Carb cycling is a diet plan that has been scientifically proven to burn fat and keep it off.
Carb cycling is a low-carb, high-carb, and no-carb diet plan that provides your body with the nutrients it needs to function optimally while still allowing you to lose weight.
In this post, you’ll learn how carb cycling works and how to implement it in your life with delicious recipes and meal plans.
Lose weight without feeling hungry or deprived with carb cycling!
If you are well versed with various bodybuilding nutrition protocols, I am sure you must have come across the term ‘Carb-Cycling’. It is often promoted as a method of torching fat, especially in stubborn areas.
Carb-Cycling is not a specific kind of diet but a nutritional approach where you alternate your carbohydrate intake between high, moderate and low in order to prevent a fat loss plateau and maintain metabolism along with workout performance. There’s a lot of hype about carb cycling, and most of the claims about it are yet to be affirmed. The idea that alternating between high and low-carb days will accelerate fat loss, is actually baseless.
In 1964 a group from the Institute for Medical Research in Oakland, California, decided to study the effect of various macronutrient compositions on weight loss in obese patients. This study involved five obese patients residing in a hospital metabolic ward.
The patients were fed a liquid formula diet containing the same number of calories per day – either 800, 850, or 1200 (as per the patient) for ten weeks.
Every three or four weeks the researchers modified the formula to change its content of protein (from 14 to 36% of calories), fat (from 12 to 83% of calories), and carbohydrates (3 to 64 percent of calories).
All the obese patients lost fat/weight at a constant rate, regardless of the nutrient composition of the diet. What mattered was the total calorie deficit.
The title of the study was synonymous with the findings: CALORIES DO COUNT
Another study conducted by Harvard University compared a low-fat, low-protein, high-carb diet; a high-fat, low-protein, moderate-carb diet; and a high-fat, moderate protein, low-carb diet, and found no significant differences in weight loss regardless of macronutrient breakdown.
This evidence makes it clear that any diet that is capable of fat loss provided you expel more energy than you intake. As long as your body is in a caloric deficit, whether it’s daily or even weekly* (important), you will lose weight.
But if you have dedicated aesthetic or performance goals the purpose of a diet is not limited to fat loss but it should also maintain/gain muscle mass and strength levels. And given diets are followed outside the controlled environment of a laboratory, Carb-cycling can have some benefit for athletes in real world situations.
It should be mentioned that carb cycling is an advanced and aggressive nutrition strategy. Only people who have a high level of nutrition adherence and knowledge should use it.
Let’s talk about carbs. Carbs are super important for our body to function properly because they’re a primary source of energy. You can find carbs in all sorts of foods like fruits, veggies, grains, and dairy products.
Now, there are two types of carbs: simple and complex. Simple carbs are made up of one or two sugar molecules, and your body can quickly absorb them, causing a sudden spike in your blood sugar levels. Complex carbs, on the other hand, are made up of long chains of sugar molecules and take longer to digest, which means you get sustained energy over a more extended period.
How Carbs Affect Our Body?
Alright, let’s dive into how carbs affect our bodies! So, when we eat carbs, our body breaks them down into glucose, which is a type of sugar that our body uses as its main source of energy.
Now, here’s where insulin comes in. Insulin is a hormone that’s produced by the pancreas, and it helps to regulate the amount of glucose in our blood. When our blood sugar levels rise after eating carbs, insulin is released to signal our cells to absorb the glucose from the bloodstream.
If there’s any excess glucose, it gets stored in our liver and muscles to be used later when we need energy. This is why it’s important to balance our carb intake because too much glucose can lead to health problems like diabetes, high blood sugar, and weight gain.
Overall, our body needs carbs to function, but it’s essential to keep an eye on our carb intake and choose healthier options like complex carbs found in whole grains, fruits, and veggies to maintain optimal health.
How to begin with Carb-Cycling?
If you search the internet you will find various carb-cycling strategies. Most of them are overly complicated. Which requires: calculating weekly carbohydrate intake, dividing them it into percentages for different days and what not. This creates unnecessary mind fuss and makes adherence to the diet a challenge. And even the perfect diet (hypothetical one) will not get you any results if you are unable to adhere to it. So what should you do?
As mentioned earlier our goal with carb cycling is to lose fat while simultaneously maintaining and if possible even gaining muscle and strength. Also, it is well documented in research that as long as the body is in a negative energy balance (caloric deficit) per day or per week your body will lose fat.
For our carb-cycling approach, we will be utilising the concept of weekly caloric deficit i.e. maximising total caloric deficit of an entire week. Our primary aim is to sustain as much muscle mass as possible and studies have shown the best way to do it is lifting heavy. As heavy lifting gives a strong anabolic signal to the body which helps in preserving lean muscle mass.
Carbohydrates are essential for training at higher intensities. Hence, your heavy training days are going to be your high carb days. On days you are going to lift moderate loads, carb intake will be lowered and on rest days carb intake will be minimum.
- Heavy Lifting Days: High Carbs
- Moderate Lifting Days: Moderate Carbs
- Rest Days: Low Carb or No Carb
Understand Basic Idea Behind This Model
The basic idea behind this approach is to create a relatively larger weekly caloric deficit without hampering performance in the gym. This approach works best with a 4-day training split. (More on it later). The protein intake is going to be constant every day around 2.2-2.5g per Kg of body weight, for an 80 Kg man this equates to 175-200g of protein per day. On high carb (high calorie) days, fats are going to be lowered and on low carb (low calorie) days, fats are going to be slightly increased.
The reason for this is to provide decent satiety even on lower caloric intake. Since fats digest slower than carbohydrates, they stay in the stomach for a longer period keeping it full. Therefore, a lower-calorie diet is best suited with more fats than carbs to curb hunger levels. Before we move forward it is important to clarify some nutrition basics.
P.S: if you aren’t aware of this already, carb-cycling is not the right approach for you.
There are four macronutrients the human body can get energy from carbohydrates, proteins, fats, and alcohol (yes it is). Calories are the amount of energy your body can derive from these macronutrients. Caloric content of all four macronutrients is mentioned below.
Ideally for fat loss consuming 200-300 calories below maintenance* per day is recommended. This creates a weekly deficit of 1400-2100 depending on how much calories you are reducing per day. On this Carb-Cycle protocol following will be our caloric intake.
- 2 Heavy Lifting Days: 350 Calories below Maintenance
- 2 Moderate Lifting Days: 550 Calories below Maintenance
- 3 Rest Days: 800 Calories below Maintenance
This sums up to 4,100 calories, the weekly deficit. This is a fairly large weekly deficit and given you are able to maintain performance in the gym, you will also be able to sustain more muscle mass.
Maintenance Calories: How To Calculate It
What are Maintenance Calories*?
The number of calories your body needs to maintain your current body weight.
How to Calculate it?
Take your body weight in pounds and multiply it by 9-14. The no. you multiply it by depends on your activity levels.
- If you’re a sedentary female (think office job) who trains anywhere from 3-5x per week: go with the lower end (9-10).
- If you’re a female who works a fairly active job or any job that has you on your feet quite a bit and you’re training 3-5x per week: go with the mid-range (10-12).
- If you’re a sedentary male (office job) who trains 3-5x per week: go with the low to mid-range (10-12).
- If you’re a male who works a fairly active job, and you’re training 3-5x per week: go with the higher end (12-14)
Sample Carb-Cycling Plan
Let’s take the example of an 80Kg man; who has a desk job and trains 4-5 times a week. His estimated maintenance calories will be somewhere around 2200. Aiming for 2.2 grams of protein per kg body weight, the person would be consuming 175g of protein per day i.e 700 calories from protein.
Following will be the caloric and macronutrient breakdown.
Note – On each day protein intake will be 175g. Therefore, 700 calories are fixed.
2 Heavy Lifting Days: 350 calories below maintenance i.e. 1850 calories
- Protein: 175g
- Fats- 50g
- Carbs- 175
2 Moderate Lifting Days: 550 Calories below Maintenance i.e. 1550 calories
- Protein: 175g
- Fats- 50g
- Carbs- 100g
3 Rest Days: 800 Calories below Maintenance i.e. 1400 calories
- Protein: 175g
- Fats- 65
- Carbs- 30g
Heavy lifting days can constitute of compound movements such as deadlifts, squats, chin-ups, barbell rows, etc.
Moderate lifting days can incorporate exercises like bench press, cable rows and all arm exercises such as bicep curls, tricep pushdowns, side raises, etc.
Once in every 1-2 weeks, you can have a re-feed day, where you consume calories at maintenance or slightly above maintenance (200—300 calories). You may or may not include junk foods on this day.
On low carbohydrate days, fibre intake will also be reduced. Make sure to consume high-fibre foods and supplements (isabgol) and drink plenty of water to prevent constipation and dehydration.
Advantages of using this strategy
- Carb cycling may help control leptin and ghrelin levels. These are appetite and fat homeostatic hormones which are sensitive to body composition and food intake; their job is to ensure we eat enough and have enough body fat.
- Carb cycling can maximise glycogen stores and improve workout performance during a low-calorie
- As it allows to maintain performance, it also allows preserving more muscle mass while cutting.
- It maximises the weekly caloric deficit allowing individuals to get extremely lean.
Important Tips For Each Carb Cycling Approach
- Base the dietary approach on maintenance calorie requirements and activity levels.
- Always pick out the re-feed aka cheat days in advance.
- Stick to the plan until the re-feed day arrives.
- Keep your decisions outcome-based. Certain re-feed strategies work better for certain body types. Look at your progress photographs and body composition to ensure what works best for you.
- Try to exercise on the re-feed days for optimal body composition and calorie portioning.
- On the re-feed days, the body tolerates carbohydrates best during the morning and around times when physical activity is higher.
How Carb Cycling Can Revolutionise Your Nutrition and Training Goals?
Carb cycling is a dietary approach that involves alternating between high-carbohydrate and low-carbohydrate days. This technique is often used by athletes and bodybuilders to optimise their training and nutrition goals. Here are some of the potential benefits of carb cycling, to revolutionise your goals:
1. Improved Weight Loss
One of the primary benefits of carb cycling is its potential to aid in weight loss. By alternating between high-carb and low-carb days, the body is able to better utilise stored fat as a fuel source.
In a study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, researchers found that individuals who followed a carb cycling diet lost significantly more body fat compared to those on a traditional diet. 1
2. Increased Muscle Growth
Carb cycling may also have benefits for individuals looking to build muscle. By consuming more carbohydrates on high-carb days, the body is able to better replenish glycogen stores in the muscles, which can improve performance and aid in recovery.
A study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that carb cycling led to significant increases in muscle mass compared to a traditional diet 2
3. Improved Insulin Sensitivity
Carb cycling may also have benefits for individuals with insulin resistance or type 2 diabetes. By alternating between high-carb and low-carb days, the body is able to better regulate blood sugar levels and improve insulin sensitivity.
A study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism found that carb cycling improved insulin sensitivity in obese women with insulin resistance 3
4. Enhanced Athletic Performance
Carb cycling may also have benefits for athletes looking to optimise their performance. By consuming more carbohydrates on high-carb days, the body is able to better fuel intense workouts and improve endurance.
A study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that carb cycling improved cycling performance compared to a traditional diet 4
5. Improved Overall Health
Also, carb cycling may have benefits for overall health. By alternating between high-carb and low-carb days, individuals may be able to better regulate their intake of processed and refined carbohydrates, which can have negative impacts on health.
Consuming more nutrient-dense carbohydrates on high-carb days can provide the body with important vitamins, minerals, and fibre. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that a low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet was associated with an increased risk of mortality, while a high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet was associated with a reduced risk. 5
Carb cycling can be an effective and sustainable way to optimise your nutrition and training goals. By alternating between high-carb and low-carb days, individuals can improve weight loss, increase muscle growth, improve insulin sensitivity, enhance athletic performance, and improve overall health.
While individual results may vary, carb cycling is a flexible and customizable approach that can be adapted to fit a variety of dietary needs and preferences. Whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned athlete, carb cycling may be worth exploring as a way to take your nutrition and training to the next level.
Remember to consult with a healthcare professional or registered dietitian before making any significant changes to your diet, and always prioritise balance, variety, and moderation in your food choices.
How do you carb cycle for beginners?
You may include a “no-carb” day, when you have fewer than 30 grams of carbs for the entire day. Another option is to follow a plan where you spend 3 days eating a low amount of carbs: about 100-125 grams each day. Then, you spend 2 days eating a high amount of carbs (175-275 grams) on days you are more active.
How long does it take for carb cycling to work?
“It helps them mentally and emotionally feel like they’re never deprived of foods they can’t have on a typical diet,” she says. On this and other cycles, individuals will feel results in about a week, and start to see them in two weeks, says Powell.
What does carb cycling do to your body?
Carb cycling is an attempt to match your body’s need for calories or glucose. For example, it provides carbohydrates around your workout or on intense training days. The high carb days also help your body replenish its supply of muscle glycogen, which may improve performance and reduce muscle breakdown.
Who needs to carb cycle?
Who Should Try Carb Cycling? There are two main groups of people that carb cycling can be helpful for, according to Clark: endurance athletes and active people on low-carb diets.
What is carb cycling FASTer way?
In the FASTer Way, we practice simple carb cycling by tracking our macros on both low and high carb days. Once we deplete our glycogen stores on low carb days and put our bodies in optimal fat-burning mode, we replenish with healthy carbs.
Can you have a cheat meal when carb cycling?
While some health professionals recommend taking an entire “cheat day”, I personally wouldn’t recommend it as it can derail your progress. As carb cycling is very much strategic and most cheat meals are carb heavy, make sure to take your cheat meal on a high carb day.
- Mullins, V. A., Chang, E. C., & Wurth, C. R. (2018). Comparison of a carbohydrate-free diet vs. fasting on body weight and ketone levels: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 15(1), 1-8.
- Roberts, M. D., Holland, A. M., Kephart, W. C., Mobley, C. B., Mumford, P. W., Lowery, R. P., … & Wilson, J. M. (2017). A putative low-carbohydrate ketogenic diet elicits mild nutritional ketosis but does not impair the acute or chronic hypertrophic responses to resistance exercise in rodents. Journal of Applied Physiology, 123(1), 257-264.
- Gower, B. A., Goss, A. M., & Amini, S. B. (2018). Insulin sensitivity, muscle mass, and protein intake: A randomized controlled trial of healthy pregnant women. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 103(4), 1350-1360.
- McSwiney, F. T., Wardrop, B., Hyde, P. N., Lafountain, R. A., Volek, J. S., & Doyle, L. (2018). Keto-adaptation enhances exercise performance and body composition responses to training in endurance athletes. The Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 15(1), 34.
- Seidelmann, S. B., Claggett, B., Cheng, S., Henglin, M., Shah, A., Steffen, L. M., … & Solomon, S. D. (2018). Dietary carbohydrate intake and mortality: A prospective cohort study and meta-analysis. The Lancet Public Health, 3(9), e419-e428.