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Portrait of strong sportsman lifting heavy weight in gym

Nutrition is filled with confusing terms and concepts, so here’s another one.

Carb cycling.

You might have heard of this approach before, but many people haven’t.

So, what is carb cycling?

At its most basic, carb cycling involves varying your carb intake over time.

Like intermittent fasting, this is a diet that has a lot of different variations.

Often people take the general concept and modify it to meet their own energy needs and lifestyle.

Why are people interested in carb cycling?

Carbohydrates have become a pretty controversial nutrient.

Conventional health advice has focused on cutting down fat as much as possible, which resulted in people getting a lot of their nutrients from carbs instead.

There is growing recognition that this approach isn’t particularly good for health.

The result has been a shift away from carbs again.

In some ways, carb cycling is an attempt to find a middle ground between low carb and high carb diets.

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What is Carb Cycling?

Woman deciding between a burger and lettuce

Carb cycling might sound confusing, but it is something that people get used to.

Essentially, the idea is just to alternate the number of carbs you consume.

Some variations of the diet have Low Carb weeks and then some high carb weeks, that basically act as a form of recovery.

There are many other variations too and the variations of the diet are often related to what people need and what they’re trying to get out of the diet.

For this part of our discussion, I’m going to focus on one specific variation of a carb cycling diet.

This is where people change up their carb intake on a daily basis.

So, you see patterns like this one here:

Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday
High CarbModerate CarbLow CarbHigh CarbHigh CarbLow CarbModerate Carb
Low FatModerate FatHigh FatLow FatLow FatHigh FatModerate Fat

Frequently, this pattern is then paired with working out.

So, you might engage in intense workouts on the high carb days, do a lower intensity workout on the moderate carb days and take the low carb days as breaks.

In general, the answer to ‘what is carb cycling?’ is that carb cycling is a general diet type while the exact approaches that people take can vary considerably.

The Carb Cycling Meal Plan

Carb cycling is a pretty individualized diet.

The approaches that people take are based, in part, on their own needs.

For example, a person who works out regularly and is trying to gain muscle may want to take in more carbs than someone who is comparatively inactive.

So, if you’re interested in carb cycling, it’s important to think carefully about what your body needs.

If your focus is mostly on weight loss, then you might choose to have mostly low carb days with relatively few high carb days.

With this approach, the high carb days act as a way to refuel your body and can also make a low-carb diet a little easier to follow.

In contrast, if you are specifically trying to build muscle, you may build your diet around your training plans.

Recommendations for the number of carbs you should be consuming vary considerably.

One approach suggests the following:

  • High carb: 200 g
  • Moderate carb: 100 g
  • Low carb: 30 g

Setting 200 g of carbs as the highest amount does seem to be a common approach.

However, it is important to note that this might vary depending on your activity level.

For example, bodybuilders are likely to need more carbs than a person who goes to the gym once or twice a week for a few hours.

Additionally, some variations of this diet don’t focus on counting the number of carbs you consume.

Instead, they just avoid carb foods on the low carb days and focus more on those foods during the high carb days. So, on a low carb day, you might end up having a bunless burger for dinner along with a range of vegetables.

It’s also important to note that carb cycling meal plans typically involve a relatively high level of protein for all the stages of the diet. This is particularly relevant for anyone on a carb cycling diet who wants to gain muscle.

The site Scrawny to Brawny offers additional information about using carb cycling for muscle building, as does T Nation

Getting the Right Carbs

Concept of a high fat low carb meal

One of the key ideas of carb cycling is that carbs are necessary.

Carbs are an important nutrient and reducing them as much as possible isn’t always a good idea.

At first glance, a carb cycling diet looks like a low carb diet with cheat days.

People often feel that they can use those high carb days to eat junk food.

But, that isn’t the idea here.

Instead, the diet focuses on getting healthy carbs.

So, healthy carbs might include things like oatmeal, some bread and some fruit that has carbs.

Specifically, you want to be avoiding processed foods even on the high carb days.

In many ways, the meal plan for high and low carb days is very similar.

Some people simply choose to replace the carb-containing food with vegetables for the low carb days and also increase their meat consumption a little bit on those days.

There is a range of healthy carbs that you can include in your diet.

Some of these include:

  • Vegetables. Many vegetables offer carbs, especially those that are starchy like potatoes and sweet potatoes. Getting a variety of vegetables is important, as vegetables vary in the nutrients they offer.
  • Whole grains. This includes foods like quinoa and oats. Many people also get grains from bread and bread products. However, it’s important to note that most whole grain breads actually contain refined whole grains. If you want bread containing actual whole grains, you have to shop around.
  • Fruits. Fruit can also be a good source of carbs and again, variety is important.
  • Legumes (e.g. beans). These are another source of carbs, although you do want to be a little careful with your intake and with how these are prepared.

Does Carb Cycling Work for Weight Loss?

Girl smiling while exercising

Weight loss is a big challenge for many people but the underlying concepts are deceptively simple.

More than anything, you need to be operating at a calorie deficit (taking in fewer calories than you use) (1).

If you want to lose weight over an extended period of time, you also want an eating and lifestyle pattern that you can stick to.

Those two patterns are the biggest factors in weight loss.

In theory, any diet will be successful if it conforms to those two areas.

However, you might find that some approaches work better for you personally than others.

So, does carb cycling work?

Carb cycling does have quite a lot of potential for weight loss – as long as you are operating at a calorie deficit.

In some ways, you could consider this diet to be a variation of a low carb diet.

So, you get the weight loss advantages of a low carb diet, but you also get carbs at some points.

Those carbs can help with physical performance and they may also help people to get past weight loss plateaus.

The Challenge of Carb Cycling

Perhaps the main disadvantage of carb cycling for weight loss is its complexity.

After all, carb cycling involves varying how many carbs you are consuming.

So, you might be changing your carb intake every day, or you might have low carb weeks and then weeks with higher amounts of carbs.

To keep your calorie intake in a desirable range, you also have to vary your fat intake.

This means that low carb days (or weeks) will also involve high fat and vice versa.

Doing this successfully involves a lot of planning.

Working out at the gym

If you’re trying to improve your exercise performance, then you might also be tying specific workouts with specific eating patterns.

A common practice is to do high-intensity exercise, like weight training, on the high carb days.

To do this effectively, you have to plan your food very carefully.

You also have to be aware of the number of calories, fat and carbs in whatever you eat.

Doing all of this can be difficult for many people trying to lose weight.

If you already struggle with motivation, paying this much attention to your diet might simply be too much.

That complexity may reduce adherence to the diet.

The Flexibility in Carb Cycling

But, carb cycling does also offer a lot of flexibility.

That does make it a great option for people who don’t want to completely give up their carbs or those who like some elements of a high-fat diet.

Essentially, you could eat most types of food during this diet.

That’s a type of flexibility that most diets don’t offer.

At the end of the day, this means that carb cycling diets might work great for some people while they may be far too hard for others to follow.

You might find you have to actually try this type of diet before you know which category you fall into.

Gaining Muscle with Carb Cycling

One of the key arguments for carb cycling is gaining muscle.

But, does carb cycling work for gaining muscle?

The idea is that when you have high carbs, your physical performance may be improved.

Some research does support this idea, suggesting that loading with carbs can promote performance in high intensity and short duration exercise (2).

That may be especially relevant for anyone who is doing weight lifting or similar high-intensity exercises.

Likewise, consuming carbs around the time of a workout may potentially help with recovery and the delivery of nutrients (3,4).

However, the observed effects have been relatively small.

There is also the potential for carbs to help with muscle growth, although that doesn’t seem to be the case if sufficient protein has been consumed (5).

These outcomes suggest that carb cycling could potentially help with muscle growth, but it might also have very little impact.

Carb Cycling Research

The information on muscle gain with carb cycling highlights one important point.

There hasn’t been a whole lot of research.

That isn’t too surprising.

After all, there are a whole lot of different diet types out there and there are even many different variations of carb cycling.

Sad thinking girl

In fact, I wasn’t able to find any studies that directly looked at the impacts of carb cycling, although some researchers have been interested in the concept (6).

But, there is still some scientific evidence behind the general concept.

For example, some research suggests that having some high carb periods can help to rebuild glycogen.

Doing this may play a role in decreasing muscle breakdown and in improving performance in general (7,8).

Carb cycling may also help to improve insulin sensitivity, particularly because of the low carb periods (9).

Likewise, the diet approach may help the body to focus on burning fat (10,11,12,13).

The high carb aspects of the diet may play a role in improving hormones (14,15).

Hormones are important for weight loss and controlling your hormones can help make weight loss more effective (16).

In general, carb cycling offers the potential to take advantage of the benefits of high carb diets and of low carb diets.

This does suggest that carb cycling may offer health benefits.

After all, carbs are still important nutrients and dramatically cutting them down may not be the best option for health.

Is Carb Cycling Right for You?

Through this post, I’ve answered the question ‘what is carb cycling?’ and the approach is an interesting one overall.

It is more complex than many other diets and that can be a good thing and a bad thing.

Woman trying to make a decision

That complexity does mean that you have a lot of flexibility in what you eat.

But, at the same time, that complexity can make the diet hard to follow.

The diet seems best suited for people trying to lose weight and gain muscle.

In many cases, people who actively work out already have schedules for their food and their workouts.

For people in this position, following a diet like carb cycling may be relatively easy.

Additionally, the high carb days of carb cycling naturally support working out.

Here’s another way of looking at it.

How does your body deal with carbs?

We’re all different.

For some of us, carbs really aren’t that big of a deal.

But, for other people, carbs can majorly contribute to weight gain and they can make us feel bad in general.

If you fall in the latter group, carb cycling might make sense.

After all, carb cycling means that the only time you have a lot of carbs is when you are actively using them.

So, for some people, carb cycling may be a good way to help with muscle growth or weight loss.

If nothing else, it’s an interesting alternative approach.

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What are your thoughts? Have you ever tried carb cycling? Would you ever try it?

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