Carb cycling has been discussed a lot lately in the health and fitness world, and for good reason, many people have seen great results by implementing this nutrition technique. But, like with any diet or lifestyle plan, it’s certainly not for everyone.
I'm Tami, a Certified Macro Coach, Nutritionist and Certified Personal Trainer, and I've been counting macros for a few years!
Those who swear by carb cycling believe that it can help you to achieve accelerated fat loss, avoid frustrating weight loss plateaus, and build muscle without building fat in the process. But do these claims work for everyone?
The point of this article is to explain what carb cycling is so that you understand it enough to make a decision as to whether or not it’s a good strategy to use.
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What Is Carb Cycling?
Carb cycling is the practice of fluctuating between eating low-carb and high-carb foods. Most commonly, those who utilize carb cycling will eat fewer carbs on certain days and more carbs on other, alternate days. This concept also tends to relate to calorie cycling. Typically, you will eat fewer calories on low-carb days and more calories on your high-carb days.
The majority of people who carb cycle follow this type of schedule:
- Low carb and low-calorie days - Non-workout days
- High carb and high-calorie days - Workout days
In contrast, some people carb cycle within the same day, they will eat high carbs around their workout and then eat low carb foods for the remainder of the day.
Carb cycling requires an understanding of what macros are as well as knowledge around how to count macros for fat loss, therefore, this is more of an intermediate to advanced nutrition strategy that might not be suitable for macro beginners.
As a result, the most prevalent population of carb cyclers are those that are highly motivated athletes, bodybuilders, and those who are serious about how their bodies perform and feel. That said, anyone can give carb cycling a try, but know that it’s a more advanced strategy that will take some time and effort to execute properly.
Why Only Cycle Carbs and Not the Other Macros?
Cycling carbs has been shown to have a positive impact on your hormones, whereas trying to do so with your fats and/or protein is more likely to have a negative effect on your hormones.
When we drop too low with our protein and fats, we tend to see negative side effects, more so than we do when we limit carbs. For example, for females especially, going too low on fat can adversely impact their menstrual cycle. And if your protein intake is too low, you can lose some of your hard-earned muscle and experience mood swings.
5 Proposed Benefits of Carb Cycling
In theory, there are several reasons why some people choose to implement carb cycling into their diets. However, it’s important to keep in mind that there are very few studies that have been conducted on humans in relation to carb cycling, so keep this in mind as you navigate these proposed benefits as they are only anecdotal.
Carb cycling might be able to help:
1. Keep your metabolism running during fat loss
When in a fat loss phase, our bodies experience metabolic adaptation, which means that we will need to keep decreasing our calories if we want to continue to see fat loss (or else we will need to start a reverse diet plan).
Proponents of carb cycling claim that this approach to dieting can help to prevent metabolic adaptation. By mixing in high-carb days and high-calorie days, you’re essentially jumpstarting your metabolism to prevent it from adapting.
2. Regulate hormones that are affected by fat loss
Leptin is a hormone that’s released by fat tissue and it plays a key role in your hunger and metabolic adaptation. The more fat you have, the more leptin will be in your blood. Your brain uses those leptin levels to make decisions regarding hunger, calorie intake, nutrient absorption, and energy use.
When you reduce your caloric intake, even for a brief period of time, your leptin levels drop. This sends a signal to your brain that you need to eat in order to prevent starvation. Carb cycling comes into play when we consider that eating more calories from carbs on high carb days will allow our leptin levels to rise, thereby letting your brain know that you are well-fed, creating a decrease in hunger.
3. Sticking with a low-carb diet
Low-carb diets can be effective for fat loss, however, most people find it very hard to adhere to the low-carb protocol for long periods of time. It’s been suggested that alternating between lower-carb and higher-carb days may help people to maintain their lower-carb lifestyle.
When carb cycling, many people find that they can push through their lower-carb days knowing that they have higher-carb days on the horizon.
4. Support athletic performance
Eating a lower-carb diet on some days can help your body become “fat adaptive,” which means that your body relies more heavily on fat for fuel as opposed to carbs, especially for long endurance exercises like running or cycling.
Carb cycling fits in here by allowing your body to get fat-adapted by eating low-carb for several days and then cycling in a couple of higher-carb days to increase your glycogen stores. Basically, the idea is that you would get the best of both worlds, plenty of energy to burn from both carbs and fats.
5. Muscle gain vs fat gain
When gaining muscle, you almost always will need to gain a little fat as well. However, there are many carb cycling die-hards who believe that you can gain muscle without gaining fat by controlling your insulin levels.
When you eat carbs, your blood sugar rises, signaling your body to release insulin. Insulin helps to control your blood sugar levels as well as play a role in muscle growth and glycogen stores. Carb-cycling fans look at it this way:
When you eat high carbs on days when you strength or resistance train, you can take advantage of insulin’s muscle-building and recovery properties. When you eat low carbs on rest days or cardio workout days, you will lose fat while also improving your insulin sensitivity.
What Should My Macros Be For Carb Cycling?
Generally speaking, it’s recommended that you get around 50-55% of your daily calories from carbs, 10-15% from protein, and less than 28% from fats. On higher carb days, you would plan to eat 2-2.5 grams of carbs for every pound of your body weight. Your higher carb days would typically fall on your heavy training days.
On your off days or more cardio-focused days, you can use a lower-carb approach where you might eat around .5 grams of carbs for every pound of body weight. Some people also include a “no-carb” day here and there where they consume 30 grams or less of carbs for the entire day.
You might need to do a lot of experimenting with your high and low-carb days to find the place that feels right for you and that gives you the best results.
Carb Cycling Might Be Right For You If…
- You already have the big, foundational habits of a healthy lifestyle and nutrition plan locked down.
- You are already lean but have a desire to get leaner and more defined.
- You are looking to manage your training and nutritional stress.
- You are trying to lose weight and improve your physique for competition.
- You want to make incremental muscle gains.
- You don’t tolerate carbs well.
- You enjoy carb cycling and find it to be worth it.
Carb Cycling Might NOT Be Right For You If…
- You struggle with or are inconsistent with your nutrition.
- You don’t like tracking and find it to be tedious (carb cycling is even more so).
- You don’t have any big weight loss or physique goals.
- You love carbs.
Final Thoughts: Does Carb Cycling Workout For Weight Loss?
Although there is a lack of scientific evidence and research into the topic of carb cycling, there are countless people who swear by it and have seen tremendous results. At the end of the day, it’s a very personal decision and one that should be made only after making sure that you have the basics of your fitness and nutrition nailed down first.
If you’re brand new to tracking macros and are still getting your feet wet with hitting your daily targets, it’s probably not the best time to complicate it by adding in the additional task of juggling high and low carb days.
However, if you’re at a place in your fitness and nutrition journey where you feel like you’d like to experiment with making some shifts and changes to take it to the next level, giving carb cycling a try might be worth your while.
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