For a long time, carbohydrate intake has been a hot topic.
Many successful diets limit carbs and others completely exclude them (1, 2, 3, 4).
Carbohydrates are not categorically harmful, but there is no other macronutrient that is. You should tailor your carb intake to suit you.
Some people “cycle” their carbs in an effort to reduce their overall carb intake.
This is called carb cycling.
This article provides an in-depth explanation of the science and applications of carb cycling.
Carb cycling refers to a way of consuming carbs on a daily basis, weekly or monthly basis.
It can be used by people to lose weight, improve their physical performance, or get over a plateau in their weight loss efforts.
People adjust their carb intake daily, while others might consume longer periods of high, low, or moderate carbohydrate intake.
Carb cycling is a way to reduce carbohydrate intake when it’s most beneficial and to exclude carbs when they aren’t needed.
There are many factors that can be used to program your carb intake, including:
* Body composition goals: Some people reduce carbs while on a diet, then add them back in a “muscle building” phase or performance phase.
* Training and rest days: A popular strategy is to eat more carbs on training days, and less on rest days.
* Scheduled Refeeds: This is another popular way to eat a high amount of carbs for a “refeed”, during a long diet.
* Special events and competitions: Many athletes will “carb load” before an event. Bodybuilding shows or photoshoots will also require the same.
* Training type: Each individual will adjust their carb intake based on the intensity and length of a training session. They will consume more carbs if they are doing intense training, or vice versa.
* Body fat levels: Many people will cycle their carbs based on their body fat. They will consume more high-carb days and blocks the leaner they are.
A typical week of carb cycling may have 2 high carb days and 2 moderate carb days.
The intake of protein is generally the same from day to day, while fat intake depends on the carb intake.
High carb days usually mean low fat, while low carb days can be high in fat.
Carb cycling is a more complex diet strategy that requires more programming and manipulation than the typical diet. It is a good idea to consult a registered dietitian to get it right.
Summary: Carb cycling allows you to adjust your carb intake based on many factors.
Carb cycling is an innovative way to eat carbs.
Science is primarily based upon the biological mechanisms of carbohydrate manipulation.
Only a few studies have examined carb cycling diets in controlled trials (7, 8).
Carb cycling is a way to meet your body’s needs for glucose or calories. It provides carbohydrates during intense training sessions or workouts.
High carb days can also replenish muscle glycogen which may increase performance (9, 10).
High carbohydrate periods can also be beneficial for the functioning of the appetite- and weight-regulating hormones ghrelin and leptin (11, 12, 13).
Low carb days can switch your body to a predominantly-fat-based energy system. This may increase metabolic flexibility and allow your body to burn more fat for fuel over the long-term (8).
The manipulation of insulin (13) is another important component of carb cycling.
Low carb days and the targeting of carbs around exercise may increase insulin sensitivity, which is a crucial marker of health (14).
This approach could theoretically support the benefits of carbohydrates.
While carb cycling’s mechanisms support its use, there isn’t enough research to prove it. To determine if carb cycling is safe or effective, more clinical trials with human participants will be needed.
Carb cycling is a method that maximizes the benefits of carbohydrates while teaching your body how to burn fat for fuel. This is a good idea in theory but more research is needed.
Carb cycling is believed to be beneficial in weight loss.
Carb cycling can theoretically help you maintain your physical performance and encourage you to burn fat for fuel.
Weight loss can be achieved in a number of ways, including calorie deficit. This means that your body consumes less calories than it burns over a longer period (15).
You will lose weight if you follow a carb cycling plan and a calorie deficit.
The complexity of carb cycling can cause confusion, making it hard for beginners to follow the plan.
Many people might prefer the flexibility and convenience of carb cycling. This may increase adherence and long-term success.
Carb cycling can help you lose weight as long as there is a deficit in calories
Many believe carb cycling is beneficial for muscle growth and physical performance.
Performance may be improved by regular high-carb periods and targeted carb intake (9).
The consumption of carbs during workouts can help with recovery, nutrient delivery and glycogen replenishment (16-17).
This could promote muscle growth. Research suggests that carbs are not required to build muscle, if there is enough protein (18).
These mechanisms are theoretically sound, but it is necessary to conduct evidence-based research to compare carb cycling with other diets.
However, not all research supports the notion that carb loading can increase athletic performance or muscle growth (19).
There isn’t enough information to be certain (20).
Carb cycling can optimize your performance. Further research is needed.
Carb cycling, as mentioned previously, has the potential for some benefits.
You can reap the potential benefits of both high and low carb diets by alternating between them.
Low carb periods can have benefits such as increased insulin sensitivity, reduced fat burning, better cholesterol levels, and improved metabolic health (8-14-21-22).
Refeeding with high carbs can have positive effects on hormones such as thyroid hormones, testosterone and leptin. You may also experience lower inflammation and an increase in iron use (12, 16, 23, 24).
These factors could play a significant role in long-term success in dieting, since hormones play an important part in appetite, metabolism, exercise performance, and other aspects of the body (24).
Carb cycling can also have its downsides. Complex diets can be difficult to keep up. It is also uncertain if any benefits will last. There isn’t enough evidence for carb cycling to prove that it is safe for your overall health.
Low carb diets may have a variety of health benefits. High carb refeeds can also have positive hormone effects. It is not yet known what long-term effects carb cycling has on your body.
There are many types of carb cycling. These include daily changes or longer periods of high- and low-carb intake.
Here’s a sample week where you can regulate your carb intake daily:
ExerciseCarb intakeFat intakeAmount of carbsMondayweight traininghighlow200 gTuesdayaerobic exercisemoderatemoderate100 gWednesdayrest daylowhigh30 gThursdayweight traininghighlow200 gFridayweight traininghighlow200 gSaturdayrest daylowhigh30 gSundayrest daylowhigh30 gEven more so than a typical diet, carb cycling can take a lot of fine-tuning and adjustment along the way.
To find the right approach for you, your lifestyle, goals, and exercise routine, you can experiment with how many high-carb days per week.
You can also add carb cycling to your low-carb diet by having a refeed. Below are some examples of low carb plans that include occasional high-carb blocks.
Low carb periodHigh Carb periodDays 1-11, 13, 14200-400g per dayweeks 1-4weeks 5150-400g per dailyAs the table indicates, you have two options. You can either refeed every few weeks or go long periods such as a 4-week low-carb phase that includes a 1-week-long refeed.
It will be obvious that carbohydrate intake can fluctuate depending on your activity level, muscle mass and carbohydrate tolerance.
A 3 hour-per-day athlete or 250-pound bodybuilder might need the upper limit, while someone with a moderate level of fitness may only need 150-200 grams.
These are just suggestions. There is no known formula for carb cycling. To create a customized plan for you, it’s best to consult a registered dietetican. Some dietitians specialize in making diet plans for athletes.
Before making any major changes to your diet, you should consult your doctor if you are taking any medication or have any other health issues. People with diabetes may not benefit from carb cycling.
Carb cycling can be done in many ways, from daily changes to monthly feeds. Talk to a registered dietitian about which options are best for you.
Below are three meal plans that can be used to make meals for high, medium, and low carb days. These meals have approximate carbohydrate counts, so they are not exact. To create a plan that is more specific to your needs, consult a dietitian.
Day with high carbohydrate
* Breakfast: 3 eggs boiled, 3 slices Ezekiel bread (or 7-seed/grain) bread with tomatoes, mushrooms and a side dish of mixed fruits (60g carbs).
* Lunch: 6-ounce (oz.) sweet potato, 6 oz. lean meat, fish, mixed vegetables (45g carbs).
* Pre-workout: 1 cup oatmeal, almond milk and 1 cup berries. 1 scoop of whey protein (50g carbs).
* Dinner: 1 portion brown rice, 6 oz. lean chicken, homemade tomato paste, 1 serving kidney beans and mixed vegetables (70g carbs).
Day of moderate carbohydrate
* Breakfast: 1 cup yogurt with high protein, 1 cup mixed fruits, stevia, and 1 tablespoon seed mix (25g carbs).
* Lunch: 6 oz. Chicken salad with 4 oz. Diced potatoes (25g carbs)
* Pre-workout: 1 banana, whey protein shake (30g of carbs).
* Dinner: 1 serving sweet potato fries, 6 oz. lean beef, homemade tomato paste, 1 serving kidney beans and mixed vegetables (40g carbs).
Day of low carb
* Breakfast: 3 eggs, 3 pieces bacon, and mixed vegetables (11 grams carbs).
* Lunch: 6 oz. Salmon salad with 1 tablespoon olive oil (10g carbs)
* Snack: 1 oz. mixed nuts with 1 serving turkey slice (10 grams of carbs).
* Dinner: 6 oz. Steak, half avocado, mixed vegetables (16g carbs)
You should enjoy some carbs in moderation. This includes simple sugars as well as refined carbs found in baked goods, desserts, snacks, and cakes.
There are many healthy carb options that are delicious and full of vitamins and minerals.
These healthier carb options are the best when planning high-carb days.
Carbohydrates to avoid
Don’t label carbs “good” or “bad”. Instead, choose unrefined carbs whenever you can. These include:
* Whole grains: These unmodified grains can be very healthy and have many health benefits. Brown rice, oats and quinoa are just a few examples.
* Vegetables: Each vegetable has a different vitamin and mineral level. To achieve a balanced diet, eat a variety of colors.
* Whole fruits: Every fruit, including berries, is unique. They have high antioxidant levels and low glycemic loads.
* Legumes are great for slow-digesting carbs, as they are rich in fiber and minerals.
* Tubers: This category also includes sweet potatoes and potatoes.
Reduce refined carbs and added sugars. Consume whole foods rich in fiber instead.
Carb cycling can be an effective tool for people who want to improve their diet, performance, and overall health.
Although some research has supported the specific mechanisms of carb cycling, others are mixed. Importantly, there has not been any direct research on long-term carb cycling in humans.
A balanced diet that includes both low- and high-carbohydrate foods may be more beneficial than one that is long-term.
Carb cycling is a method of losing fat by increasing your protein intake and reducing calories.
A dietitian may be able to help you find the right carbohydrate and protocol for your needs. Before changing your diet, consult your doctor if you are taking any medication or have other health conditions like diabetes.