The carb cycling diet isn’t the typical approach of shunning all carbs. Instead, it allows you to keep eating carbs and achieving your health goals by alternating between low and high-carb days. Carb cycling works thanks to a specific ratio of macronutrients that fluctuates throughout the week based on your starting point, goals, and activity level. Learning how to modify macronutrient intake is a huge part of this.
Unlike the typical low-carb diet, creating the perfect macronutrient carb cycling plan can be a bit more complex. Here, we’ve laid out all you need to know about carb cycling macronutrients.
What Are Macros for Carb Cycling?
Macronutrients is an umbrella term that categorizes the three big nutrients – carbohydrates, protein, and fat. This is in contrast to micronutrients, which is a general word we use for vitamins and minerals.
Macronutrients are important to carb cycling in a similar way that they’re important if you’re following the keto diet. In normal circumstances, your body uses carbohydrates as its primary fuel source. When your body isn’t fed a steady stream of carbohydrates, it has to rely on stored fat cells as its fuel source. This is how a low-carb diet generates a fat loss.
Carb cycling works similarly, but carb cycling requires a different approach involving both high and low carb days instead of going strictly low carb every day.
The idea is that you provide your body with the fuel it needs in the way of healthy, complex carbohydrates for fuel on days when your energy expenditures are high. These would be the days that you did high-intensity workouts or decided to go on a long run.
On the days when your caloric expenditure isn’t as high, such as rest days or even workout days when you’re more focused on targeted muscle work, you follow a low-carb routine since your body isn’t burning through so much of them. These days, you want to put your body into fat-burning mode.
But carb cycling is about more than just the carbs. You also need a balance of protein and fat to the carbs you’re consuming. The other macronutrients you’re consuming affect how your body utilizes its fuel sources and how it recovers after physical activity.
If you’re already familiar with keto, you know that fat intake is important. This is in contrast to an outdated way of thinking that more fat intake equals more body fat accumulation. Of course, there is a threshold where too much fat in your diet will negatively affect your health, including weight. However, healthy fats can actually be beneficial for weight loss.
Determining Your Carb Cycling Macros
Determining your macros is probably the most difficult aspect of carb cycling. The reason is that there isn’t a single magic formula that all of us can follow. Instead, you need to look at factors like your level of physical activity, body composition, body weight, and goals.
There are many different reasons why people turn to low-carb diets like carb cycling. A few of the top reasons include:
- Weight loss
- Fat loss (yes, this can be different from weight loss)
- Weight maintenance
- Gain muscle
- Gain more energy
- Regulate blood sugar
- Develop a healthier relationship with foods and eat fewer carbs, especially processed simple carbs, like pastries, cookies, white bread, cakes, and pasta
It’s important to say that carb cycling isn’t about keeping yourself in a calorie deficit unless that’s what you need, which we’ll cover a bit later. That said, calories do matter because they form the foundation for calculating your macros.
If you don’t know how many calories you need per day, there’s a very simple calculation you can do.
Take your current body weight in pounds, and multiply it by 15. It’s estimated that we expend about 15 calories per pound of body weight by just living and doing normal daily tasks. This number also assumes that you’re mild to moderately active. Think along the lines of 30-45 minutes of moderate exercise a few times a week. If you’re less or more active, this number will need to be modified. You need more calories if you’re burning through them and less if you’re sedentary.
If you weigh 150 pounds, you need about 2,250 calories per day for weight maintenance with moderate activity. If you want to lose weight, you need to go below that number – usually by about 500 calories or more- to see any significant difference. If you need to gain weight or have higher caloric expenditure needs, the amount of calories you consume each day needs to be higher.
The next step is to get an idea of how you need to assign your carb cycling macros. If you want to lose weight, a good starting ratio for a low-carb day might be something like this:
- 20% of calories from carbs
- 40% of calories from protein
- 40% of calories from fat
Those ratios are slightly more extreme than what the average person starts carb cycling at. An average ratio, not taking any specific goals into consideration, looks more like this:
- 30% of calories from carbs
- 30% of calories from fat
- 40% of calories from protein
If you’re looking to build lean muscle, you really want that protein ratio to stick out a little from the rest. Protein is essential for building muscle, so it needs to be the dominant macro on the days you’re weight lifting or otherwise focusing on muscle growth.
On days that you’re doing high-intensity exercise, the reverse is true. These are the days you don’t want to eat fewer carbs but instead eat more. An example of a high carb day might be:
- 40% of calories from carbs
- 40% of calories from proteins
- 20% of calories from fat
Now, going back to the only reason that calories really matter with carb cycling is that you need to know your base number of calories so that you can better plan for how much actual food you’re going to eat in terms of calories or grams of carbs, protein, and fat.
Photo Credit: shininghealthandfitness.com
Once you’ve determined your macro guidelines for carbohydrates, the next step is learning how to calculate how many calories per day should come from each macro category. Some great tools are available that help you easily calculate your ideal macro limits, and we encourage you to find one that’s accessible and easy for you to use.
However, it never hurts to know how to do this the old-fashioned way. Plus, knowing how to calculate macros provides a better foundational understanding of how this all works.
The first thing to know is that carbs, protein, and fat all have a certain number of calories per gram of weight. Both carbs and protein have four calories per gram. Fat is a little more at nine calories per gram.
Suppose you eat 30g of pure carbs, which is about an ounce, that equals 120 calories because four calories/gram x 30g = 120. If we’re talking about fats, 30g is equivalent to 270 calories.
Let’s say your target daily calories are in the 2000 range. Now, let’s say you’ve determined that your low-carb days should consist of 40% protein, 40% fat, and 20% carbs. Those percentages don’t tell you much in terms of how much lean chicken or brown rice to have.
First, determine how many calories are allotted for each of the three macro calories. With 2000 calories, 40% would be 800 calories for both fat and protein. The 20% allocated to carbs would equal 400 calories based on a 2000-calorie-a-day diet.
Now we can use the simple mathematical formula that we just learned to understand how many grams and calories of each macro you can have on a low-carb day.
- 800 calories of protein: 800 calories divided by 4g per calorie = 200g of protein
- 800 calories of fat: 800 calories divided by 9g per calorie = 89g of fat (appx)
- 400 calories of protein: 400 calories divided by 4g per calorie = 100g of carbohydrates
Likewise, we can do this math in reverse. Knowing how many grams of a macro you can have each day, you can calculate how many calories that equals.
- 100g of carbohydrates: 100g x 4 calories per gram = 400 calories from carbs per day
- 200g of protein: 200g x 4 calories per gram = 800 calories from protein per day
- 89g of fat: 89g x 9 calories per gram = 801 calories from fat per day
As you can see, the numbers with the second are more precise, whereas the first conversions were approximate, but you can simply round up or down by a couple of calories to get your 800/800/400 calorie ratio for a 2000-calorie diet.
Modifying carbohydrate intake is the main pillar of the carb cycling diet. Finding the right balance between low carb and high carb days can help you lose fat, gain muscle, and balance blood sugar.
You want to source your carbohydrates from lower-carb plant-based foods on low-carb days. Think along the lines of leafy green vegetables. You can have starchy carbs and even whole grains on a low-carb day, as long as you’re mindful of portions and keep good track of your macro balance.
The high-carb days, when you eat more carbs, are the times you can load up on the higher-carb veggies, fruits, beans, and grains you love. Although it might feel like you have permission to eat carbs with abandon, remember you still need to keep those macronutrients in check.
Also, no matter the day of your cycle, you need to stay away from processed, refined carbs. A cookie might fit in your macronutrient profile for the day, but it’s not going to do anything positive to help you reach your goals.
Protein is center stage on low-carb days. You want to eat fewer carbohydrates and more protein when you’re taking a rest day from working out or are working on muscle gain through muscle-building exercises.
How much protein you consume these days is determined by your macro ratio. We know that there are some people who do low-carb diets, including keto, that go all out on forbidden foods like bacon, cheese, and loads of red meat.
This might get a pass by some people who do keto because carbs don’t enter the picture as much as they do with carb cycling. But, when you’re cycling, you really want to stick to lean animal proteins and lower-carb forms of plant protein. If you opt for fattier protein types, remember to count that fat into your daily allotted macro amounts.
Finally, we have healthy fats. Fats can be anywhere from 20% to 40% of your caloric intake, depending on where you are within your carb cycling schedule. As mentioned above, you’ll do the most good for your health and your goals by choosing healthy fats rather than saturated trans fats. Fats that come from lean meats and seafood like salmon are good choices. Other good sources of fats include other types of fatty fish, walnuts, seeds, and avocados.
What About Calories?
When following a low-carb diet, it usually isn’t necessary to track how many calories you’re consuming on any given day. The idea behind these types of diets is that your body is more efficiently using fat as a primary source of energy, so you burn fat and lose weight without even trying. You need an idea of how many calories you’re consuming to calculate macros, but beyond that, tracking calories isn’t always necessary.
When carb cycling, there’s a good chance you’re consuming fewer calories than you would with traditional diets. The exception would be when you’re eating more calorically dense but nutritious foods on your low-carb days. However, these days, your body is turning to its fat cells for energy expenditure.
All this means that most people don’t need to worry about achieving a calorie deficit when carb cycling. However, if losing weight is your main goal, you can track calorie intake to ensure you’re staying within a range that’s appropriate for weight loss considering your current weight, activity levels, and fat loss goals.
If you’ve been carbohydrate cycling but not seeing the results you hoped for, it’s a good idea to check if you’re consuming more calories than your body needs to lose or maintain weight. If you find that your total daily calories are within range, but you want to improve results, it’s not a bad idea to consider adding intermittent fasting along with carbohydrate cycling to your dietary routine.
How do you carb cycle without counting macros?
If you want to successfully carb cycle, counting macros is really important, at least in the beginning. Once you’re familiar with what a certain percentage of carbs, protein, and fat looks like on your plate, then it’s easier to just wing it and not count them anymore.
If you’re tired of having less energy than you used to and want to improve your health by losing weight or gaining muscle, carb cycling may be the answer you’re looking for. It’s different from your typical low-carbohydrate diet and offers a more balanced approach to achieving your health goals. If you want to know more about carb cycling, we have a free, no-strings-attached seven-day carb cycling meal plan that you can download. We also have more information available on carb cycling, intermittent fasting, and meal delivery services to make your life easier.