Carb cycling has been popular among bodybuilders, fitness models and many types of extreme athletes for decades and is believed to be one of the best ways to lose weight while gaining muscle, because it stimulates certain digestive and metabolic functions.
What makes carbs so special? Carbohydrates are the body’s first source of fuel, since they’re easily turned into glucose, which feed your cells and help create ATP (energy).
Your metabolism rises and falls based on the calorie consumption of your macronutrients (carbs, protein and fat). (1) And many studies have found that adequate carb intake can help improve performance in both prolonged, low-intensity and short, high-intensity exercises. (2)
Perhaps you’ve heard that your metabolism is a lot like a fire: If you fuel “the fire” with the right ingredients, it keeps burning hotter. However, if you don’t throw enough fuel on the fire, the flame will fizzle out.
Eating enough carbohydrates, at the right time, resets your metabolic thermostat and signals your body to create enough beneficial hormones (like leptin and thyroid hormones) that keep you at a healthy weight.
But, as many of us may know, too many carbs can have the opposite effect and cause weight gain.
So, what’s the key about a carb cycling plan that makes it different from other plans? Carb cycling increases carbohydrate intake onlyat theright time and in the right amounts.
While other long-term diet plans might seem overly restrictive, daunting and overwhelming, many find that a carb cycling is easy to follow and fits well into a demanding schedule.
What Is Carb Cycling?
Carb cycling is a type of diet that involves eating more carbohydrates on certain days of the week but doing the opposite on the other days: cutting carbs very low in order to achieve easier weight loss.
In other words, carb cycling means you eat adequate amounts of carbs (ideally those that are unprocessed and nutrient-dense) about every other day or every few days depending on your specific goals.
Although every carb cycling diet plan is different and needs to be customized based on whether you’re trying to lose weight or gain muscle, most carb cycling diets build in about one to three days per week when you can consume more carb-heavy foods (like potatoes or grains).
Additionally, some carb cycling plans also include a day for indulging on some “forbidden foods” to reward yourself for your hard work, guilt-free.
What types of things do you eat when you’re not boosting your carb intake?
On lower-carb days, foods like non-starchy veggies, grass-fed meats, eggs and healthy fats are the base of your meals.
Why would someone choose to carb cycle instead of just dieting the old-fashioned way?
Here are some advantages of carb cycling: (3)
- Preserving muscle mass and preventing muscle wasting
- Aiding in muscle recovery after workouts
- Boosting weight loss or reducing body fat
- Including more food flexibility
- Preventing extreme hunger or fatigue
- Helping to prevent hormonal imbalances
The primary benefit of carb cycling is it intensifies and often speeds up weight loss while still preserving and even building lean muscle mass.
When it comes to improving body composition, this is a gold standard method because it keeps your metabolism running efficiently and allows you to maintain your weight loss more easily long term.
5 Carb Cycling Benefits
1. Helps Build and Preserve Lean Muscle Mass
Strength training and other forms of resistance exercise actually break down muscle tissue, only to make it grow back stronger.
The process of rebuilding and repairing muscle tissue takes a lot of energy, and once again your body requires some of its primary fuel source (carbs) to do this. This is known as the post-workout anabolic window. (4)
Carbs help restore your energy and provide muscles with glucose for rebuilding or glycogen to be stored for future energy.
If you don’t consume enough carbohydrates following resistance training, it’s likely you’ll starve your muscles of the fuel they need to grow back bigger and stronger. For this reason, many people focused on building muscle choose to have higher carb days after tough workouts.
Simply restricting carbs and working out more can take a toll on your metabolism and even have the opposite effect of what you’d like — leaving you weaker and more fatigued.
Alternating days of higher vs. lower carb intake, especially when timed around workouts, is beneficial for cutting your body fat percentage down while not sacrificing your muscle mass.
And keep in mind you want to hold on to all the muscle mass you can, since this is what keeps your metabolic rate stoked, especially as we age.
2. Encourages Weight Loss and Weight Maintenance
When you enter into a “carb deficit,” meaning you take in less carbs than your body needs, you encourage weight loss because your body begins to burn stored fat for fuel.
Cutting carbs very low, and following plans like the ketogenic or Atkins diet can work well for some people to improve certain health conditions and help them reach a healthy weight.
However, for others, it’s difficult to sustain and actually can slow down the metabolism when followed long term, due to hormonal changes.
Carb cycling is one way to prevent weight regain and reduced motivation — plus it’s effective for both the short term and long term because it’s much easier to adhere too.
3. Encourages You to Eat More Plant Foods
Carbohydrates are the primary type of macronutrient found in most plant foods, although exactly how many carbs a plant food has depends on the specific type.
Whole foods that are higher in carbs, such as sweet potatoes and other root veggies, beans/legumes, and fruit, are often encouraged on higher carb days.
However, some of the healthiest foods in the world — such as leafy green veggies, cruciferous veggies, artichokes, asparagus, sea veggies, herbs and spices, for example — are actually pretty low in carbohydrates and therefore suitable for both high-carb and low-carb days.
A bonus of eating these foods is that they contain plenty of dietary fiber and antioxidants. Fiber has many benefits, including helping make you feel full, while antioxidants fight free radical damage and slow the effects of aging.
Additionally, healthy carb cycling help improve protein uptake while also teaching you how to incorporate essential foods into your meals in ways you actually enjoy.
4. Helps You Stick with Healthy Eating Long Term
While it’s possible to lose weight following other diet plans, many find that carb cycling works faster and involves fewer feelings of deprivation.
Because things like grains, fruit and legumes are included at least one to three times per week while carb cycling (sometimes also along with a “cheat meal”), there’s more flexibility with a carb cycling diet compared to other dieting methods, which can encourage people to stick with it.
5. Helps Reduce Hormonal Fluctuations and Blood Sugar Swings
Many studies have shown that a low-carb diet is a natural diabetes treatment protocol and effective tool for patients with type 2 diabetes. (5)
Because it can reduce overeating, especially of empty calories and junk foods, lower-carb diet approaches can also help lower risks for diabetes complications and related risk factors like obesity, high blood pressure and heart disease.
Why does cutting carbs on certain days improve blood sugar and hormone levels? Low-carbohydrate diets encourage improvements in dyslipidemia (triglycerides), diabetes and metabolic syndrome, as well as control of blood pressure, postprandial glycemia and insulin secretion.
How to Structure Carb Cycling:
The difference in your carb intake throughout the week means you alternate lower-carb days with higher-carb days. Remember that eating more carbs can give you a metabolic boost, while doing the opposite slows your metabolic rate down. However, cutting carbs some days is what allows for weight loss.
Many people also like to incorporate specific meal timing into their carb cycling plan. Some choose to eat more frequently (four to six times per day) because it helps them stick with their plans and might offer some metabolic advantages. Others like to incorporate aspects of intermittent fasting for quicker results, such as only eating twice daily, skipping breakfast entirely.
How many carbs and calories should you aim for?
This depends on your specific body type, gender, age, level of activity and goals. Women usually stick within the 1200 to 1800 calorie range throughout the week, while men typically stay within a range of about 1500 to 3000 calories range. (6)
You might find carb cycling to be easiest to sustain if you add or decrease only about 400 to 600 calories between high-carb and low-carb days.
Higher-carb days might include 150 to 300 grams of carbohydrates, while lower-carb days might include 50 to 100 grams. Once again, men who are bigger and more active will tend to require more carbs than smaller women do.
On both high and low carb days, your protein intake should stay roughly the same, but fat intake will likely increase or decrease. On higher-carb days fat might decrease to only about 15 percent to 20 percent of total daily calories. (7)
Although there’s room for customization, here’s an example of a typical carb cycling plan:
- Monday: higher-carb day
- Tuesday: lower-carb day
- Wednesday: higher-carb day
- Thursday: lower-carb day
- Friday: lower-carb day
- Saturday: higher-carb day/optional reward day where you enjoy a favorite meal “off plan”
- Sunday: lower-carb day
Tips for Sticking with It:
- At first, don’t take on more changes than you can handle. Always eat breakfast, including some protein and fiber to help keep you full. Then you can experiment with fasting once you’re more accustomed to the dietary changes you’re making.
- To sustain muscle mass and further improve your body’s ability to use carbs and calories, incorporate strength training into your exercise routine. Ideally do a combination of aerobic and resistance training every week, since both have major health advantages.
- Assuming you are somewhat active, try not to eat any less than about 1200 calories daily. This can trigger a drastic metabolic slowdown and leave you feeling overly hungry and sluggish.
- Eat lots of high-volume, nutrient-dense foods no matter what type of carb day it is. Load up on filling, healthy foods like leafy greens, other non-starchy veggies, clean protein, and healthy fats like avocado, olive oil and coconut oil.
- Avoid drinking calories, especially if weight loss is your goal. Drink mostly plain water, herbal tea, unsweetened coffee, etc.
- To keep your metabolism thriving and boost digestive health, consider also taking some beneficial supplements. Recommendations include omega-3 fatty acids to lower inflammation, probiotics to help improve gut health, magnesium to help you recover from workouts, adaptogen herbs to help your body handle stress, and a high-quality multivitamin to make sure you meet your needs.
- Get enough sleep and manage daily stress. Both a lack of sleep and high levels of emotional stress can contribute to overeating, hormonal imbalances, weight gain and even poor immune function.
High-Carb Foods vs. Low-Carb/No-Carb, High-Protein Foods:
- The healthiest higher-carb foods to include in your meals are those that are complex carbs and unprocessed, such as: sweet potatoes; sprouted grains like oats, quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth and brown rice; whole fruits; beans and legumes.
- Because they’re loaded with junk, very high in calories and essentially bankrupt in terms of nutrients, it’s best to avoid processed high-carb foods, including those made with white flour or wheat flour products, added table sugar, conventional dairy, bread and other processed grains like pasta, sweetened snacks like cookies and cakes, most boxed cereals, sweetened drinks, ice cream, and pizza.
- Other healthy sources of carbs, which are lower in carbs than those described above but still provide some carbs, include vegetables like mushrooms, tomatoes, carrots, broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, spinach, kale, sea veggies, peppers, etc.
- Healthy food choices that are high in protein but low-carb or no-carb include grass-fed meat, pasture-raised poultry, cage-free eggs, wild-caught fish, organ meatsand raw dairy products, such as raw goat cheese.
- Healthy fats, which are also low-carb or no-carb, include olive oil, coconut oil, grass-fed butter, palm oil, nuts and seeds.
Carb Cycling Precautions
If carb cycling is a very different way of eating than what you’re accustomed to, expect that your cravings, energy, fluid levels, etc…will take some time to adjust.
Additionally, you might experience some of the following effects when you begin carb cycling — but not to worry since most consider these to be “normal” and likely to go away within one to two weeks:
- Feeling more tired than usual
- Craving carbs at times
- Constipation or bloating due to water retention (especially after higher carb days)
- Feeling weaker during workouts
- Having trouble sleeping
- Being moody or irritable
If these side effects last more than one or two weeks, carb cycling might not be a good fit for you. Everyone is different when it comes to the reaction to different eating plans.
Factors like someone’s age, gender, level of activity, bodyweight and genetic disposition all affect how that person feels when following a low-carb diet.
Always listen to your body and use your best judgment instead of just following someone else’s advice.