Carb cycling has become a popular approach to losing or maintaining weight by teaching you how to optimize carb intake with an individualized carb schedule. Carb cycling looks different for each person, depending on their starting point and goals. Still, some components are important across the board, and finding the right carb cycling schedule is one of them.
Carb cycling is distinctly different from other low-carb diets, like keto. Overall, you eat fewer carbs but instead of restricting carb intake daily, you cycle, alternating between a schedule of high and low carb days. Carb cycling works for a range of health and lifestyle goals, including everything from achieving fat loss to improving athletic performance.
The premise of carb cycling is simple. You cycle between low and high carb days based on your goals and activity level. The specifics of carb cycling are more complex because it’s such a highly individualized program. You really have to look at where you’re starting from and where you’re going to help determine the best cycle for your needs.
Here, we discuss finding and following the best schedule for your carb cycling journey to better health.
How To Carb Cycle
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The first step in learning how to carb cycle is looking at all the different factors that make your body and goals unique. You don’t simply want to jump on the first carb cycle schedule you find online because we’re all a little bit different. Not all of our bodies respond to carbohydrates in exactly the same way, so we need a more personalized approach.
Before you go running off because you think this sounds too complicated, know that it’s not as difficult as it seems. You need to determine how many high, moderate, and low-carb days you need each week. From there, you assess how many carbohydrates you should consume each day. Once you get that part down, the rest is easy.
Finding Your Carbohydrate Needs
The first thing you need to do is get an idea of your carbohydrate needs. These can vary widely from person to person and for you on any given day. Some days your body expends more carbohydrates in the form of energy, and other days, all those carbs like to go straight to fat cells where they’re stored for future use. The goal is to find a balance and optimize carb intake every day.
Here are the three main factors you should take into consideration.
First, ask yourself about your goals. Is weight management or weight loss driving your interest in carb cycling? Are you looking to change your body composition through targeted weight resistance or high-intensity training? Maybe you want to build lean muscle mass or just feel like you have more energy.
There’s a reason that identifying your goals is the most important first step. This really sets the foundation for how many low or high-carb days you’ll cycle through at once. Someone looking to lose weight or experience more extreme fat loss will have longer stretches of low-carb days sprinkled with moderate to high-carb days here and there. Someone who wants to optimize their workouts may have fewer low-carb days and more high-carb days to meet their body’s energy expenditures.
Fitness & Lifestyle
Next, look at your lifestyle factors and current fitness routine. Not necessarily where you want to be six months from now, but where you are at this very moment. If you’re rather sedentary and want to lose weight, it’s best to start with two or three low-carb days interspersed with one high-carb day and maybe a moderate-carb day thrown into the mix.
If you follow a strict training schedule, as endurance and elite athletes do, you will want more high-carb days to help your body power through those intense workouts. Low carb intake will be reserved for rest days or muscle work.
Whether or not you need a calorie deficit doesn’t affect your carb cycling plan as much as it affects what and how much you eat each day. By caloric deficit, we mean consuming less caloric energy than you spend during the day. You really only need to worry about calorie restriction while carb cycling if losing weight is a primary goal.
It’s often the case that you’ll consume fewer calories naturally by carb cycling. Not only are you paying closer attention to everything you eat and avoiding simple, processed carbs, but you’re also generally eating healthier, which typically comes with a lower daily caloric intake tally.
However, if weight loss is the goal, you’ll want to add calorie intake to your daily tracking.
Before you go all in on the carb cycling diet, you’re also going to want a system for tracking carbs each day, and the more reliable, the better. Keeping track of macronutrients can seem a bit more complex when carb cycling compared to a low-carb diet like the ketogenic diet. With keto, you know your target range, and it really doesn’t change much. You get into a routine, and it becomes easy. Carb cycling involves days where you eat more carbs and days where you eat less. It’s really important to get in the habit of accurate daily tracking.
Tracking will also help determine if your current carb cycling plan works. If you do not see the results you want, you might need to cut out one high-carb intake day and switch it out for a day when you have fewer carbs. It might also be that you need to find the “sweet spot” for the right amount of carb intake that optimizes results. Sometimes a lot of fine-tuning happens during the initial stages of carb cycling, and a tracking tool will help you make the most sense of it.
Some people prefer to track the old-school way by keeping a journal. If you do this, make sure you’re meticulous in your calculations. On low-carb days, being off as few as 5g to 10g of net carbs can make a huge difference in results.
Macro tracking apps are often preferred. They make tracking carbs and other macronutrients easy, and you can program your carb intake goals ahead of time, so it’s much less fuss.
What Your Carb Cycle Schedule Might Look Like
If you’re carb cycling to lose body weight, a typical carb cycling week for you might look something like this:
- Sunday/Monday – Low Carb
- Tuesday – Moderate Carb
- Wednesday/Thursday – Low Carb
- Friday – Moderate Carb
- Saturday – High Carb
If weight maintenance and more endurance for your workouts is the goal, your carb cycling week might look something like this:
- Sunday/Monday – Low Carb
- Tuesday – Moderate Carb
- Wednesday – High Carb
- Thursday – Low Carb
- Friday – Moderate Carb
- Saturday – “Cheat” Day
Endurance athletes and others that perform at a high level of physical fitness want to adjust their carb cycle schedule to align with their workout schedule to enable their bodies to most effectively use carbohydrates as energy and take advantage of glycogen stores. Your high-carb days will be the days when you’re really pushing your body, and the low-carb days are for rest days or when you’re primarily doing weight resistance or similar body sculpting work.
Keep in mind that the carb cycle schedule that you start with will likely change over time. As you lose body fat and your body more efficiently deals with hormonal stress, you may find that shifting your schedule, even just slightly, leads to more optimized results.
Low Carb Days
When you’re on the carb cycling diet, the goal isn’t to land yourself in a state of ketosis like with keto. You want to keep your carbs low, but generally, you can stay well above 20g per day, which is often the goal of keto.
An easy rule of thumb is to start your low-carb days at somewhere between 50g and 75g of carbs. You might want to start at the high end of that and see if you can achieve results at that level. If not, you can slowly decrease in increments of 5g until you find your sweet spot.
The opposite is also true. If you start at the low end, you can gradually increase your carb intake until the point that you stop seeing new results. This is a good way to find your carb threshold and also a good spot to stay for weight maintenance.
When carb cycling, you can enjoy good carbs even on low-carb days. This even includes healthy starchy vegetables if the portion sizes keep you within your target carb range. Whole grains like brown rice are great to have on hand to supplement a meal and add a few carbs to an otherwise protein-heavy meal. Healthy fats are also important, but keep your fat intake from heart-healthy sources only. For example, healthy fats like olive oil won’t negatively affect your cholesterol levels.
High Carb Days
On high carbohydrate days, you want to consume about 45% to 60% of your calories in the form of complex carbohydrates. If you consume 2000 calories per day, this would equal anywhere from 900 to 1200 calories from carbohydrates.
Even though this is a high-carb day, don’t ruin your efforts by eating unhealthy, bad carbs. Instead, choose high-fiber carbs such as whole wheat bread or sweet potatoes. Sticking to complex carbs will do great things, like helping improve insulin sensitivity.
On these days when you’re free to eat extra carbs with abandon, don’t rely on simple carbs like white bread, french fries, and soft drinks to fill you up. Stick to healthy, whole foods to give your body the necessary nutrients.
One of the most challenging aspects of following a carb cycling meal plan is the actual part of meal planning, prep, and sticking to it. We all have those days when things got busy, we didn’t eat, and now our blood sugar has dropped too low to make good decisions about what foods to eat.
Meal planning and meal prepping are essential to avoiding these pitfalls. Several really good meal delivery services offer both low-carb meals and healthy meals with complex carbs and whole foods. Most are free of processed foods and focus solely on healthy, natural ingredients.
We also have a free seven-day carb cycling meal plan that you can download to get started. It’s full of all the basics of carb cycling and includes all the info you need. You can download the carb cycling meal plan here for free.
If the goal is to burn fat, shed body weight, or build lean muscle mass, you can make carb cycling work for you. It’s an effective way of changing your eating habits for the better and achieving targeted health goals. Don’t forget to download the free carb cycling meal plan to learn all of the benefits of carb cycling and get started on the right foot.