Carbohydrates often get demonized in many popular diets such as the Atkins diet, the ketogenic diet, and the South Beach diet, but carbohydrates are also a key macronutrient for fueling exercise, and carbohydrates are a major source of energy for many people.
For this reason, rather than exclude or pare back carbohydrates altogether, some people choose to vary their carbohydrate intake either from day to day or to strategically time their intake of carbohydrates around activities where they need them.
This practice is known as carb cycling.
Most people turn to carb cycling for weight loss, and it can be an effective diet plan for some.
In this guide, we will discuss carb cycling for weight loss, the benefits of carb cycling, and how to carb cycle for weight loss.
We will cover:
- What Is Carb Cycling For Weight Loss?
- What Are the Benefits of Carb Cycling?
- Does Carb Cycling Increase Weight Loss?
- How to Carb Cycle for Weight Loss
- Carb Cycling for Weight Loss Plan
Let’s get started!
What Is Carb Cycling For Weight Loss?
Carb cycling involves alternating between days where you follow a high-carbohydrate diet and days where you restrict your carbohydrate intake and follow a low-carb diet.
People who practice carb cycling for weight loss don’t necessarily alternate every other day. You might do 5 days a week on a low-carb diet interspersed with 2 days a week on a high-carb diet.
For example, someone trying carb cycling for weight loss might restrict carbs on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, and then have a high-carbohydrate day on Thursday, and then go back to following a low-carb meal plan on Friday and Saturday, ending the week with a high-carb day on Sunday.Other people who practice carb cycling but have different physical goals—such as endurance exercise performance or building muscle—might do 3-4 days per week on a high-carbohydrate meal plan and 2-3 days per week on a low-carbohydrate meal plan.
These days may be grouped together rather than scheduled in an alternating pattern to enhance the effectiveness of the carbohydrates based on activity needs.
For example, a distance runner might try to use carb cycling to enhance performance by following a low-carbohydrate Monday through Thursday every week to help their body become more adapted to metabolizing fat for energy during exercise.
Then, if they have a race on Sunday, they might follow a high carbohydrate diet Friday and Saturday to replenish depleted glycogen stores and induce a state of glycogen supercompensation.
Glycogen supercompensation refers to increasing your muscle glycogen storage above your baseline levels for the purpose of improving endurance exercise performance.
Because the body has limited glycogen stores, glycogen supercompensation training can be a means of “overfilling” your glycogen stores above their normal capacity, giving you more carbohydrate-based energy onboard to fuel faster running or more intense exercise to avoid “hitting the wall.”
Carb cycling can also help your body become “fat adapted” during exercise, which further spares glycogen and delays hitting the wall during intense endurance exercise.
The low-carb days force your muscles to become more metabolically flexible in that they shift from their normal heavy reliance on glycogen for fuel to start using more stored fat instead.
This can potentially improve endurance performance by delaying fatigue and preventing the tremendous intensity drops that coincide with glycogen depletion.
What Are the Benefits of Carb Cycling?
Most people try carb cycling for weight loss, but there are several other potential benefits of carb cycling diets, including the following:
#1: Carb Cycling May Improve Insulin Sensitivity
Type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and insulin resistance are at near pandemic levels these days, largely due to the prevalence of highly-processed foods.
Some evidence suggests that carb cycling and intermittent caloric restriction (such as that seen with intermittent fasting diets) may lead to weight loss and improve insulin sensitivity and blood sugar regulation.
Study participants who were randomized into the group that had intermittent carbohydrate and total calorie restriction twice per week lost more weight and had more significant improvements in insulin sensitivity, body fat percentage, and leptin levels (a hormone that signals satiety) than those who were just on a general calorie-restricted diet.
#2: Carb Cycling Forces Metabolic Flexibility
Because the carb cycling diet has days where you eat a lot of carbohydrates and days where you eat a lot of fat and protein instead, carb cycling can improve your body’s metabolic flexibility.
This means that your body can switch between different fuel sources and energy-generating pathways more easily, which can help keep your energy levels more stable, even during periods of intermittent fasting.
It can also potentially improve exercise performance.
#3: Carb Cycling Can Prevent Weight Loss Plateaus
Some nutritionists and health experts think that following the same exact diet day in and day out can sometimes lead to a weight loss plateau because the body becomes really efficient at using whatever resources you give it on a habitual basis, even if they are inadequate from a caloric standpoint.
For example, research has demonstrated that prolonged caloric restriction reduces your metabolic rate (BMR).
This, in turn, will slow your weight loss because you will no longer be generating a significant caloric deficit if your body isn’t burning as many calories throughout the day.
By design, carb cycling avoids this risk by frequently switching the macronutrient ratios (and potentially even calories) that you’re consuming from one day to the next.
Your body can never get too comfortable nor too efficient at breaking down the food you eat and using it for energy.
#4: Carb Cycling Can Improve Adherence
Many people who turn to carb cycling for weight loss find that it is an easier diet to stick to because the variability in dietary makeup prevents intense cravings and boredom.
Some diets feel extremely routinized, and if you like high-carbohydrate foods, knowing that you can eat them a couple of days a week is often enough to prevent abandoning the diet.
No diet will work if you can’t stick with it.
Studies suggest that diets that allow people the freedom to make choices based on their food preferences aid adherence, so having the flexibility with carb cycling, both in terms of the variety in your carbohydrate intake and in your specific food choices, may help you stick with the diet.
Does Carb Cycling Increase Weight Loss?
There is some evidence to suggest that low-carb diets may help you lose weight and increase your metabolic rate, while high-carbohydrate diets that focus on whole, natural foods like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables have been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers.
For this reason, carb cycling diets may support weight loss while still improving health. However, there is a lack of scientific research on carb cycling for fat loss.
With that said, anecdotal evidence suggests carb cycling can reduce body fat and help people lose weight, as many people have found that carb cycling leads to weight loss.
The success of any weight loss diet hinges on consistently generating a caloric deficit.
The carb cycling diet can help people become more mindful of their dietary choices and food quality, both which can support weight loss.
For example, the emphasis with carb cycling for fat loss and weight loss should be on eating high-quality, minimally-processed sources of carbohydrates such as vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains rather than sweetened beverages, snack cakes, cookies, and simple sugars.
Making these dietary swaps can inherently support weight loss regardless as to the macronutrient ratio of the diet.
Whole, natural foods are also more filling than processed foods because they contain more fiber and water. Therefore, making changes to the quality of the foods in your diet can directly reduce your caloric intake, thereby accelerating weight loss.
Additionally, if you struggle with insulin resistance, carb cycling can improve your insulin sensitivity, which can increase fat loss.
Related: Ideal Body Weight Range Calculator
How to Carb Cycle for Weight Loss
Knowing how to carb cycle for weight loss will improve the effectiveness of your diet.
Although there are no specific rules about carb cycling for weight loss, most people find that following a low-carb diet 3-4 days a week, and a high- or moderate-carbohydrate diet the remaining days is ideal.
During the low-carbohydrate diet days, carbohydrates should provide no more than 25% of your caloric intake. Moderate carbohydrate intake is said to be 26-44% of the daily calories from carbs, while a high-carb diet is anything above 45% of the energy from carbs.
As mentioned, the quality of your food really matters. Focus on whole, natural foods, whether it is a “high-carb” or “low-carb” day.
Note that you can batch your low-carb and high-carb days together rather than alternating, as was demonstrated in the example of a hypothetical endurance athlete, if that works better for you.
Carb Cycling for Weight Loss Plan
On high-carb days, you don’t have to eat tons of carbs.
Remember, anything over 25% of your caloric intake from carbohydrates counts as moderate-carbohydrate intake.
Carbohydrates contain 4 calories per gram, so you can calculate the number of grams of carbohydrates you want to consume per day based on your daily caloric needs.
For example, you might decide you want your low-carb diet days to have 20% of the calories from carbs and the high-carb days will have 50%.
If you are following a diet that is 2,000 calories per day, you would consume 400 calories of carbs on the low carb days, which is 100g of carbohydrates since there are 4 calories per gram.
For the high-carb days, you’d eat 1,000 calories of carbohydrates, which is 250 grams.
Examples of good sources of carbohydrates when carb cycling for weight loss include the following:
- Vegetables: Spinach, kale, artichokes, beets, carrots, Swiss chard, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, zucchini, cucumbers, sprouts, onions, cauliflower, radishes, turnips, peppers, cabbage, celery, asparagus, onions, etc.
- Starchy Vegetables: Sweet potatoes, corn, potatoes, pumpkin, winter squash, turnips, carrots, parsnips, etc.
- Fruits: Apples, bananas, pears, peaches, oranges, grapefruit, berries, cherries, pineapple, kiwi, plums, mangos, star fruit, grapes, nectarines, papaya, melon, guava, clementines, pomegranates, apricots, figs, etc.
- Whole Grains: Whole, unprocessed oats, whole wheat, quinoa, buckwheat, rye, barley, brown rice, oats, quinoa, teff, farro, arameth; pasta, bread, oatmeal, healthy cereals, etc.
- Legumes: Beans, peas, chickpeas, and lentils.
- Low-Fat Dairy: Greek yogurt, low-fat milk, cottage cheese, etc.
On low-carb days, focus on high-quality proteins and fats such as lean meats, poultry, eggs, seeds, nuts, fish, milk, cheese, yogurt, soy, and avocados.
Remember key components in carb cycling for weight loss is to make sure you are maintaining a modest caloric deficit, focusing on nutritious foods, and minimizing processed foods.