Carb cycling is a dietary program that involves alternating between high, medium, and low carb intake on certain days. The carb cycling diet first became popular among endurance athletes as it helped to enhance fitness and exercise performance, refuel muscle glycogen, and enhance muscle building. But, few of us are in the ranks of performance athletes, so we decided to break apart the carb cycling diet to see how it works and who it works best for.
The Carb Cycling Diet
It’s safe to say that almost all of us are familiar with the keto diet, a low-carb diet with restricted daily carbohydrate intake. Keto works wonderfully for some, but others know there are benefits to eating healthy carbs, and they don’t want to miss out on those. We’re not talking just about nutritional benefits but also regarding how the body uses carbohydrates for fuel.
- The Carb Cycling Diet
- The Science Behind Cycling Carb Intake
- Low Carb Days Vs. High Carb Days
- Foods To Eat While Carb Cycling
- Foods To Avoid
- Exercising and Carb Cycling
- Pros & Cons of Carbohydrate Cycling
- Who Should or Shouldn’t Use Carb Cycling
- Tips for Successful Carb Cycling
- Bottom Line
Somewhere along the line, endurance athletes realized that their athletic performance was optimized not by cutting out carbs completely but by cycling the number of carbs they eat daily. In theory, an alternating carb cycling plan puts your body into fat-burning mode on low-carb days and refuels the body for endurance and performance on high-carb days.
For many, carb cycling is the key to losing body fat or maintaining body weight, increasing energy and performance, and there’s also a chance that it may improve insulin sensitivity. All that said, a diet where you cycle between low and high-carb days might be great for some, but it won’t be right for everyone.
It’s always smart to work with a health care provider before taking the leap into any new dietary lifestyle. But, here’s some information to get you started on the science behind the carb cycling diet, how it works, and the benefits and drawbacks.
The Science Behind Cycling Carb Intake
Like the class of low-carb diets, cycling high and low-carb days tricks or manipulates your body into processing calories from macronutrients differently. For example, on low-carb days, your body shifts to use and burn fat for energy, much like what happens with the ketogenic diet. However, with carb cycling, you don’t stay in a prolonged state of ketosis. In fact, depending on your cycling schedule, you might never reach ketosis at all.
This is where it’s important to put aside your ideas about the keto diet and fat loss and embrace the fact that intermittently loading up on carbs can actually help you lose fat more effectively.
During the days when you increase your carb intake, your body uses these carbs to provide fuel for more intense physical activities and endurance fitness. While a completely low-carb diet like keto might be effective for building muscle mass, it’s not always optimal for achieving fat loss or providing the energy needed for sustained intense physical activity. Healthy carbs are a very important part of this overall picture.
The higher carb days of the cycle are when you should focus on working out. This is because the increased carbs help to reduce muscle breakdown and refuel muscle glycogen, which equals a shorter recovery time, less soreness, more efficient workouts, and eventually muscle gain.
Low Carb Days Vs. High Carb Days
One of the great things about carb cycling is that it can be modified and adapted to suit a person’s individual needs and goals. Factors that may determine your individual carbohydrate cycling program include whether you’re looking to lose weight or gain muscle, regulate blood sugar, or simply gain more energy, along with your individual carbohydrate tolerance.
Someone focused on weight loss might want a cycle that looks something like three or four low-carb days, with one day of consuming moderate carbs, followed by one to two days of a high-carb intake.
If weight maintenance is your goal, your schedule might look like one or two days where you eat low carb, followed by two moderate carb days, and a day or two where you enjoy as many nutritious carbs as you want. Someone focused on building muscle mass might opt to limit or increase carb intake based on how many days per week they work out.
One of the big questions surrounding carb cycling is how many grams of carbs one should eat daily. Again, this answer depends on your goals and how physically active you are. Generally speaking, those who are physically active, especially those who do high-intensity exercise, will want to eat more carbs on a high-carb day than those who are sedentary. Likewise, someone looking to build muscle won’t have to reduce carbs as much on a low-carb day as someone who is primarily focused on losing fat.
With this in mind, here are the typical ranges for low, medium, and high-carb days.
- Low: 50-100 grams of carbs
- Medium: 100-150 grams of carbs
- High: 150-250 grams of carbs
What’s really important here is to realize that you’ll likely have to experiment a little to find the right schedule to make carb cycling work for you. It may take a couple of weeks to determine the number of carbs you can eat each day of the cycle for optimal results.
Foods To Eat While Carb Cycling
While carb cycling, you’re not focused on daily calories as much as on making sure your diet is filled with healthy complex carbs and the right amount of healthy fats and protein. If weight loss is your primary goal, then you might want to factor your daily calories into the mix, and you certainly don’t want to go overboard, especially on high-carb days. Still, the focus should be mainly on eating the right macro-nutrient balance of delicious and nutritious whole foods.
The important thing to remember when choosing which food to eat while carb cycling is that the high-carb foods you choose to enjoy should be complex carbs that are nutrient-dense and ideally packed with fiber. A few examples include:
- Whole grains, like brown rice, oats, and quinoa
- Legumes are packed with protein, fiber, and nutrients as well as carbs
- A variety of mixed vegetables with every meal – you don’t have to shy away from carbs!
- Yes, you can even eat potatoes of all varieties.
On average, before adjusting for personal needs and goals, your healthy fats and protein intake on low-carb days should account for about 65-80% of the daily calories consumed. On days when you eat high carbs, you want to keep the protein and fat intake more balanced at around 40-50% of calories consumed. Remember, these are just estimates, and you might have to experiment a little to find the right balance of macronutrients for you.
Foods To Avoid
Fortunately, the list of foods to avoid while carb cycling is pretty simple. Rule number one is to stay away from processed junk food that’s loaded with sugars while being high fat and nutritionally void.
Some additional food to avoid while carb cycling includes:
- Milk is higher in sugar and carbs than most people realize
- Fruit juices, although depending on the day, you can enjoy some whole fruit in moderation
- Processed carbs, like those found in most store-bought bread and boxed pasta
- Refined sugars – candy, baked goods, ice cream, junk food, etc
Our best advice is to stop and consider first if the food is the healthiest thing you could eat. If it’s a high-carb day and you’re craving potatoes, choose a whole baked potato over french fries. If you want something chocolatey, choose a few nibbles of rich dark chocolate over your standard candy bar. These types of swaps will make a world of difference in your results.
If you need a little more guidance, we have a nutritionist-designed 7-day carb cycling meal plan that’s already designed and easy to follow. You can find it here.
Exercising and Carb Cycling
Besides being asked, “what is carb cycling?” m the second most common question we receive on the subject is whether or not you can exercise while following this cyclic eating style. The answer is yes, absolutely. In fact, high-intensity and elite athletes use carbohydrate cycling as an important aspect of their health and fitness routines.
People who are involved with endurance-type sports, such as marathon running, long-range bicycling, or even just working out at the gym for an extended period of time each day, tend to favor high-carb diets because those carbs give them the fuel to keep moving.
On the other end of the spectrum are those focused on building muscle mass, who tend to lean more toward a low carbohydrate diet because it tricks the body into burning body fat as fuel and helps provide the right nutrients to the muscles to encourage growth and recovery.
With carbohydrate cycling, you can exercise daily, but you should design your workouts around your cycle day. And also, don’t forget to give your body a rest day to recover.
Plan your more active days, longer workouts, and high-intensity training-type exercises for days when you consume the most carbs. Save weight resistance and muscle-building routines for days when you consume the fewest carbs.
It’s also not necessary to worry about putting yourself in a calorie deficit while carbohydrate cycling. If you’re following the right nutritional protocol and find the right balance of cycling and macro-nutrients that work for you, there’s a good chance you’ll lose weight, gain muscle, and feel healthier without worrying at all about calories. But if weight loss, rather than maintaining weight, is your goal, be careful not to go overboard on calorie intake. Everyone’s body and metabolism are different, and you have to learn how to work with yours.
Pros & Cons of Carbohydrate Cycling
Benefits of Carb Cycling
- Weight loss or maintenance
- Increase muscle mass
- Regulates blood sugar and improves insulin sensitivity
- Hormone regulation
- Improved energy and athletic performance
- Less restrictive than keto or other types of low-carb diets
Drawbacks of Carb Cycling
- Reduced carb intake can lead to temporary flu-like symptoms
- More challenging, but not impossible, for vegans and whole food, plant-based eaters
- Sleep disturbances
- Digestive upset
Who Should or Shouldn’t Use Carb Cycling
Although it’s always best to check with a medical professional, carb cycling is suitable for most people. If you have any underlying health condition, especially one that affects the liver, kidney, or hormones, please discuss the pros and cons with a health professional first.
Also, anyone who is pregnant or breastfeeding should reconsider carbohydrate cycling because it’s too difficult to consume all the well-rounded nutrients your body needs on lower-carb days. Also, for most who are pregnant or breastfeeding, weight loss isn’t the primary health goal.
Tips for Successful Carb Cycling
- Make life simpler by learning to calculate macros or downloading an app that does the work for you. Remember that fat has nine calories per gram (regardless of whether it’s healthy fat or not), and protein and carbs both offer four calories per gram.
- Make fiber a priority.
- Meal plan and have appropriate snacks ready.
- Consider a carb cycling meal plan subscription service to make your life easy.
- Enjoy quality, nutritious whole foods over processed junk.
- Adapt your exercise routine for what day of the carb cycle you’re on
- Download our free 7-day Carb Cycling Meal Plan
Carb cycling aims to provide a nutritional, more well-rounded way of changing your body composition, increasing your energy, and “tricking” your body into being more metabolically efficient. Compared to keto, the perk is that you get to eat carbs (just stick to healthy, slow-digesting carbohydrates). Is carb cycling right for you? Don’t forget to download our free Carb Cycling meal plan and try it for just a week and find out.