Carb cycling is a diet focused on alternating between high carb and low carb days. The proposed benefits to this type of diet include weight loss, improved athletic performance, and management of symptoms of chronic disease.
This article will discuss what carb cycling is, what foods are included and excluded, and the potential health benefits of following a carb cycling meal plan.
What is Carb Cycling?
Carb cycling is a type of diet that focuses on alternating between high carb days and low carb days, hence the term “cycle”. Cycles can alternate either daily, weekly, or monthly, depending on the individual dietary plan.
The purpose of carb cycling for most people is to lose weight, maintain body weight, or alter body composition overall.
It’s important to note that although some individuals respond by losing weight, carb cycling can have negative consequences as well. Consuming too few carbohydrates can result in imbalances in fluid homeostasis within the body.
Carbohydrate cycling should not be used for those with diabetes or hypoglycemia. Before following a carb cycling meal plan, consult with a medical professional to assure that it is optimal for you.
Health Benefits of Carb Cycling
Carb cycling may have several benefits including helping people lose weight, optimizing weight maintenance, and shed excess body fat.
Another possible benefit of the carb cycling diet is that it may improve athletic performance, as high carb days provide fuel for muscles in the form of glucose.
When you optimize carb intake, the body has greater utilization of glucose, which may lead to improved insulin sensitivity and better hormonal regulation.
Carb cycling is a relatively new diet, therefore there aren’t many controlled studies proving the health benefits of the diet. It should be interpreted with caution due to this lack of direct research on the health benefits of the diet.
Foods to Eat
When carb cycling it is important to focus on consuming mainly nutrient-dense carbohydrates, especially on high carb days. Many foods contain carbohydrates but complex carbohydrates, otherwise known as good carbs, should be consumed in greater proportion to simple carbohydrates.
Complex carbs are higher in fiber, vitamins, and minerals, which provide proper nourishment to the body and may improve insulin sensitivity. Foods that contain good carbs include:
- consume a variety of different vegetables
- Sweet Potatoes
- White Potatoes
- Red Potatoes
- Consume a variety of colors
- Whole Wheat
- Brown rice
Carbs to Avoid
Some carbohydrates should be avoided or limited to certain occasions. These include simple and refined carbs which are lower in essential nutrients and fiber.
Simple carbs are broken down more quickly to be used as energy, raising blood sugar levels at a higher rate. They are found naturally in some foods such as fruits and milk and are also found in processed and refined sugars.
When carb cycling you want to try and avoid or limit foods such as candy, soft drinks, and starches found in white bread and white pasta.
- Fruit Juices
- White Bread
- White Pasta
- Refined Sugars
- Soft Drinks
- Junk Food
Carb Cycling Schedule
The carb cycling schedule you choose will depend on personal preference and individual goals.
Some people choose to alternate high and low-carb days, every other day. Others may opt for a longer period of low carb intake, such as five low carb days, followed by two high carb days.
No matter what the plan is, make sure to monitor and assess progress so that adjustments can be made if needed.
Low Carb Days
The concept behind low-carb days is that the body can switch over to using predominantly fat as an energy source. This process may improve metabolic flexibility and the body’s ability to burn fat as fuel in the long run
On low-carb days, people consume more protein and healthy fats, which can help one to feel full for longer periods of time.
As a general rule of thumb, low-carb days should provide less than 26% of calories from carbohydrates. The rest of the daily caloric intake will come from protein and fats.
High Carb Days
On a high-carb day, more glucose is provided to the muscles, making it an optimal time for more intense physical exercise.
The high carb intake on these days also promotes muscle repair and may lead to improved recovery and performance.
The proposed mechanism of carb cycling is to utilize high-carb days to fuel the body and optimize carb intake overall.
High carb days generally should provide 45-65% of calories from carbohydrates.
Carb Cycling Meal Plan
Carb Cycling Meal Plan for Women
The daily caloric intake for women will depend on factors such as current weight, body composition, and individual goals.
Women can follow a carb cycling meal plan by consuming between 45-65% of calories from carbs on high carb days, and less than 26% of calories on low carb days.
Choose mostly complex carbs, along with lean protein, and healthy fats for a well-balanced meal plan.
Vegan Carb Cycling
The vegan diet tends to be naturally higher in carbohydrates due to the high intake of fruits, grains, and starchy vegetables, but vegans can follow a carb cycling meal plan with a bit of planning ahead.
On low carb days, choose vegetables that are naturally lower in carbs such as broccoli, cauliflower, tomatoes, peppers, and onions. Vegan protein sources including tofu and tempeh are also lower in carbohydrates while high in protein.
It is helpful to note that typically fat intake will increase on low carb days and decrease on high carb days. Vegan sources of healthy fats include avocados, olive oil, nuts, seeds, and dark chocolate.
Carb cycling is a diet focused on alternating between high carb and low carb days, with proposed benefits such as weight loss and improved athletic performance.
Foods to include when carb cycling is mainly nutrient-dense carbohydrates known as complex carbohydrates. These include whole grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes, and potatoes.
When carb cycling, avoid or limit simple carbohydrates and refined carbs which are lower in essential nutrients and fiber. This includes foods such as candy, soft drinks, and starches found in white bread and white pasta.
Although some individuals respond to carb cycling with weight loss, this diet is not for everyone and should be reviewed by a medical professional prior to implementation.
Kristen Kuminski, RD, CDN
Kristen is a consultant Dietitian with experience working with a variety of individuals and populations. Kristen has experience counseling/ coaching clients in eating disorders, pediatrics, weight management, mental health nutrition and other chronic health conditions.