulin is a key factor in regulating blood sugar levels, meaning this chemical messenger keeps you from becoming hyperglycemic (too high), hypoglycemic (too low), or diabetic. Insulin also happens to be “the key hormone of carbohydrate metabolism,” as well as influencing “the metabolism of fat and proteins.”
Therefore, your hormones are forever linked with your metabolism of food, in particular, carbohydrates. By implementing a regular intake of healthy carbohydrates, especially in a way that they can be used efficiently, you also have the control to regulate that champion of hormones, insulin.
What is Carbohydrate Cycling
Carbohydrate cycling is exactly as the name implies — cycling your level of carbohydrate intake between days, weeks, or even months. While some prefer to mix up their carbohydrate intake from day to day, others seek more long term intake levels — such as a week of high-carb and then a week of low-carb — for varying results. The diet is purported to help you “lose fat, maintain physical performance while dieting, or overcome a weight loss plateau.”
How do you plan your carbohydrate consumption?
Setting your carbohydrate plan depends on various lifestyle factors and personal needs including body composition goals, training days versus rest days, body fat levels, and your specific type of training. The goal of carbohydrate cycling is to “time carbohydrate intake to when it provides maximum benefit and exclude carbs when they’re not needed.” Between your carb consumption, the diet focuses on healthy protein consumption that matches your carbohydrates and fat consumption that is regulated by your carbohydrate consumption.
While this may sound complicated, once you’ve determined your initial strategy and preferred sources of carbohydrates, it’s all about following the outline and letting the science behind the diet work its magic!
How Carb Cycling Can Balance Hormones
Carbohydrate cycling is a new approach to both diet and hormone balancing, therefore more research is necessary to look at the long-term effects. With that said, the research that does exist is very positive!
First, the diet seeks to “match the body’s need for calories or glucose.” As mentioned above, it’s important to plan out your carbohydrate consumption with your activity levels, workouts, or training. This way your body is using high carbohydrate intake as it was intended, for energy and to “refuel muscle glycogen.” This has been shown to boost performance, “reduce muscle breakdown,” and aid in muscle recovery.
Second, the high-carbohydrate intake periods (whether it’s days, weeks, or months) may improve “the function of the weight- and appetite-regulating hormones leptin and ghrelin,” while the low-carbohydrate intake periods “switch the body over to a predominantly fat-based energy system, which may improve metabolic flexibility and the body’s ability to burn fat as fuel in the long-term.”
Lastly, carb cycling has been shown to manipulate insulin, that powerhouse hormone we talked about earlier. Depending on the type and quantity of carbohydrate you consume, it can make your insulin levels spike. Carbohydrate cycling aims to avoid these spikes. The combination of low-carbohydrate intake and strategic implementation of carbs “around the workout may improve insulin sensitivity, a vital marker of health.”
Healthy Plant-Based Carbohydrates for Carb Cycling
Understanding healthy versus unhealthy carbohydrates happens to be an essential part of making this diet effective. No matter what, if you’re consuming putting sugar-rich, nutrient-lacking carbohydrates, it will cause more issues than aiding your health goals. When we say unhealthy, we’re referring to refined, which includes “sugar-sweetened beverages, fruit juices, pastries, white bread, white pasta, white rice and others.”
Here are the five main groups of healthy plant-based carbohydrates that are excellent for your carbohydrate cycling diet!
Seeds and Nuts
Seeds — in particular, chia seeds and pumpkin seeds — as well as nuts — pretty much any type of nuts such as almonds, walnuts, peanuts, hazelnuts, and macadamia nuts — are not only great sources of healthy carbs, but most all nuts also provide a great source of healthy fats. The human body is wonderfully talented at utilizing nutrients and when it comes to carbs and fats, our body is able to use both for energy depending on the quantity.
Try out a few of these creative, delicious, and easy seed and nut-based recipes: Protein-Packed Breakfast Quinoa Bowl (great for matching protein to carb intake!), Adaptogenic Nut Granola, Parsley and Pepita Falafel Salad, Herbed Macadamia Nut Cheese, or this easy Walnut Bread (great source of healthy fat, as well as healthy carbs!).
Ever wondered how vegans can be gluten-free and yet still consume the appropriate amount of carbohydrates? It’s all about the vegetables. Veggies are a great source of complex carbs. Yet, the best part about carbohydrates sourced from veggies is that you’re also getting a healthy dose of vitamins, minerals, fiber, some healthy fats, and protein, with zero cholesterol! It’s the whole package.
You can pretty much integrate veggies into your diet for any meal, including snacks, in almost any way, even raw! With that said, strategically implementing veggies throughout your day is one of the easiest ways to get those necessary carbs on your high-carb intake days or weeks.
Start out your day with this Tofu Scramble with Broccoli Noodles, get a mid-day boost with this Winter Purple Cauliflower Salad, fulfill your afternoon snack with these Veggie Rolls with Avocado Hummus, load up in the evening with this Quick and Easy Broccoli Stir-Fry or this Cauliflower and Kale Fried Rice, and end the night with this Raw Pistachio, Coconut, and Lime Cheesecake.
Matching your carbohydrate intake with a healthy dose of fiber is a great way to keep your digestive tract in check. One of the drawbacks of those high carbohydrate periods is possible constipation. Fiber is there to save the day! Consuming a mixture of plant-based insoluble and soluble dietary fiber helps to both normalize bowel movements and maintain overall bowel health. Legumes are an incredibly rich resource of dietary fiber. One cup of cooked lentils has a whopping 15 grams of fiber. One cup of cooked white beans has even more fiber, offering up over 18 grams!
Legumes are a great meat-less recipe ingredient. They offer great thick texture and an almost “meaty” rich taste. Here are a few ways to use them in traditional meat recipes: Vegetable Stir-Fry with Bengali Five-Spice and Split Peas, Lentil Loaf with Smoked Paprika Glaze, or this Quinoa and White Bean Burger.
What the heck are tubers? You probably know these more commonly as potatoes. Tubers are a great source of starch-rich complex carbohydrates. While starch is a form of sugar, by consuming a healthy type of starch, such in sweet potatoes, you’ll get a healthy dose of nutrients. Plus, healthy starches have been shown to improve gut health, increase your antioxidant consumption, and boost your brain health. One cup of baked sweet potato offers up a balanced combination of 41 grams of carbohydrates broken down into 6 grams of fiber, 14 grams of starch, and 13 grams of sugars.
Potatoes, potatoes, so easy to cook with and so delicious to eat. Here are three ways to enjoy your potato carbohydrate: Hungarian Twice-Baked Potato, Creamy Rosemary Mashed Potatoes, or these Curried Hash Browns.
Whole Grains and Fruits
This last category may seem broad, yet it’s important to choose the right type of whole grains and fruits. When it comes to whole grains focus on the “pure” part of whole grains such as oats, quinoa, and brown rice. When it comes to fruits, focus quantity. Instead of a bowl of fruit, snack on half a banana or top your favorite whole grain with a quarter of an apple or pear or even a couple strawberries. Whole grains and fruits make the list of healthy carbs mainly due to their incredibly nutrient-rich makeup, much like vegetables, and low cholesterol design.
Last, but not least, your whole grains and fruits. Luckily, these usually go together naturally, such as this Apple Parsnip Oatmeal with Cranberry Sauce, this Quinoa and Spiced Blueberry Bircher, or this A Touch of the Tropics Rice Bowl. With that said, fruit is a great raw snack, while whole grains are great as an entire meal with a bit of spice!