Maybe you’ve noticed the trend of combining intermittent fasting and carb cycling and want to know how this works. Carb cycling and intermittent fasting are two different dietary approaches that can help you effectively lose weight, gain muscle mass, and regulate blood sugar. While they both work differently to help you achieve results, they also appear to be effective for many people when combined. Each dietary approach can be a bit complicated on its own, so let’s look at what each one is separately and how to most effectively combine these two approaches for optimal results.
Carb cycling involves following a schedule of rotating low-carb days, moderate-carb days, and high-carb days. The schedule for carbohydrate cycling is different from the ketogenic diet and other low-carb eating plans.
Rather than the goal of entering and maintaining a state of ketosis, a carb cycling plan aims to align your body’s need for carbohydrates to how much glucose it requires to produce and use energy most efficiently.
For example, athletes participating in endurance sports might carb cycle so that their high carb days are aligned with their most active fitness days. This ensures that their carb intake is sufficient or provides the fuel endurance sports require. During their rest days or days where the focus might be more on weight resistance training, carbohydrate intake would be limited to allow the body to burn fat, rather than carbs, for fuel.
The secret to cycling carbs is finding the schedule that works best for you. This includes the ratio of low-carb days to high-carb days and what range of carbs you can consume on each day to achieve optimal results. Some people do well with a 3-2-2 schedule, which is three days of low carbohydrate intake, two moderate carb days, and two high carbohydrate days.
Others might need to follow a more restrictive plan that includes five days of restricted carbs and two days of a medium to a higher intake of carbohydrates. Finding the most effective cycling schedule for fat burning is one of the most challenging aspects of carb cycling. It’s best to start with a moderate schedule, such as the 3-2-2 plan mentioned above, and then adapt as necessary.
The Science of Carb Cycling
Currently, there isn’t an abundance of research or scientific literature on the effects and effectiveness of carb cycling. However, we can look at both the low carb and high carb components of carb cycling to better understand how it works.
The keto diet has been popular for years and has a reputation for fast weight loss as the body turns to fat burning for energy. With limited carbs, the body has no choice but to turn to burn body fat instead of glucose for energy. Keto can be an effective dietary lifestyle for people looking to build muscle and lose fat, but it does have its downsides.
One of those downsides is that by restricting carbs, you’re also missing out on certain nutrients that your body needs, not to mention that a low-carb diet is often a low-fiber diet, which can present problems for long-term digestive health. Low-carb diets also don’t provide the healthy balance of energy levels that your body needs if you’re active and participating in high-intensity or endurance-type athletics and fitness programs.
This balance is what carb cycling offers that the typical low-carb diet doesn’t. You eat a low-carb diet on the rest days or weight training days, where the focus is on fat burn and muscle gain. You eat a high-carb diet, fueling your body with essential nutrients on the days your body requires more energy from glucose.
Preliminary studies have shown that carb cycling not only helps with weight loss and increased energy levels but also helps to control or prevent certain health conditions, including regulating blood sugar, improving insulin sensitivity, and balancing thyroid output.
Intermittent fasting is an eating pattern where you consume calories only during a specified eating window. Just like with carb cycling, there is more than one way to approach intermittent fasting, and it might take a little trial and experimentation to find the fasting window that works best for you.
One approach to intermittent fasting is to have a 24-hour fasting window and stick to a schedule that includes one or two of these days in your week. This is the more extreme end of intermittent fasting, but many people find going that long without consuming any calories to be unsustainable.
A more common approach is not a weekly schedule of intermittent fasting (IF) but a daily schedule instead. For example, one of the most popular IF schedules involve fasting for 16 hours a day and consuming all your calories within an 8-hour feeding window.
Other popular intermittent fasting schedules include 18/6 (an 18-hour fasting window with a six-hour feeding window) and 14/10. Most nutritional experts who support intermittent or calorie cycling agree that you really need to fast for at least 14 hours per 24-hour period for optimal results.
Rather than not consuming any calories at all during a specific window, some people chose to follow the 5:2 schedule. With this, you choose to consume a very low amount of calories for two days of the week. Typically, caloric intake doesn’t exceed 500-600 when following the 5:2 plan. This works best for those who prefer whole-day fasting but find they need to consume at least a small amount of nutritive calories to make it work.
While the focus should be on whole food nutrition during the eating window, monitoring your daily calorie intake isn’t really a focus of intermittent fasting unless you need it to be. On average, people who follow a set eating and fasting period consume fewer calories than when following a more traditional eating pattern.
The Science of Intermittent Fasting
In a way, intermittent fasting works similarly to carb cycling. When you restrict how often you provide your body with caloric fuel, it has to turn to fat stores for energy. Most people who follow intermittent fasting find that it has a significant impact on fat loss, body composition, and overall metabolic rate.
Scientific research tells us that intermittent fasting may also have a positive effect on reducing visceral fat (the type that builds up around the abdomen and is strongly associated with the development of cardiac disease), improving insulin resistance, reducing oxidative stress, and encouraging more rapid cellular repair. These last two benefits are part of why some consider IF important as part of a cancer-preventative diet.
Even with all of the benefits, IF isn’t for everyone. Some people simply can’t or shouldn’t go that long before eating their first meal of the day. It’s always best to check with a medical professional before committing to any significant change in your dietary lifestyle.
Combining Carb Cycling and Intermittent Fasting
Both intermittent fasting and carb cycling require a schedule and planning, which leaves many people overwhelmed at the idea of combining them both. It is entirely possible to commit to both intermittent fasting and carb cycling and reap the benefits of both at the same time.
Many people find it easiest to start with either carb cycling or IF before combining them for achieving weight loss or fitness goals. If this approach sounds best for you, start with the one you think will be the easiest to adapt to. By the time you’re ready to add the other in, you’ll already be seeing and feeling the results, which can provide just the right amount of encouragement you need to go all in on both.
Some find it easiest to start with carb cycling since this involves more precise tracking of macronutrients and meal planning. Once you have mastered that, you can begin to limit your feeding window. You can follow an IF schedule on both low-carb days and high-carb days.
At first, you might find that you’re hungrier during a high-carb day or moderate-carb day. Go ahead and eat all the healthy, whole, and nourishing foods you need to satisfy your hunger. Just make sure that you stick to your designated window. The extra protein and healthy fats you consume on a low-carb day are more likely to leave you feeling more satiated, even with a small eating window.
One of the biggest benefits of combining intermittent fasting and carb cycling is that this combination can help you bust through a weight loss plateau that has left you feeling stagnated and defeated. By combining both dietary approaches, they work synergistically with each other to enhance the individual results of each.
The benefits of combined intermittent fasting with carb cycling include:
- Demolishing weight loss plateaus
- Enhanced fat loss
- Increase in lean muscle mass and muscle growth
- Reduction in body weight
- Increased energy
- More effective metabolism
- Improved sleep quality
- Improved mood, energy, and focus
Because both calorie cycling and carb cycling require such a high degree of planning and scheduling, devoting some time to meal planning is essential to success. You might find that you need to make several trips to the grocery store during the week so that you have fresh produce on hand and that you’re not overwhelmed or tempted by the choices sitting around in the refrigerator or pantry. That fresh fruit that you reserve for high-carb days can look really tempting when you’ve barely eaten anything but proteins that day.
One way to help yourself out and make life easier is by subscribing to a carb cycling meal delivery service. There are several great ones that offer a variety of both low-carb and high-carb meals. You can order an entire week’s worth of meals at once and know that you’ll always have something quick and healthy to enjoy during your eating window that won’t throw your carb cycling efforts out of whack.
We also offer a completely free carb cycling meal plan that our in-house nutritionist developed. It’s a great plan for beginners to follow because it’s so easy and designed for nutritional optimization. You can download your free copy of the carb cycling meal plan here.
Tips for Successfully Combining Intermittent Fasting and Carb Cycling
- Plan ahead for those times when life throws a curveball, such as working late or a sudden dinner invitation
- Plan your eating window to align with your fitness routine so that you’re able to enjoy a post-workout meal
- Avoid processed, refined foods at all costs
- Fat loss may be the goal, but don’t become obsessed with the scale
- Don’t go overboard with fat intake, and limit yourself to healthy fat options
- Some people only eat one meal during their window, while others choose multiple small meals –do what works best for you
- Start slow if you need to
- Check with your medical care provider if you’re pregnant, breastfeeding, or have underlying health conditions
Intermittent fasting and carb cycling can go hand in hand to help you achieve your health and weight loss goals. Meal planning is key to success, and if you’re looking for a simple, easy way to start, we have a carb cycling meal plan to help get you started. Download it completely free and get started today.