Carb Cycling: Is It Right For You?

April 16, 2021 6 min read

Carb Cycling: Is It Right For You?

We will always start any explanation of any ‘diet approach’ with the fact that - this is not a magic pill diet.  Carb cycling is, like any other diet approach, a methodology that has worked phenomenally for some individuals - just like keto has worked for some, gluten-free has worked for some, IIFYM has worked for some, and so forth, and so on.  We are not biased towards any one diet, we instead encouragelearning about different approaches, experimenting, and figuring out what the best approach is foryou!  

So we’re going to discuss in this article what carb cycling is, how it has shown to work for individuals, what the pros and cons of it are, and how to apply it.  The rest is up to you! 

What is Carb Cycling? 

Carb cycling is a diet methodology which includes cycling high carbohydrate days with low carbohydrate days throughout your week, and it typically will manipulate calories up and down on those days as well, especially if fat loss is your goal with the program.  

Just like with most diets, there are going to be multiple different forms of carb cycling that can be found on the internet and how they should be applied, but most of them place individuals around these ranges: 

  • High Carb Day - You eat 2-2.5g of carbohydrates per pound of body-weight OR 50% of total calories coming from carbohydrates, these are also your higher calorie days.  
  • Low-Carb Days - You eat 0.5g of carbohydrate per pound of body-weight OR 20% of total calories coming from carbohydrates, which are your low-calorie days.  

If this sounds a bit confusing, we’ll explain it in more self-applicable details at the end.  Many carbohydrate cycling approaches also consider ‘carb timing’ in their methods, meaning timing your carbohydrates you eat around specific times of day - mainly your workouts.  On days that you workout, it is believed to be most effective to put nearly all of the carbohydrates for that day into the post-workout meal or window and on rest days, spreading small amounts out throughout the day.  

How Does Carb Cycling Work? 

Carbohydrate cycling is a fairly new approach in the diet world, and in turn, there is not much evidence or research which exists to support its efficacy, but there is research around carbohydrate intake and it’s benefits and drawbacks.  Therefore, there can be a lot of things deduced from what research we do have around carbohydrates, nutrient timing, and exercise.   If you’ve been reading our content for a while, you know that carbohydrates are extremely beneficial to our bodies for a number of reasons including the assistance in muscle growth by fueling our workouts, supporting our thyroid function, and providing a great source of fiber and nutrients.  On the other hand though, they can easily be over-consumed and lead to fat storage by spiking blood sugar, insulin, and ‘over filling’ the body's glucose stores. 

That is why there are such strong camps on both sides of the carbohydrate war in the nutrition industry, and this is where carb cycling has somewhat bridged the gap.  Here is what carb cycling claims:  

  • It helps to optimize the hunger hormones in our bodies - both leptin and ghrelin.  These hormones also play an important role in weight loss, weight gain, and the ability to maintain body composition (SOURCE).
  • It can help to induce fat loss and weight loss without lowering your basal metabolic rate or causing the metabolism to adapt.  
  • Higher carbohydrate days help to replenish glycogen stores and boost training intensity.
  • The higher carbohydrate days also temporarily boost insulin levels, which has been shown to help preserve muscle tissue and promote muscle growth (SOURCE).

Conversely, on the lower-carbohydrate days, your body maximizes fat-burning because you will be in a larger calorie deficit, and in turn, carb cycling claims that you can accomplish fat burning and muscle building all at the same time.  Again, this is still something that still needs to be proven scientifically, but let’s go over some pros and cons of the approach.  

Pros and Cons of Carb Cycling 

It can be easy to get excited about a new diet approach at face value, because a lot of them seem to promote incredible benefits that other approaches do not, but let’s cover what we believe to be the pros and cons of this methodology and you can decide if it is the right plan for you!  

Pros - 

  • There are no food restrictions.  Technically, you can eat gluten, dairy, vegetables, fruits, breads, pasta, cheese, etc. and any other food you want, as long as it works within the calorie and macronutrient boundaries. 
  • It is geared towards muscle development and body-composition.  Unlike a ‘gluten-free diet’, or a ‘paleo diet’, carb cycling was designed with the person in mind that wanted to build muscle, lose fat, and perform well. 
  • It doesn’t eliminate carbohydrates completely, which many people struggle with in long-term diets, it allows you to enjoy some of the foods you may otherwise demonize. 
  • Theoretically, it allows you to be in a calorie deficit without metabolic adaptations - which we have talked about before HERE and most calorie deficits have been shown to cause.

Cons - 

  • It can be complicated to plan out - you need to be kind of meticulous in your meal planning, different foods on different days, and compliance. 
  • It can be hard to pair up a normal lifestyle of going out to eat with family/friends, or sharing meals with your family since your days do change drastically with the types of foods you are consuming. 
  • It can be tough with an ever-changing schedule.  If you don’t have specific times you always workout during, then planning your food and meals ahead of time to pair up with your post-workout window is pretty challenging.  
  • If you are not resistance training or weight training - you’ll miss out on the huge benefit of how it can assist in muscle growth and development!  

From our experience, those that may benefit to give carb cycling a try are individuals who are familiar with macronutrient tracking, who strength train consistently, who have the time to put towards planning and prepping food, and who would like to see if they can further improve their body composition with a more advanced nutritional approach.  

How to Implement Carb Cycling 

If your goal with carb cycling is to lose body-fat, but either gain or maintain muscle, then these are the most common calculations used when creating your intake. Please note: this is not a prescription or personal recommendation for you, there are many other factors that go into determining the proper calorie intake for an individual.  

First, you need to calculate your total daily energy expenditure, which we’ve found can be done most effectively (without a coach) by using the and you will enter in your information and select ‘maintenance’ to have as your baseline.  

High Carbohydrate Days - 

Total Calories

10% Calorie Deficit off TDEE

Ex. 2500 cal Maintenance = 2250 calories for 10% deficit

Protein (in grams)

Body Weight in Pounds

Ex. 165 lb individual will eat 165g of protein 

Carbohydrates (in grams)

50% of Total Daily Calories

Ex. 50% of 2250 calories = 280g of Carbohydrates

Fats (in grams)

Remaining Calories 

Ex. 52g of Fats remains as intake 

Low Carbohydrate Days - 

Total Calories

25% Calorie Deficit off TDEE

Ex. 2500 cal Maintenance = 1875 calories for 25% deficit

Protein (in grams)

Body Weight in Pounds

Ex. 165 lb individual will eat 165g of protein 

Carbohydrates (in grams)

20% of Total Daily Calories

Ex. 20% of 1875 calories = 94g of Carbohydrates

Fats (in grams)

Remaining Calories 

Ex. 93g of Fats remains as intake 

Like we said, it can be a little confusing if you’re unaware of how to calculate carbohydrates, proteins, fats, and total calories, which is why we consider this is a more advanced methodology for people looking to up their game and try something new!  Everyone’s body responds differently as well, so if you’re curious to see if it is right for you, we always recommend experimenting with your own body for 1-3 months and collecting data, then evaluating how you feel! There is no ‘right’ diet for everyone :)

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