Carb cycling is a dieting strategy that includes planned increased and decreased carb intake on specific days. It is mainly useful for athletes and bodybuilders. But with so many dieters on low-carb diets, carb cycling has now entered the mainstream diet industry. It may help kick start fat burn in active individuals who have hit a plateau with weight loss.
This relatively new strategy has minimal evidence to support its effects or optimal procedures. And a low-carb diet may have deleterious effects on your health (1). So, should you consider carb cycling? Read on to know everything about carb cycling and if it is right for you.
Highlights Of The Article
- What Is Carb Cycling?
- Factors That Affect Carb Cycling
- What Is The Science Behind Carb Cycling?
- Carb Cycling Diet Rules
- How To Do Carb Cycling
- Carb Cycling Diet Plan
- Carb Cycling For Weight Loss And Muscle Gain
- Recommended Carbs For Carb Cycling
- Foods To Eat And Avoid During Carb Cycling
- Carb Cycling Benefits
- Carb Cycling Recommendations
- Is Carb Cycling For You?
What Is Carb Cycling?
Carb cycling is an advanced dietary strategy to alter your carb intake on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis, depending on your body’s needs and fitness goals. Some athletes, highly active individuals and bodybuilders, and ketogenic diet followers go for carb cycling to lose weight and get energy and perform better on the day of competition (2), (3).
On cardio days, you will be on a moderate-carb diet, on strength training days you will be on a high-carb diet, and on days of rest, you will be on a low-carb diet.
The following factors affect carb cycling.
Factors That Affect Carb Cycling
- Your Goals – You may want to either lose weight or gain muscle. Carb cycling can be used in both cases. You have to be on a low-carb diet during the fat loss phase and then add back good carbs to your diet during the muscle gain phase.
- Body Fat – Once athletes lose the body fat and achieve their target body fat percentage, they go on high carb days. This is typically before a competition because carbs are the main and readily available source of energy. And stocking up on carbs can help improve performance. If you are a dieter, once you have lost at least 6 pounds of fat, you can go on a 2-day high-carb diet.
- Cardio/Strength Training And Rest – Shannon Clark of Bodybuilding.com recommends going on high-carb and low-fat on the hardest days of your workout. She says, “the body needs those carbohydrates the most on these days. Having them before you do the workout will help fuel you in the gym so you can work harder and push more weight, and then having the influx of carbohydrates after the workout session will help saturate the muscles with carbohydrate storage (muscle glycogen) and aid with recovery.”
- Competitions And Events – Many athletes and bodybuilders load up on carbs before a big performance or photo shoot as they need maximum energy at the time, which is provided by carbs.
- Refeeds – Refeeds work if you are on a low-carb diet for a prolonged period. You can load up on carbs for a day or several days before going back to your low-carb diet.
- Training Type – Depending on the type of training, you can do carb cycling. If the duration and intensity of training increase, you will be on a high-carb diet.
- Protein Intake – Irrespective of high or low-carb days, your protein intake will be the same.
- Fat Intake – You should be on a high-fat diet on low-carb days so that your body uses fat as a source of fuel. Be on a low-fat diet on high-carb days so that your body uses carbs as a readily available source of fuel.
What’s the science behind carb cycling? Find out next.
What Is The Science Behind Carb Cycling?
The science behind carb cycling is simple – alter the amount of carbs you consume to lose weight without losing out on the nutrients from good carb sources (fruits, veggies, and whole grains). Carb cycling has been shown to help some individuals lose weight.
Carefully planned and strategized carb cycling can help you burn fat effectively without making you feel weak. Also, by loading up on carbs during high-intensity training days, you will be able to maximize your performance and reduce muscle loss (4). Hence, you can use it to lose weight effectively without losing muscle mass.
However, there is not much research done on the long-term effects of carb cycling, so you should do it for shorter periods.
Main Takeaway: The working principle of carb cycling is to help the body utilize fat as the main fuel source instead of carbs.
There are a few rules/guidelines that you must follow if you want to go on carb cycling. Here’s what the rules talk about.
Carb Cycling Diet Rules
Rule #1 – The number of carbs you consume on low-carb days and high-carb days will depend on your body composition, goals, activity levels, and carbohydrate tolerance level.
Ruel #2 – Do a carb cycling refeed that best suits your lifestyle.
Rule #3 – It takes a lot of experimenting and fine-tuning before you completely understand whether you should cycle your carb intake based on day, week(s) or month(s).
Rule #4 – Follow the How To Do Carb Cycling section to get the most out of it.
How To Do Carb Cycling
You can do carb cycling in various ways. All you have to ensure is that you keep altering your macronutrients to get the best results. Here’s a sample carb cycling week routine:
|Days||Carbs||Fats||Exercise Type||Carbs To Consume|
|Monday||Moderate-carb||Moderate fat||Aerobics||80-100 g|
|Tuesday||Low-carb||High-fat||Weight Training||130-200 g|
|Wednesday||Moderate-carb||Moderate fat||Aerobics||80-100 g|
|Friday||High-carb||Low-fat||Weight Training||130-200 g|
|Saturday||Moderate-carb||Moderate fat||Aerobics||80-100 g|
The numbers and exercise type for each day might change depending on your goals and fitness levels. Here’s how your carb cycling should look if you do it for more than a week.
|Low-Carb||High-Carb||Carbs To Consume|
|Day 1 – Day 7||Day 8, 9, 10||30 g – 200 g|
|Week 1 – Week 3||Week 4||30 g – 400 g|
Remember, the number of carbs you consume will depend on whether you are in the low-carb or high-carb phase, activity level, and carbohydrate tolerance levels. An athlete would need more carbs compared to a non-athlete even on low-carb days.
NOTE: Talk to your dietitian to help calculate the minimum and maximum amount of carbs you should consume on low-carb and high-carbs days.
Now that the basic principle of carb cycling is clearer, let me give you a sample carb cycling diet.
Carb Cycling Diet Plan
|Meals||What To Eat|
|Breakfast||Sautéed mushrooms on whole grain toast (or 2 boiled eggs on whole grain toast) + 4 cherry tomatoes + ¼ cup blanched spinach + 1 cup freshly pressed fruit juice|
|Lunch||3 oz grilled salmon with baked kidney beans + 4 blacked broccoli florets|
|Snack||1 cup bulletproof coffee + 15 in-shell pistachios|
|Dinner||2 oz grilled chicken (or 1 cup kidney bean chili) + ½ cup ricotta cheese + ½ cup blanched veggies|
|Meals||What To Eat|
|Breakfast||Acai berry smoothie bowl|
|Lunch||1 cup tuna salad with lettuce, tomato, olive oil, herbs, and seasoning|
|Snack||1 banana + 5 almonds + 1 cup black coffee|
|Dinner||Chicken and mayo salad|
|Meals||What To Eat|
|Breakfast||Mushroom whole grain toast (or 2 boiled eggs on whole grain toast) + 4 cherry tomatoes + ¼ cup blanched spinach + 1 cup freshly pressed fruit juice|
|Lunch||Grilled tofu (or fish) with brown rice + 1 cup mixed veggies|
|Snack||Whey protein smoothie with banana and berries|
|Dinner||Grilled tofu (or grilled chicken) with cauliflower rice + 1 cup mixed veggies|
But can this diet strategy help you lose weight or gain muscle? Find out in the next section.
Carb Cycling For Weight Loss And Muscle Gain
Carb cycling may help you lose weight. Carb cycling is an effective way to lose weight. It helps you avoid foods with empty calories from added sugar (desserts, pastries, soda, sweetened coffee drinks) and bad carbs (simple carbs that get easily digested and absorbed, making you feel hungry frequently), thereby preventing you from overeating (5), (6).
Your body also switches to the fat burning mode, minimizing the risk of losing muscle mass, which can lead to slowing down of metabolic rate (7). Moreover, some scientific data has also shown that carb cycling can help increase insulin sensitivity (8), (9).
Carb cycling is also great for building muscle as it protects the muscles from breakdown during high-intensity training and strength training sessions (10), (11). It is necessary to consume high carbs on a training day. Most of your fuel comes from glucose and not muscle protein (proteins get converted to glucose through gluconeogenesis). On low-carb days, your body uses fat to do all the bodily functions.
You’d be wrong if you thought you could consume any type of carb you wanted on high-carb days. Here’s a list of carbs you are allowed to consume.
Recommended Carbs For Carb Cycling
- Whole grains
- Wheat pasta
- Whole wheat or multigrain bread
- Ezekiel bread
- Sweet potato
- Brown rice, red rice, and black rice
But these are not the only foods that you are allowed to consume. There are many other food groups that you should take care of. Here’s a list of foods that you can eat and must avoid when you are carb cycling.
Foods To Eat And Avoid During Carb Cycling
Foods To Eat
- Veggies – Collard greens, radish greens, Swiss chard, Brussels sprouts, bitter gourd, bottle gourd, spinach, kale, radish, c tomato, cucumber, green bell pepper, eggplant, rhubarb, cabbage, broccoli, bok choy, cauliflower, chives, spring onions, onion, celery, fennel, and purple cabbage.
- Fruits – Apple, avocado, banana, muskmelon, watermelon, kiwi, pear, mango, lime, lemon, orange, grapefruit, tangerine, java plum, strawberries, blueberries, acai berry.
- Protein – Chicken breast, wild caught fish, mushroom, eggs, lentils, beans, sprouts, soy, tofu, ground turkey, and ground beef.
- Dairy – Milk, ricotta cheese, buttermilk, and cottage cheese.
- Fats And Oils – Olive oil, avocado oil, rice bran oil, sunflower butter, and ghee.
- Nuts and Seeds – Almonds, walnuts, pistachios, macadamia, flax seeds, sunflower seeds, and melon seeds.
- Herbs And Spices – Rosemary, thyme, cilantro, dill, oregano, cardamom, cinnamon, clove, ginger, garlic, cumin, carom seeds, star anise, nigella seeds, black and white pepper, saffron, nutmeg, mace, coriander powder, turmeric, chili powder.
- Beverages – Water, bulletproof coffee, lime water, detox water, freshly pressed fruit/vegetable juice.
Foods To Avoid
- White bread
- White pasta
- White potato
- Refined sugar and flour
- Deep fried foods
- Batter fried foods
- Potato wafers
- Ice cream
- Animal fat, butter, margarine, and vegetable oil
Now, let’s take a look at the list of benefits that you can get from cycling your carbs.
Carb Cycling Benefits
- May aid weight loss.
- May lower cholesterol levels.
- May improve exercise performance.
- May provide strength and stamina for endurance training.
- May alleviate insulin resistance.
- Positively affects the thyroid hormone, leptin, and testosterone.
Carb Cycling Tips
- Pick the right carb cycling for you depending on your carb tolerance level, activity level, and goals.
- Determine your daily protein intake.
- Determine your higher and lower carb and fat intake threshold.
- Schedule your refeeding.
- Use it for a short duration.
As we draw to a close, there’s one important question left to be answered – is carb cycling for you? Find out in the following section.
Is Carb Cycling For You?
Carb cycling is mainly recommended for athletes, bodybuilders, and highly active individuals. However, with so many people following the popular low-carb, high-fat (HCHF) diets (for example, Ketogenic diet), it has become necessary to go on carb refeed phases so that your body gets the complete nutrition that it requires to function properly.
Being on a low-carb diet for a prolonged period can slow down metabolism, make you vitamin and mineral deficient, and affect your workout sessions. Carb cycling can benefit you in more than just one way. But make sure you do it with proper knowledge of your lifestyle and how tolerant your body is to carbs.
Carb cycling is a great way to lose weight, protect your body from plateauing, and improving fitness. However, talk to your trainer and dietitian if you are new to this concept. Make sure you follow it for a short time, and you will see great results. Have any question regarding carb cycling? Leave a comment below. Cheers!
Expert’s Answers For Readers’ Questions
How many carbs should I eat when carb cycling?
The number of carbs you consume will depend on your body weight, carb tolerance levels, and activity levels. Talk to your fitness trainer to determine the exact number of carbs you should be consuming during low-carb and high-carb phases.
How many days should you carb cycle?
You can be on the carb cycling phase on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. It depends on your goals and lifestyle.
How many carbs should I eat to lose fat?
Consume about 30-50 g carbs on rest days and about 100-200 g carbs on cardio and strength training days.
Are there any carbs in eggs?
A large egg contains about 0.6 g carbs.
- “Long-Term Low Carbohydrate Diet Leads to Deleterious Metabolic Manifestations in Diabetic Mice” PlosOne, US National Library of Medicine.
- “Eating Before Competition” Sports Nutrition, Central Washington University.
- “The Pre-Event Meal” Nutrition Australia.
- “Timing and method of increased carbohydrate intake to cope with heavy training, competition and recovery.” Journal of Sports Sciences, US National Library of Medicine.
- “Effects of short-term carbohydrate or fat overfeeding on energy expenditure and plasma leptin concentrations in healthy female subjects.” International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders, US National Library of Medicine.
- “Genotype dependency of the thermic effect of a meal and associated hormonal changes following short-term overfeeding.” Metabolism, US National Library of Medicine.
- “Effect of carbohydrate intake on net muscle protein synthesis during recovery from resistance exercise.” Journal of Applied Physiology, US National Library of Medicine.
- “A lower-carbohydrate, higher-fat diet reduces abdominal and intermuscular fat and increases insulin sensitivity in adults at risk of type 2 diabetes.” The Journal of Nutrition, US National Library of Medicine.
- “Effects of differences in amount and kind of dietary carbohydrate on plasma glucose and insulin responses in man.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, US National Library of Medicine.
- “Rethinking fat as a fuel for endurance exercise.” European Journal of Sport Science, US National Library of Medicine.
- “Coingestion of carbohydrate with protein does not further augment postexercise muscle protein synthesis.” American Journal of Physiology, Endocrinology and Metabolism, US National Library of Medicine.
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