Carb Cycling: What is it and How does it work?

If anything has become something of a constant in discussions on diet and health it is carbs. In the last several years there has been a litany of diets and health regimens designed to limit, control, or completely eliminate carbs. Since carbs have emerged as the focus of dieting programs, some people have begun to maximize their carb intake in a program known as carb cycling. 

Though carbs have gotten a bad rap in diet and health research, there is, in fact, no one particular macronutrient that is specifically bad for you. Carbs are not by nature bad. The idea behind carb cycling recognizes this fact. 

Previous diets that relied either on high carbs needed for energy in high-intensity workouts or low carbs to lose weight tended to reach a point of diminishing returns. Metabolism eventually adjusts to either diet, and benefits decrease. Carb cycling, on the other hand, includes features of both high and low carb programs. You benefit from the weight loss of a low carb diet while gaining the strength and energy that carbs naturally offer. 

Advocates of carb cycling try to maximize the benefits of carbs while reducing the problems associated with eating too many carbs. Carb cycling involves working with natural metabolic processes in order to utilize carbs in the best possible ways.  

What is Carb Cycling?

Carb cycling is a form of dieting in which you alternate your carb intake on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. It is a way of treating carbs in your diet in such a way that you are neither eliminating them or completely ignoring them. 

In a sense, carb cycling recognizes that we are going to need carbs at some level, we just need to consume carbs in a manner that is conducive to health and fitness. 

Carb cycling is generally used to burn fat and lose weight, to maintain physical fitness while dieting, or to break through the weight loss plateau—that point at which you are no longer seeing real results from dieting and exercise. 

Carb cycling seeks to regulate carbohydrate intake so that you can gain maximum benefit from carbs while reducing them when your body does not need them. Carb cycling can be tailored to meet specific and fitness goals. Some examples include:

  • Body composition: People reduce carbs while dieting, then bulk up on carbs during exercise for building muscle. 
  • Training and Rest: Consume carbs during training periods and reduce them during times of rest.  
  • Schedule refueling: The idea here is that during a prolonged diet you have scheduled periods with no carbs and then alternate with a period in which you consume carbs as a way of refueling your body. 
  • Competitions: Immediately prior to an event or competition, athletes will load up on carbs for extra energy needed during serious competition. 
  • Training specific: This involves regularly scheduled periods of abstaining and consuming carbs in the course of a specialized physical training program. 
  • Body fat dependent: In this case carbs as mathematically calculated to fit your body composition and fitness goals. 

No matter the goals and motivation, carb cycling is a matter of calculating your energy requirements and offsetting this by your carb intake. Rather than working with a set quantity of carbs, you will alter, or cycle, your carb intake to fit your goals. 

How does Carb Cycling work?

Carb cycling is a relatively new form of dieting. It works by manipulating your body’s natural metabolic mechanism for processing carbohydrates. Carb cycling is based on the theory that by matching your physiological need for calories and glucose, you can meet your metabolic need for things like working out and training but limit the excess carbs during periods when you do not need it. 

You take in high carbs during times when your body needs higher levels of glycogen for muscle growth and energy. It is thought that the inclusion of periods of high carbs facilitates performance and reduces the breakdown of muscle. 

Another benefit of high-carb periods is the effect on hormones that impact appetite. Leptin and ghrelin are two important hormones that regulate your feelings of hunger. By regulating your carb intake you are able to properly regulate these hormones to limit your feelings of being hungry. 

During low-carb periods, you switch your body over to fats as an energy source. This improves your body’s ability to burn fat as fuel rather than glycogen. The long-term benefit is that you burn fat while still providing glycogen for high energy periods. The combined effect is to lose weight, build muscle, and maintain energy levels. 

How to do Carb Cycling?

There are many variations on how to do carb cycling. Some schedules even cycle carbs over as little as a day, while others provide schedules for longer periods of carb loading and carb limiting. Much of this depends on your specific goals. 

Carb cycling can take some fine-tuning as you come to understand how it affects your body. You can begin by experimenting with high-carb days over the course of a week and balancing that out with equal periods of no carbs. Adjust this schedule along with your exercise and monitor your results. 

If you are working with longer periods of carb cycling, one recommendation is to stretch it out over a 5-week period. Day 1-11 will consist of low carbs. Days 12, 13, 14, high carbs. After this, you switch to a three-week period of low carbs followed by a one week refueling period of high carbs. 

Whether you carb cycle through the week or work with a longer schedule, the goal is to allow your metabolism to become flexible and adjust to burning either carbs or fats for calories. The net gain is that you lose weight without getting stuck in the weight loss plateau. The alternating carb cycling allows your body to continue burning fats without becoming stuck in a phase in which you cannot burn any more than you already have. 

Carb Cycling Benefits

The most immediate benefit of carb cycling is weight loss. We all know that cutting carbs will help you lose weight. Carb cycling adds to this by facilitating greater metabolic flexibility which leads to more effective weight loss from diet and exercise. 

Beyond weight loss, the benefits of carb cycling include:

  • It helps maintain metabolic rate. This helps your body to continue burning fat and resists that dreaded plateau.
  • Increased energy levels. Although you are restricting calories and glycogens, you also regulate insulin with carb cycling. This helps keep up your energy levels. 
  • Prevents fatigue. Cutting carbs altogether can lead to fatigue during workouts. By allowing yourself the refueling periods you get from carb cycling, you ward off the fatigue that can come from exclusively limiting carbs. 
  • Easier workout recovery. The added boost you get from the high-carb periods provides increased energy sources for recovery from workouts. A strict low-carb diet can slow recovery. Carb cycling restores the energy needed for faster and easier recovery. 

You can have cheat days. On a strict low-carb diet, cheating can blow all of your progress. With carb cycling, your metabolism is adjusted to burning carbs efficiently if you do happen to cheat on a low-carb day, you will not get set back from your goals. 

Example Carb Cycling Menu

If you are already counting and limiting carbs, you know which foods are high in carbs and which contain few carbs. A typical menu of carb cycling will involve balancing your diet by alternating these food sources. 

Some carbs are better than others. Avoid pasta and refined carbs and stick with whole foods. Some examples of good carbs include:

  • Whole grains: Generally unmodified grains like brown rice, oats, and quinoa. 
  • Vegetables: All vegetables have different nutrients. Mix them up for maximum benefits. 
  • Raw fruits: Berries have the added benefit of being high in antioxidants. 
  • Legumes: These are full of fiber and break down slowly. 
  • Tubers: Especially sweet potatoes. 

These families of foods are broad enough that you should be able to find enough variety to remain satisfied with a carb cycling diet. One of the main disadvantages of most diets is that people tend to get tired of eating the same things. 

One example of a carb cycling diet would look like this:

High-carb day

  • Breakfast: 3 boiled eggs, 3 slices of multigrain toast, a bowl of mixed fruit (About 60 g carbs). 
  • Lunch: 
  • Medium-sized sweet potato, 60 oz lean meat or fish, mixed vegetables. 
  • Pre-workout: 1 serving oatmeal with almond milk, fresh berries (1 cup), 1 scoop of whey protein. 
  • Dinner: 1 serving of brown rice, 6 oz lean chicken, fresh tomato sauce, 1 serving of beans, mixed vegetables. 

Low-carb day

  • Breakfast: 3 eggs and 3 slices of bacon, mixed vegetables.
  • Lunch:  6 oz salmon salad with a small spoon of olive oil. 
  • Dinner: 6 oz steak, half an avocado, mixed vegetables. 
  • Snack: 1 oz mixed nuts with turkey slices. 

How you mix up the specifics is up to your tastes. The main thing is to make certain you have balanced out your high and low carb days evenly so that your metabolism can adjust to the carb cycle. 

Carb Cycling Tips

  • Base your approach on dietary needs and your level of activity to ensure that you have a proper balance of carbs and nutrients for a complete cycle. 
  • Plan your refuel days in advance. 
  • Be disciplined until refueling days. 
  • Be open to adjusting your carb cycling schedule based on results. If you are not seeing the results you are looking for, make adjustments. 
  • Exercise on refueling days.
  • Refuel later in the day when you are getting close to a workout  

It is important that you monitor both your progress and your physical health while carb cycling. Make sure you are getting the results you want. If you are low on energy for prolonged periods of time adjust your carb intake and your workout schedule. 

Wrapping things up

For quite some time carbs have been the primary target for weight loss and fitness. We have been taught to limit carbs in order to shed pounds and build muscle mass. This assumption remains largely true, but we have also learned that our bodies need carbs in some measure. Carb cycling is one solution to the problem of limiting carbs while still getting the nutritional benefit of carbs. 

Carb cycling can be a useful method for people who want to optimize their diet, physical performance, and health. It is a great way to lose weight since carb cycling not only limits carbs, it helps your metabolism adjust to burning carbs more efficiently  

Carb cycling strikes a balance between low carb and high carb diets by providing a planned mechanism to benefit from low carb periods balanced by periods of high carbs for maximum energy. Carb cycling can help you get the best of both diets and help you partially reset your metabolism.

What is more, carb cycling is more effective for weight loss since it helps you push through the weight loss plateau in which you do not seem to be able to lose any more weight. The alternating periods of high and low carbs help your metabolism burn up calories and carbs longer. 

To achieve the most benefit from carb cycling, you should begin with a rigorous schedule of high and low carb periods. But you should also remain flexible and listen to your body. Because all our bodies are a little different, most of us will need to make adjustments in a carb cycling diet. 

Make sure you make changes in your carb cycling based on results. It is tempting to change things up because you do not like the diet. If you want to get the most of carb cycling, make changes based on how well you are meeting your fitness goals. 

In the final analysis, carb cycling can be an ideal compromise between carb diets. You will be able to lose weight and build muscle while still including some carbs in your diet. In fact, you will actually benefit from including carbs in a carb cycling program. 


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