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In recent years, as low carb and ketogenic diets have taken off in popularity, so too has the practice of carb cycling. As the name implies, carb cycling involves an on-again-off-again approach to your carbohydrate intake.
Initially developed with top-level athletes in mind, carb cycling has now become popular amongst fitness enthusiasts across the world. But there's a lot more to carb cycling than just simply altering your carbohydrate consumption -- in fact, there is a real science to it.
For instance, you also need to be on top of things like your glycemic control, insulin levels, exercise volume, and protein consumption in order to carb cycle safely and effectively.
One of the most common reasons people turn to carb cycling is for weight loss, however, it can also be a useful dietary tool for overcoming performance plateaus.
When it comes to weight loss, one of the added bonus of carb cycling is that you can indulge strategically, meaning that you won’t feel as deprived as you would with a strict low-carb diet. This, in turn, makes it more likely that you will have long-term compliance.
What is Carb Cycling and How Does it Work?
Carb cycling takes into account your normal diet, all while allowing for strategic indulgences. But on a deeper level, carb cycling is more involved than you might initially think. For example, your protein intake will remain constant, while your carb intake will fluctuate. This means that you need to track your food intake closely and make sure you know what a normal eating day looks like.
From here, you’ll need to make sure you modify your fat intake – not your protein intake – when you are changing your carbohydrate intake. That’s right, you need to track your macronutrientlevels right down to the number of fat calories you’re consuming per day.
For instance, if you plan a higher-carb intake day, this means that day will be lower in fat intake. And vice versa. How this looks on a weekly basis, is usually two high-carb days, two medium-carb days, and three low-carb days.
For those who hate restricting carbohydrates, this is a bit of an ideal set-up. Admittedly, even the most disciplined dieter loves a good dessert from time to time, so this approach allows for more flexibility, and ultimately, more success with a low-carb diet. However, as you can already tell, following a carb cycling program involves a lot more work, and much more attention to detail, than simply following a normal low-carb protocol.
Interestingly, each type of day (high-carb, low-carb, and moderate-carb) is designed with specific purposes in mind. For example, high-carb days are used to replenish muscle glycogen, which can become depleted over a long period of time, when following a low-carb diet.
The thinking is that periodic high-carb days help lessen muscle breakdown, as well as improve performance. Higher carb days also help regulate the hormones leptin and ghrelin, which are pivotal for both weight control and hunger.
Moderate-carb days, by contrast, are used as a bit of a transition period, allowing your body to slowly shift back into burning fat for fuel. Another key aspect of moderate-carb days is the control and regulation of insulin.
Since your body becomes accustomed to only a small number of carbs and low amounts of glucose in your diet, a sudden influx of carbohydrates can throw your insulin out of whack. Moderate carb days help to ease your body back into low-carb mode and re-sensitize your body to insulin.
The low-carb days, of course, serve an important purpose as well. By maintaining a consistent diet low in glucose, you allow your body to become better equipped to burn up fat for fuel. This may be useful for a wide variety of reasons, including protecting against diseases like obesity and diabetes.
What Should You Eat if You’re Carb Cycling? + A Sample Carb-Cycling Plan
Interestingly, there is no one specific carb-cycling plan. While experts agree that there should be high-carb and low-carb days, there isn’t any particular consensus beyond that. In fact, there isn’t even a general agreement that moderate-carbohydrate days are needed at all.
Some experts claim they are needed for maximum results, while others leave them out entirely. What does seem to be agreed upon, however, is that the higher-carb days are absolutely necessary for any sound carb cycling plan.
Exactly how your particular plan is set up depends on a number of factors, including your goals, schedule, and personal preferences. A good baseline regimen involves three higher carb days (roughly 200 grams), and four lower carb days (roughly 30 grams). Below is a small table, which shows the most common breakdown for a standard carb cycling plan.
|Day||High, Low, Or Moderate Carb||Total Carb Intake(grams)|
What is Carb Cycling Used For?
Carbohydrate cycling is used for a wide variety of situations, including just normal, everyday dieting. However, there are three main areas where carb cycling is most commonly used. Interestingly, it is used to different ends, depending on your goals.
When it comes to athletics, there is a conflicting consensus on whether or not low carbohydrate diets are optimal for top tier performance. Traditionally, high carb diets have been the standard in athletics, especially endurance events, where glycogen stores are always topped out.
In these environments, the standard thinking is that purposely limiting your glycogen stores would be a poor choice. However, there is a growing body of evidence that low carb diets – once properly adapted to – may work just as well as higher-carb diets when it comes to top-level athletics.(1)
There is a sizable body of evidence that low-carb dietary approaches can have positive effects on weight loss. For example, one study found that a period of low carbohydrate consumption -- participants were on the ketogenic diet in the study -- helped to control hunger and improve fat oxidative metabolism, helping subjects, on average, to lose significant amounts of weight.(2)
It makes sense then, that carb cycling may also be beneficial for weight loss. Periodically dipping out of ketosis -- your body’s alternative means of getting energy -- or suddenly upping your glycogen stores certainly keeps your body on its toes.
And when it comes to success with a long-term keto diet, compliance is king. By cycling your carbs in and out of your diet, you set yourself up for success. Carb cycling makes it far easier to comply with a long-term low-carb diet since you’re not constantly depriving yourself of your favorite foods all the time.
Bodybuilding is a niche where carb cycling seems to fits right in. In a practice where everything is carefully tracked, and highly regimented, logging your macronutrients hardly seems like any extra work at all.
In a world where a low body fat percentage is everything, carb cycling allows dieters to eat what they want from time to time while still staying extremely lean.
Since there is less of an emphasis on endurance activity in bodybuilding, there is not as much of a concern when it comes to always being loaded up on carbs. This differs greatly from other sports, where performance, not physical aesthetics, is paramount.
What Does the Science Say?
There has only been a limited amount of research relating directly to carb cycling, at least as of yet. In fact, there have not been a whole lot of direct studies at all. However, there is a sizeable amount of scientific evidence that both low carb diets and carbohydrate loading can have beneficial effects.(3) Therefore, it seems to make sense that combining the two might offer certain practical advantages when paired correctly.
Multiple studies have shown that carb-loading can improve athletic performance, as there is a proven increase in muscle glycogen stores.(4) Though admittedly, these studies were not typically done with athletes who normally ate low carbohydrate diets.
Ultimately, it comes down to the fact that there are not many direct studies on carb cycling, at least not yet. But when it comes to weight loss, as long as your calorie intake is restricted -- i.e. you’re taking in fewer calories than your body burns off in a day -- you can certainly lose weight with carb cycling.
What’s the Difference Between Carb Cycling and Keto?
Although the keto diet has become very mainstream, it differs from carb cycling. In a keto approach, you will stay in nutritional ketosis, all of the time. This advantageous state relies on stored fat for energy, as your body breaks down fatty acids in a process known as beta-oxidation. Your liver makes ketone bodies, allowing you to keep your carbohydrate intake low, while still having lots of energy.
While keto is very strict and relies on never really leaving ketosis, carb cycling is a combination of keto and the popular endurance athlete approach of carb loading. With carb cycling, you will remain low carb about 75% of the time but will refill your muscle glycogen stores on some days of the diet. This allows you to indulge in some of your favorite foods, all while still following a healthy dietary plan.
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Is Carb Cycling Right For Everybody?
Carb cycling, like any diet plan, is not right for everyone. In fact, there are some people who should leave carb cycling alone completely. For example, if you have serious blood sugar issues, or suffer from an eating disorder, carb cycling is likely not a good idea.
By contrast, carb cycling may be very advantageous for athletes. It can also work great for weight loss, provided dieters track their calories religiously and make sure they stay in a calorie deficit.
Tips to Maximize Your Carb Cycling Diet
There are three main tips to maximize a carb cycling diet. First, don’t neglect your protein and fat. This is especially important on low carb days, as your body will need extra fuel.
Secondly, be sure to know your calorie goals, so you can maintain weight loss, even on high carb days.
Lastly, make sure you get plenty of fiber so your hormones and digestive system remain happy. The standard American diet, in general, is often lacking fiber, so this tip can help to maximize your health regardless of which diet plan you chose to follow.
There you have it – everything you need to know about carb cycling. If you’re new to a low carb diet, carbohydrate cycling may be the perfect introduction to a lower carb lifestyle, as it allows for ‘days off’, and still lets you consume your favorite foods.
Far from just allowing you to eat ‘anything you want’, you should lessen your fat requirements on higher carb days, while keeping your protein at the same level. Carb cycling is a detailed process which requires the dieter to track their nutritional intake and make sure they know exactly what they’re putting into their body.
Instead of being terrified that you may ‘cheat’ and indulge in some of your favorite forbidden foods, you’re allowed to consume them on a fairly regular basis. Carb cycling still needs some more direct scientific support behind it, but it appears to be a very promising dietary approach.
- “Impact Of Ketogenic Diet On Athletes: Current Insights”McSwiney, F.T., Doyle, L., Plews, D.J., Zinn, C. Open Access Journal of Sports Medicine. Nov. 2019.
- “Ketogenic Diet for Obesity: Friend or Foe?”McSwiney, Paoli, A. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. Feb. 2014.
- “Weight loss, improved physical performance, cognitive function, eating behavior, and metabolic profile in a 12-week ketogenic diet in obese adults.”McSwiney, Mohorko, N., Černelič-Bizjak, M., Poklar-Vatovec, T., Grom, G., Kenig, S., Petelin, A., Jenko-Pražnikar, Z. Nutrition Research. Feb. 2019.
- “The latest on carbohydrate loading: a practical approach.”Sedlock, D.A. Current Sports Medicine Repots. Aug. 2008.