Carb cycling is a relatively new approach to eating and weight loss, but the science behind it makes a lot of sense. If you have tried different diets that you could not stick to, you will understand why carb cycling is so appealing to many.
Also, carb cycling can help you lose weight while building lean muscle, which is something no other diet can claim to do. If you are considering carb cycling, stock up on healthy carbs, fats, and proteins and choose a weekly or monthly plan. Do some due diligence or consult a health professional on the calorie intake suitable for your weight and gender. You can also find dozens of sample eating plans online that offer a variety of healthy and creative suggestions. It’s that simple!
Benefits of Carb Cycling
Carb cycling isn’t ideal for everyone. However, it can prove to be a useful solution in the right circumstances. There are two main groups of people who can benefit from trying out this eating regime: Those who need to lose weight, and those who want to increase their muscle mass while boosting their sporting performance.
Do I Need to Lose Weight?
Some experts suggest that carb cycling is especially beneficial for anyone who needs to lose weight. In theory, this way of eating can help you to maintain your physical performance. It also provides many of the same benefits offered by low-carb diets such as the Atkins regime. These kinds of diets can leave dieters, feeling lethargic, and weak. Therefore, carb cycling provides a clear advantage.
Like any other diet, the primary mechanism behind losing weight is to maintain a deficit of calories. You need to eat less food than the body can burn over an extended period. When you adopt carb cycling along with a deficiency in calorie intake, you’ll almost certainly lose weight.
Carbohydrates aren’t bad for you. However, the role of carbs is to supply an energy source for your body to burn through when you’re active. If you aren’t carrying out enough physical activity and are still eating a lot of carbohydrates, problems arise. Your body ends up storing the excess as fat.
Carbs are a great choice when you’re working out hard in the gym. Your body will burn rapidly through them to produce energy. It burns carbs rather than protein so that this nutrient can boost muscle growth.
If you aren’t training hard, those extra carbs aren’t being burned up quickly. Therefore, the body stores all the unused glucose in the fat cells. This results in you becoming overweight or even obese.
On the other hand, if you restrict carb intake, your body cannot store the excess glucose. Instead, it turns to fats to produce energy rather than starchy or sugary foods. As a result, your body can shed fat, helping you lose weight.
Hoarding additional calories is all well and good if you have a very active lifestyle. Yet, if you aren’t moving around much, you cannot use all those calories. This leads to obesity. You, therefore, need to vary your carb intake from day to day. If you’re going to be hitting the gym, you can eat more carbs. If you’re going to be watching TV for most of the day, you should restrict your intake.
Another reason why carb cycling is so good for weight loss is that it makes it hard to overeat. Foods with a high carb count are usually more indulgent. We all know how hard it is to resist the urge to eat another cookie or a delicious, sugary donut. It’s a lot harder to binge eat on vegetables and proteins. Very few people will over-indulge on chicken or broccoli! Therefore, you’ll be consuming fewer calories and helping your waistline.
As carb cycling is a flexible way to diet, it can be more appealing to dieters. Knowing that you can indulge in carbs occasionally can be attractive. One of the reasons why so many people fail with other diets is because of their restrictive nature. Knowing you can never eat pasta or bread can be off-putting from the start. This leads to dieters giving up after a short while. Carb cycling’s flexibility can encourage these people to adhere to the program. As a result, they’ll lose more weight overall and maintain a healthier body weight.
There is also a critical link between levels of insulin in the blood and carb intake. If there is a high level of insulin in the blood, fat storage becomes more likely. In turn, this hinders effective weight loss. You should take care of changing your carb intake if you’re taking insulin for diabetes. Therefore, talking to a doctor is vital.
Healthy eating must also lie at the heart of any carb cycling plan. It isn’t an excuse to restrict eating to excess or over-indulge on unhealthy food. Meticulous tracking is required to be successful at carb cycling. This can promote an unhealthy attitude towards eating. Therefore, you need to take care to stay in perspective when adopting this regime. If you find it’s negatively affecting your life in this way, you should stop and choose a different eating plan.
Am I a Bodybuilder?
Carb cycling remains a popular strategy for nutrition for athletes and bodybuilders. Those who are physique competitors are especially keen on this way of eating. They depend heavily on no or low carb days in their competition preparation cutting phase. Since glycogen is primarily water, manipulating your carb intake changes the appearance of muscles onstage. Meanwhile, creating a surplus of energy by consuming more carbs promotes better muscle gain.
Many athletes use their way of eating to minimize their fat gain and maximize their muscle gain during training. They must strictly adhere to a daily menu, which is based on their body composition and energy expenditure. Also, a carb cycling program will regulate the amount of fat and protein being consumed.
Higher protein intake is necessary to promote muscle growth during carb cycling. Protein must, therefore, be around 30 percent to 35 percent of daily calorie intake. Carbs in a low phase should be about 10 percent to 15 percent of total consumption. These should primarily be composed of fresh vegetables.
High carb days should fall on days of intense training. This will ensure muscle recovery is faster, and essential nutrients are provided. By having targeted carb intakes and regular periods of high carbs, your performance can improve.
For athletes participating in endurance sports such as swimming, cycling, and running, this is good news. Varying carb intake through the year helps to increase stores of muscle glycogen.
Carb cycling optimizes the carb load, so there’s enough fuel to burn when working out intensively. Nevertheless, excess carbs won’t be stored as far when you’re having a non-workout day.
Elite athletes have been eating this way for some time. They believe it helps them to boost their workout performance. At the same time, they can build muscle while maintaining healthy body weight.
Bodybuilders and athletes who carb cycle also have shorter recovery times. Their glycogen replenishment gets a boost, and nutrients are delivered more effectively. As a result, they can enjoy better gains in the gym.
Is Carb Cycling Suitable for Everyone?
Unfortunately, carb cycling isn’t the answer for everyone. In theory, it should be a suitable way of eating for anyone. However, some people fail to carry it out properly. This could cause health problems and ongoing issues.
When you follow any restrictive diet, you need to be aware of when it’s time to stop. If you continuously crave foods that are “off-limits” and feel guilty if you indulge, this is a red flag. Also, if you find that carb cycling is negatively affecting your attitude and mood, this could be a problem. It’s a sign that this way of eating isn’t for you. Also, if you’re unusually fatigued when carb cycling, this is a sign of stopping.
Anyone who has a history of eating disorders should avoid carb cycling. Restriction and adherence, together with measuring, tracking, and counting, are crucial elements of this diet. Always being aware of carb and calorie intake reinforces disordered eating patterns. This can worsen eating disorders and cause new issues to develop.
People who have certain medical conditions should avoid carb cycling. People who have mood disorders like depression and anxiety may be adversely affected. Changing eating patterns can lead to worse mood swings, which worsen mental health problems.
People suffering from other medical conditions like heart disease and metabolic syndrome should also be wary. This also applies to those who have diabetes. Although carb cycling can be useful for regulating insulin levels, it can be problematic for those on medication. If you’re taking insulin for diabetes already, you must talk to your doctor before trying this diet. Failing to do this could lead to damaging results for your overall health and well-being.
Some other people should also avoid carb cycling. Women who are pregnant, for example, should prevent any diet of this type. They need to have a steady ongoing supply of carbohydrates that are rich in fiber to remain healthy. For the same reason, breastfeeding mothers should also steer clear of this dietary regime.
However, when carb cycling is appropriately followed, it should be a suitable way of eating for everyone. Many dieters find the flexibility of this regime suits their preferences. They can still enjoy carbs occasionally, and this makes them feel less restricted. They also often find that the monotony of a regular diet is reduced.
It’s therefore often recommended that you consult your doctor before trying carb cycling. A medical professional will be able to suggest whether it’s the right choice for you.
What Does Carb Cycling Involve?
Knowing the science behind why carb cycling works is essential for anyone considering adopting this regime. Without understanding the principles of this diet, it’s challenging to follow it correctly. Here, we look at the basics so you can be well informed.
Carb Cycling – The Basics
Carb cycling is relatively new in terms of dietary approaches. It is backed up by science based on carbohydrate manipulation’s biological mechanisms. Yet, few official studies have directly investigated carb cycling diets. Many people have found this regime a successful one, however. Elite athletes have been using this method for years to boost their performance. Dieters are also starting to recognize the benefits.
So, how does carb cycling work? Essentially, this way of eating aims to match up the body’s requirement for glucose or calories. For instance, it supplies carbohydrates on days of intense training or workouts. It achieves this by planning in days of high carbohydrate intake on those days.
High carbohydrate days refuel glycogen in the muscles. This, too, can reduce the breakdown of the muscles and improve sporting performance.
When high-carbohydrate periods are strategically planned, it’s possible to boost the functioning of appetite-regulating hormones. Ghrelin and leptin are both hormones associated with hunger and appetite. Both can be better controlled with carb cycling diets.
On low carbohydrate days, the body switches to a different way of producing energy. Without the glucose from carbs to fuel it, it predominantly begins to burn fat. This, in turn, helps to improve the body’s metabolic flexibility. It also helps the body to adapt more effectively to burning fat as a fuel source over the long-term.
Another significant element in carb cycling is how it allows insulin to be manipulated. If you target your carbs around your workouts, it can improve your body’s sensitivity to insulin. This is a sign of good health. It helps to protect against conditions like diabetes. It also helps to maximize the many benefits that carbohydrates provide.
Is Carb Cycling the Same as Keto?
Many people think that the keto diet and carb cycling are the same things. This isn’t true. Although there are some similarities, the two regimes are very different.
The keto diet is deficient in carbohydrates. It also involves eating a lot of good fats and moderate amounts of protein. The main aim of the keto diet is to burn fat as fuel by getting into ketosis.
Usually, carb cycling involves eating more carbs than you would have in the classic keto diet. It also doesn’t include eating the same large amount of fats. Therefore, ketosis isn’t the aim of a carb cycling regime.
Nevertheless, there are some similarities. Both emphasize the management of carbohydrate intake. Also, both diets involve counting macros. Macros are the specific number of grams of fats, protein, and carbs you eat every day. This means that some people combine both regimes. This is known as keto cycling.
The keto cycling protocol involves eating a keto diet on most days. These will be interspersed with either one or two days of eating more carbs. These are called re-feeding days. They are designed to break the ketosis. By doing this, dieters can receive the benefits of consuming carbohydrates. Their fiber intake is increased, their athletic performance is fueled, and their diet is more varied.
Some nutritional experts say that restricting carbs in the long-term could impact on certain hormones. Insulin and thyroid hormones are vital for healthy body composition.
If you try keto-cycling, balance in these hormones could be better maintained. This provides a distinct advantage over the standard keto diet in which carbs are restricted over an extended period. Not only that, but the common problems associated with keto diets are reduced or eliminated. Issues such as bad breath don’t become prevalent since some carbs are still being consumed regularly.
What Does a Carb Cycling Diet Look Like?
Carb cycling involves tracking macros with a food journal or app. You must work out the number of grams of carbohydrates you’ll need to eat every day. This may not be as easy as you imagined. The amount of carbs you should eat will be individual to you. You need to bear several factors in mind. We’ll look more closely at those later.
For now, let’s take a closer look at what a standard carb cycling diet looks like.
What do I eat on a High Carb Day?
On a high carb day, you will usually obtain around 60 percent of your calories from complex carbohydrates. That means, if you’re eating about 1,500 calories daily, around 900 calories are complex carbs.
If you’re doing high energy workouts like interval training, long-distance running or sprints, you can add in more carbs. These should take the right form, though. You shouldn’t be adding donuts or cake into your regime! Instead, it would be best if you gave yourself an additional serving of legumes, fruits, or whole grains.
The latter are all complex carbs. This means they break down more slowly for a slower release of energy. Simple carbs like sugary cookies and candies break down quickly. This means that you get a super-fast energy rush followed by a crash. It would be best if you primarily ate complex carbohydrates on a carb cycling regime.
If you find that you’re struggling to cope with your athletic workouts, try adding another serving into your diet. It would be best if you only did this on days when you’re hitting the gym, though.
What Do I Eat On A Low Carb Day?
On days when you’re not working out or doing low-key exercise, have a low carb day. On this kind of day, you should switch a couple of your usual carb servings with vegetables. You could also switch some of those carbs with healthy fats or proteins.
Alternatively, you could use a low-carb day as a starting point from which to calculate your high carb days. Usually, 50 grams of carbs daily is enough to reach ketosis. Therefore, you could begin by consuming 50 grams of carbs on low carb days. You can then work up from there, maxing out at 200 grams of carbs daily.
Avoiding the transactional food mindset is very important, however. Thoughts like “30 minutes more running means I can eat more carbs” can be dangerous. It leads to a disordered and challenging relationship with eating and food.
Nevertheless, eating more carbs some days with fewer carbs on other days is how the body regulates itself naturally. Therefore, reducing carbs offers benefits that you can take advantage of.
What Does A Week-Long Carb Cycling Plan Look Like?
The concept of carb cycling involves eating minimal carbs for two days consecutively. This will be followed by a day of eating more carbs. There is a reason for this. When the stored reserves of carbs are due to run out, energy is recharged thanks to a high carb day. This speeds the metabolism and leads to more fat loss. If you reduce your carbs over two days, your fat stores will be used for energy. Your body will also enter a catabolic state. This means the body starts to use muscle tissue to derive energy from the protein in your muscles.
It’s important to know what to eat over a week if you’re planning to carb cycle. Here is a sample seven-day plan to ensure you obtain all the essential nutrients. You’ll also get enough variety, so you don’t get bored with your meals. If you can adhere to this plan for 30 days, you should experience weight loss benefits.
Day 1 – A Low Carb Day
Breakfast: Almond and citrus fruit salad mixed with berries and yogurt.
Snack: An apple and a protein bar.
Lunch: Salad made with 50 grams of quinoa, 100 grams of peas and tomatoes, and two hard-boiled eggs.
Snack: A banana and a scoop of walnuts.
Dinner: A sliced stir-fried chicken breast with sliced carrots, courgettes, and green beans. Served with 70 grams of quinoa.
Snack: Two oatcakes.
Calorie Total – 1880
Carbs Total – 226 grams
Protein Total – 108 grams
Fat Total – 67 grams
Day 2 – Low Carb Day
Breakfast: Seed and apple muesli made with two tablespoons of rolled oats, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, and pumpkin seeds. Served with two tablespoons of natural yogurt and a small apple.
Snack: A banana and scoop of walnuts.
Lunch: A whole meal pitta stuffed with half an avocado, one tablespoon of cottage cheese and tuna.
Snack: A pear.
Dinner: A grilled salmon steak with half a sliced lime on top. Served with 100 grams broccoli, 70 grams of quinoa and 75 grams of peas.
Snack: An apple.
Calorie Total – 1891
Carbs Total – 170 grams
Protein Total – 131 grams
Fat Total – 81 grams
Day 3 – High Carb Day
Breakfast: 60 grams of oats, soaked in water with 200 grams of berries. Serve with a pot of natural yogurt and a tablespoon of sunflower seeds.
Snack: A peach.
Lunch: A baked potato stuffed with a tablespoon of hummus. Serve with salad made from sliced cucumber, tomato, red pepper and mixed leaves. A banana.
Snack: A protein bar and an apple.
Dinner: A grilled cod fillet served with 250 grams of boiled potatoes, 100 grams of carrots and peas.
Snack: Three oatcakes.
Calorie Total – 1801
Carbs Total – 323 grams
Protein Total – 78 grams
Fat Total – 40 grams
Day 4 – Low Carb Day
Breakfast: three eggs beaten with two tablespoons of natural yogurt. Add half a red pepper, half a courgette and half an onion as well as one tablespoon of peas. Cook in a pan.
Snack: An apple and a handful of pumpkin seeds.
Lunch: A can of salmon mixed with a can of butter beans. Serve with a salad of lettuce leaves, tomato, sugar snap peas, and onion.
Snack: A nectarine.
Dinner: A grilled turkey breast with grilled courgette, carrot, red pepper, and onion.
Snack: A banana and 80 grams of grapes.
Calorie Total – 1812
Carbs Total – 159 grams
Protein Total – 143 grams
Fat Total – 72 grams
Day 5 – Low Carb Day
Breakfast: Two boiled eggs with two whole meal pitta slices spread with Marmite and butter.
Snack: An apple and a pear.
Lunch: Avocado and tuna mash served with salad leaves, cucumber, tomato, carrot, and courgette.
Snack: A peace and an oatcake topped with cucumber and cottage cheese.
Dinner: A can of salmon mixed with a can of chopped tomatoes, tomato puree, carrot, red pepper, and courgettes. Simmered for 10 minutes and served.
Snack: A banana.
Calorie Total – 1804
Carbs Total – 165 grams
Protein Total – 124 grams
Fat Total – 77 grams
Day 6 – High Carb Day
Breakfast: 5 tablespoons of natural yogurt. Mix with 50 grams of rolled oats, 200 grams of berries, 1 tablespoon of honey and a sliced pear.
Snack: A whole meal pitta bread stuffed with a tomato and cottage cheese.
Lunch: A chickpea salad made with half a can of chickpeas.
Snack: Four oatcakes with sliced apple and peanut butter.
Dinner: A grilled chicken breast with steamed broccoli, 70g quinoa and 100g green beans.
Snack: A banana.
Calorie Total – 1845
Carbs Total – 249 grams
Protein Total – 122 grams
Fat Total – 44 grams
Day 7 – Low Carb Day
Breakfast: Two poached eggs with two portobello mushrooms and two tomatoes.
Snack: A pot of natural yogurt, an orange and a peach.
Lunch: A pitta stuffed with cottage cheese, avocado, cucumber, tomato, lettuce, and peanut butter.
Snack: An apple with a handful of sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds.
Dinner: Poached salmon with a courgette, 200 grams tomatoes and sugar snap peas.
Snack: A banana and two oatcakes.
Calorie Total – 1820
Carbs Total – 157 grams
Protein Total – 98 grams
Fat Total – 94 grams
How Does Carb Cycling Help with Weight Loss?
Carb cycling can help with weight loss by maximizing how the body uses fuel. When you adopt this diet, you eat fewer carbs for two days, then have a day of eating more carbs. How you alternate between high and low carb days varies depending on how much activity you’re doing. You benefit from the carb fuel you get on the days when you’re working out. Meanwhile, you benefit from low carbs if you’re not active.
As you work out, the body dips into its carbohydrate stores to find energy. This means you should align high carb days with training days. This means your body can use the fuel to its best advantage. It also means that the additional energy allows you to work out for longer. You’ll, therefore, burn more calories as a result. On rest days, carbs can be scaled back. This will reduce the number of empty calories you consume and help you lose weight.
Imagine your weight is 175 pounds. You could aim to have two grams of carbs for every pound of your weight on a high carb day. That would be around 350 grams. On low carb days, you could reduce this to approximately one gram per pound of your weight. This would take your carb intake down to 175 grams.
That doesn’t mean there’s a set amount of carbs you can eat on each type of day. Mostly, it depends on what workout you’re doing. It also depends on how frequently you’re working out. You’ll find plenty of advice online. However, you’ll need to tailor your carbohydrate intake to your own needs.
Your metabolism will decrease or increase depending on your macronutrient and calorie intake. If you eat enough carbs at the correct time, your metabolism is reset. This triggers your body to release leptin and thyroid. These are hormones that regulate your body weight.
The SAD (Standard American Diet) is very heavy in carbs. This can produce a negative effect, stimulating the release of insulin too often. As a result, weight gain can occur, and conditions like diabetes can develop.
Low carb days encourage your body to use all its glycogen (stored carbs). It switches to burning ketones (body fat) as fuel. When stored fat is burned, weight is naturally lost.
Every carb cycling diet plan is different. You need to choose the one that meets your own goals. A standard plan will keep your carb intake very low for two to three days. It will then increase your carb intake for a day. That day should involve some intense activity.
On a low carb take, your carbohydrate intake should be around 50 grams to 150 grams. It should come from dairy and non-starchy vegetables. On a high carb day, you can have about 400 grams of carbs. These can come from starchy carbs, fruit, and whole grains as well as dairy and non-starchy vegetables.
Types of Carb Cycling
Carb cycling represents an approach to dieting in which carb intake is alternated. There are no hard and fast rules about the basis on which you do this. Some people alternate daily, while others alternate on a monthly or weekly basis. Some people do long periods of high, moderate, and low carb diets. Others vary their approach on a day to day basis.
This means that there is no single type of carb cycling to suit everyone. Everyone should program their carb intake. They can do this to suit a range of factors. These include:
- Your own body composition goals
- Your rest days and training days
- Your scheduled refeeds
- Whether you’re attending a competition or special event
- The type of training you’re undertaking and its intensity
- Your body fat level
Some carb cycling approaches involve two days of low carbs, followed by a day of high carbs. This pattern repeats.
Another approach is to have two days of high carb intake followed by two days of moderate carbs. There will then be three days of low carbs before returning to the beginning of the cycle.
Usually, the protein intake will remain similar between all days. Fat intake, meanwhile, will vary depending on the consumption of carbohydrates. High carbohydrate days mean generally low-fat. Low carb days mean high fat.
Another approach involves adjusting your carb intake week on week. For example, you may eat a low carb diet for 11 days in a row. You may then have high carbs for the following three days before returning to the beginning of the cycle.
There is even a monthly adjustment approach. This involves eating low carbs for four weeks and then having a week of high carbs for the fifth week.
As you can see, there are many variations of carb cycling. That means some individual experimentation and trial and error will be required. Over time, you’ll eventually find the right formula to suit you.
- A quick overview of some of the most common carb cycling approaches is as follows:
- An infrequent, large refeed. This involves increasing carb intake every one to two weeks during a low carb intake phase.
- Moderate frequent refeeds. This involves increasing carb intake every three to four days in a low carb intake phase.
- Strategic carb cycling. This involves structuring menus with a moderate carb intake at specific, strategic intervals in a low carb intake phase. When you follow this approach, you’ll steer away from very high carb intake. It will, therefore, allow your metabolism to catch up to your dietary intake.
Carb cycling to gain muscle. Anyone who wants to gain muscle mass will require a calorie surplus. However, when you over-consume calories in the long-term, bodyfat gain is almost inevitable. Carb cycling allows muscle gain to be optimized over fat gain. Like strategic carb cycling, menus must be planned to match your weekly schedule. This will enable you to make a temporary surplus of calories to boost strength and lean mass gains.
Which Foods Are Good On A Carb Cycling Regime?
Before embarking on a carb cycling regime, you need to know more about what carbs are. You also need to know which ones are suitable to eat on this type of diet. Carbohydrates often have negative connotations. However, not all carbs are bad for you. Carbohydrates are essential in supplying energy. Here, we take a closer look at which ones you should be enjoying as part of your carb cycling lifestyle.
What Are Good Carbs?
Alongside fats and proteins, carbs are one of the three main macronutrients. Carbs are needed to supply energy to the brain and body. Whenever you eat carbs, they’re broken down during digestion into sugars. These sugars are then absorbed into the bloodstream. In response to the boost in blood sugar levels, the body releases insulin.
It is needed to shuttle the sugar (called glucose at this stage) to the cells. This allows a quick energy boost to fuel activity. Carbohydrates also get stored in the liver and muscles as glycogen. This is a stored type of glucose. However, excess glucose also gets stored as fat. Therefore, lots of people think that carbohydrates are bad for them.
Not all carbohydrates are equal. There are three primary types of carbohydrates: fiber, starch and sugar. Sugar is by far the simplest type. Fiber and starch are both complex carbohydrates. This means they are more challenging to break down in the body. It takes longer and therefore; you’ll feel full for longer when you eat complex carbs. Processed or refined carbohydrates are less fibrous and starchy. They are more sugary and have less nutritional value.
Processed carbs can be ditched from your diet when you’re carb cycling. However, whole foods that are rich in carbs should stay in your diet. Potatoes and starchy vegetables such as carrots and squash are complex carbohydrates that are good for you. Whole grains such as brown rice and quinoa and legumes such as lentils and beans are also good choices. Even foods containing natural sugars such as milk and fruit have a place in carb cycling diets.
These wholefoods have nutritional merits. They contain vital minerals and vitamins. Therefore, although the word carbohydrates often produce images of sugary food that is unhealthy, this isn’t always the case. Complex carbs have a vital role to play in ensuring you have a healthy lifestyle.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that all carbohydrates can be included in a carb cycling diet. Some should always be avoided except as occasional treats. Yet there are lots of healthy sources of carbohydrate which have lots of beneficial minerals, vitamins and fiber. They also taste great. Therefore, when planning out a high carb day menu, you shouldn’t see it as an excuse to binge on cookies. Instead, put your focus on healthy complex carb choices.
Some recommended good carbohydrates include:
- Wholegrains – unmodified grains have many health benefits. They’re very healthy and include quinoa, oats, and brown rice.
- Vegetables – all vegetables have different mineral and vitamin content. You should eat many different colors to obtain the right balance.
- Unprocessed fruit-like vegetables, all fruits are unique. Berries are exceptionally healthy since they have a low glycemic load and high antioxidant content.
- Legumes – these complex carbs are digested slowly. They are packed with minerals and fiber.
- Tubers – sweet potatoes and white potatoes are also complex carbs. They are slowly digested so you’ll feel full for longer.
How do you identify which carbohydrates are good ones? They will be:
- High in fiber
- Unprocessed with no natural ingredients removed
- Slow to digest
Bad carbs, on the other hand will be:
- Found in very processed foods
- High in sugar
- Containing white flour
- Low in fiber content
What would be good examples of carbs to eat at each stage of your carb cycling plan?
On a no-carb day you should eat:
- Vegetables that are high in fiber like asparagus, leafy greens, mushrooms and broccoli
- Lean protein
- Good fats
You should avoid eating:
- Starchy carbs. These include oats, rice, potatoes, and cereal. They also include starchy vegetables like squash, pumpkin, zucchini, and beans. Your total intake of carbs should be under 25 grams per day. All of these should come from fiber-filled vegetables.
On low carb days, you should eat:
- Fibrous vegetables
- Two to three servings of starch. All should be from clean sources like sweet potatoes, brown rice, fruit, starchy vegetables and oats. They should be free from dairy, soy and gluten. Starchy carbs should be eaten after your workout for the best results.
On high carbohydrate days you should eat:
- Up to 200 grams of carbs for a woman or 300 grams for a man. The total amount will vary to suit your activity level and size.
- Lots of lean protein.
- Plenty of healthy fats.
High carbohydrate days shouldn’t be an excuse for binge eating. They are a way of systematically resetting your fat-burning and muscle-building hormones. Most of the fats should be from a clean source. However, if you’re going to cheat, make sure to do it on one of these high carb days.
There are misconceptions that foods like pasta are banned from carb cycling diets. This isn’t strictly true. If you put any food off-limits, you’ll just want to binge on it more. You can have foods like pasta.
However, if you’re going to eat starchy foods that have little fiber and micronutrition, you’ll need to eat them strategically. It would be best if you only had them after you’ve worked out. This is because your insulin sensitivity will be highest at that time. Your body will, therefore, be able to use them at their best at this time. They’re less likely to be converted into fat in the body and stored.
Good Fats and Proteins
On a high carb day, your focus should remain on complex carbs. It would help if you avoided simple carbs. Complex carbohydrates help you stay full for longer. They all contain more nutrients and vitamins. On a no-carb day, you can’t just cut out starch and sugar, though. It would help if you replaced those missing calories, which you’d usually derive from carbs with something else. Good fats are a good substitute.
Of course, not all fats are good fats. Carb cycling is different from a keto diet. In the keto lifestyle, consuming all fats is encouraged. Even sources of saturated fat such as cheese and bacon can be eaten freely. On a carb cycling regime, these sources should be avoided. Good fats that are focused on omega-3 fatty acids can be eaten freely. You can find these in healthy sources such as avocados, chia seeds, fish, and olives.
Experts often recommend medium-chain triglycerides such as MCT oil on a carb cycling regime. These stimulate your neurological functions even on days when you’re not eating carbs.
As well as good fats, you should make sure to eat plenty of lean protein. Protein contains no carbohydrates. Therefore, it can be eaten freely even on a no-carb day. Eggs, lean chicken and fish are all good choices. They will help you feel full while boosting muscle growth.
Sample Carb Cycling Programs
As we’ve already pointed out, there are many kinds of carb cycling program. This makes it hard to decide how you’re going to go about getting started. If you’re ready to put a carb cycling plan of your own in place, here are some sample regimes. They will help you to decide which work best for you.
Two of the most popular programs are:
- The High/Low Program
- The High/Medium/Low Program
Let’s look at the High/Low Program first.
This method involves having a high carbohydrate day then a low carb day. A high carbohydrate day consists of eating more than 150 grams of carbs. A low carbohydrate day involves eating under 100 grams of carbs. The exact measurements and requirements will vary to suit each dieter.
However, let’s imagine we’re planning a program for a 29-year-old male. Imagine he weighs 190 pounds and is 5 feet 8 inches tall. The total number of calories he needs to maintain weight is 190 x 15 i.e., 2850. He also weight trains three days a week. We’re going to look at a few programs to suit his statistics to meet different goals.
Firstly, let’s look at a suitable program for him if he wanted to lose fat.
With this goal in mind, he would need three days of high carbohydrates. These would be at the level of calories required for maintenance. He would then follow this by four days of low carb eating. These four days would all be 600 calories below this maintenance figure. He would choose his three weight training days as his high carbohydrate days. His non-workout days would be his low carbohydrate days.
His program would, therefore, look something like this:
Training day intake – 2850 calories
Protein intake – 190 grams
Carbohydrate intake – 375 grams
Fat intake – 65 grams
Rest day intake – 2250 calories
Protein intake – 190 grams
Carbohydrate intake – 100 grams
Fat intake – 120 grams
His total deficit of calories every week would be 600 x 4 i.e., 2400 calories. This would help him to lose just under 1 pound of fat every week. While this may not sound impressive, it’s important to remember that rapid fat loss isn’t the only goal. The more quickly fat is lost, the higher the chance of losing muscle too. This is the opposite of the aim of carb cycling.
What about if the same individual wanted to try carb cycling to gain muscle?
In this case, his calorie intake needs to be adjusted slightly. He needs a surplus of calories in this instance. This will help him to recover after working out. It’ll also promote more muscle tissue growth. His goal is to have a surplus of 300 calories on his training days. On his low carb days, he’ll stay at his recommended maintenance intake. His program would, therefore, look like this:
Training day intake – 3150 calories
Protein intake – 190 grams
Carbohydrate intake – 440 grams
Fat intake – 70 grams
Rest day intake – 2850 calories
Protein intake – 190 grams
Carbohydrate intake – 300 grams
Fat intake – 100 grams
You’ll probably notice that the carb intake on a low carb day is surprisingly high. Earlier, we said the carb intake on a low carb day should be under 100 grams. Yet, in this case, the individual has a high energy expenditure. Therefore, avoiding excess fat is essential. Fat can be stored easily when there’s a caloric surplus. Therefore, avoiding overeating fat is vital to prevent fat gain. Meanwhile, carbs are essential to refill muscle glycogen and promote recovery. This aids in training performance.
With this program, the individual is cycling carbs, however not so drastically as he would lose weight.
Some people find keeping carb intake to under 100g on their low carb days helps them to stay leaner. However, caloric intake must be kept at the same level overall, even on off days. This will ensure a net caloric surplus is maintained over the entire week.
What about the high/medium/low method?
Well, this involves having a high carbohydrate day then a medium carbohydrate day. Finally, a low carbohydrate day will follow on. The cycle will then repeat. A high carbohydrate day involves eating over 150 grams of carbs. A medium carbohydrate day involves eating between 100 grams and 150 grams of carbs. A low carbohydrate day involves eating under 50 grams of carbs.
Now, let’s imagine our dieter. She’s a 31-year-old woman who is 5 feet 5 inches tall. She weighs 150 pounds and works out three days per week doing weight training. Her total calories for maintenance are 150 x 15 (2250).
If she wants to lose fat, this is a sample carb cycling plan for her.
She should have two days of high carb intake. The calorie intake will be set at her maintenance level of 2250 calories. On her two medium carb days, her caloric intake will be 300 calories under this level. On her two low carb days, her caloric intake will be 600 calories under her maintenance level. Rather than aligning the high carbohydrate days with her training days, the intake is: staggered. Training should be carried out on medium and high carb days though, not low carb days.
Her program will, therefore, look like this:
High carb day intake – 2250 calories
Protein intake – 150 grams
Carbohydrate intake – 245 grams
Fat intake – 75 grams
Medium carb day intake – 1950 calories
Protein intake – 150 grams
Carbohydrate intake – 150 grams
Fat intake – 80 grams
Low carb day intake – 1650 calories
Protein intake – 150 grams
Carbohydrate intake – 50 grams
Fat intake – 95 grams
Over the week, the plan could look like this:
Monday – training day – high carb
Tuesday – training day – medium carb
Wednesday – rest day – low carb
Thursday – training day – high carb
Friday – rest day – medium carb
Saturday – rest day – low carb
Sunday – rest day – low carb
If the same individual wanted to gain muscle through carb cycling, the plan would look different. A caloric surplus will be necessary, so muscle tissue can grow and recover. Therefore, a 200-calorie surplus will be required on a training day. On rest days, she should eat the number of calories needed for maintenance.
Her program will, therefore, look like this:
High carb day intake – 2450 calories
Protein intake – 150 grams
Carbohydrate intake – 340 grams
Fat intake – 55 grams
Medium carb day intake – 2450 calories
Protein intake – 150 grams
Carbohydrate intake – 240 grams
Fat intake – 100 grams
Low carb day intake – 2250 calories
Protein intake – 150 grams
Carbohydrate intake – 150 grams
Fat intake – 115 grams
You may have noticed the medium carb day requirement is higher than suggested earlier. The same reasons apply in this case, as applied in the above example. Eating excessive dietary fat in such circumstances can lead to the storage of fat. Therefore, avoiding overeating fat helps to prevent fat gain. Carbs are vital in recovery and in refilling the muscle glycogen. This helps to boost training performance.
The individual in question here is still carb cycling. However, her plan isn’t as drastic as it would be if she wanted to lose fat. If you use this method to gain muscle mass, you can adjust the carb and fat numbers to suit you.
Some people find if they keep their carbohydrates to under 100g on rest days, they stay leaner. This may work for you, but you’ll still need your caloric intake to remain at the maintenance level even on rest days. This will ensure you’re in a caloric surplus overall during the week.
The key nutrient for maintaining and gaining muscle is protein. Nevertheless, it doesn’t have to be exceptionally high, whether you want to gain muscle or reduce fat. 1g of protein for each pound of your body weight is ideal. Fat and carb totals are important too. However, they can be tailored to your energy expenditure and preferences.
How about if you want to maintain your body weight? You can still achieve this goal with carb cycling. You simply need to choose one of the above methods. You then adjust your rest day and training day intakes, so they balance out over the week. One way of doing this is to consume 200 calories more than your recommended maintenance level on a training day. On a rest day, you should have 200 calories under this figure. So, if your maintenance intake is 2500 calories, you’d have 2700 on training days and 2300 on a rest day.
How do I get Started with Carb Cycling?
Although the idea of carb cycling is appealing, it isn’t very easy to know how to get started. This way of eating can be quite complicated. Therefore, you need to know as much as possible about carbohydrates and how they work in the body. You also need to understand how to choose the right carb cycling plan for you.
The information we’ve provided earlier will help you to determine the right program for you. However, you could probably benefit from a few expert tips to get you off to the right start. Here is some good advice to point you in the right direction.
First, we’ll look at how to avoid the significant pitfalls of carb cycling. Here are some of the most common:
- Focusing solely on carbs while ignoring other macros. Some people are confused by the name “carb cycling.” It’s a misnomer. Carb cycling isn’t only about carbohydrates. It’s about balancing your calorie intake over the week. If carb intakes are lowered on a rest day, more protein and fat need to be eaten to compensate. It’s only by doing this that fat loss can be maintained in the long term.
You need to know the number of calories you need to consume to maintain weight first. This enables you to plan how much you need to adjust your intake to suit each rest or training day. On a rest day, take 10 percent to 20 percent off your calorie intake from carbohydrates but don’t increase your protein or fat intake. There are four calories in each gram of carbohydrate. Therefore, if you eat two thousand calories each day, cut your intake of carbs by 50 grams on rest days.
- Your calorie intake is varying too much. The 10 percent to 20 percent rule applies explicitly to carbs. However, it would be best if you didn’t ever have over 33 percent difference in the total amount of calories consumed over the week. Too much variance hurts recovery. It also makes it more challenging to adhere to the carb cycling regime. You can remedy this by eating a minimum of 68 percent of your usual energy intake on low carb days.
- You’re using your high carb days as a cheat day. High output days aren’t an excuse to eat anything you like. If you do this regularly, unhealthy eating habits start to set in. You can fix this by focusing mainly on foods that are dense in nutrients.
Eat more whole foods such as oats and potatoes on your high carb days. Eat more nuts and eggs on your low carb days. You’ll feel full but won’t ruin your overall regime.
Now you know what to avoid, here are some tips for every carb cycling program.
- Base your chosen dietary approach on your activity level and basal calorie needs.
- Choose your refeed days well in advance.
- Always adhere to your regime until your refeeding day.
- Keep all your decisions based on the outcome—different strategies for refeeding work best for different body types. You should take body composition tests to check you’re on the best track for you.
- Exercise on your refeeding days. This will ensure the best body composition results.
- On refeed days eat more carbs in the morning and at times when you’re doing a lot of physical activity.
- On low carbohydrate days, eat more leafy greens. They are virtually free of calories but add more bulk to your plate. You’ll find a full-looking plate more satisfying.
- Eat wholefood fats on low carb days. Coldwater fish, nuts, grass-fed butter, eggs, avocado, and coconut oil are all good choices.
- Measure your carbs and fats. This will help you to track how many calories you consume. On a typical day, measure your carbs too. A lot of the time, we underestimate how much protein we’re eating and overestimate the amount of fat and carbs.
- Don’t reduce carbs without eating more fat. Your body requires either fats or carbs for energy. That means you’ll need to fuel up for the day in one way or the other.
- Avoid skipping meals. You might be tempted to avoid eating to lose more weight on average or low carb days. This is a bad idea. It could result in your body breaking down more muscle.
- Avoid winging it. Deciding to try carb cycling is very different to the reality of doing it. You’ll need to be dedicated and keep detailed records of your intake at each meal. You’ll need to do this every day for weeks on end. There’s no way to look at an ingredient and know its calorie and macronutrient contents. Therefore, you’ll need to measure and record accordingly. Apps such as MyPlate and My Fitness Pal are good for this.
- Always choose foods that support your overall well-being, even on high carb days. Huge mounds of pasta and white bread, gallons of sugary drinks and tons of cake won’t help your health. Opt for complex carbs that are rich in fiber instead. Quinoa, wholegrain bread and oatmeal are all filling and satisfying. They’re also good for your health.
- Indulge occasionally. Just because you should be eating most of the time healthily doesn’t mean you can never indulge. If you forbid yourself from eating desserts or bagels, you’ll just end up craving them. As a result, you’ll end up cheating more and ruining your diet. It could also lead to a damaging relationship with eating and food over time. If you choose complex carbs on most high carb days, you can have the odd cookie or candy bar.
- Talk to an expert. Nutrition can be a complex subject, nuanced for everyone. Working closely with a professional could, therefore, be a good idea. A nutritionist will be able to draw up a personalized diet plan which is based on your needs. It will be tailored to suit your specifications, your goals and your activity level. This will ensure you get all the right nutrients but still achieve your chosen outcomes.