The potential weight gain effects and blood sugar/insulin problems associated with a high intake of simple carbohydrates has popularized low-carbohydrate diets, such as the ketogenic diet, Atkins diet, and South Beach diet.
Although making the switch to a low-carb diet can be really difficult at first, particularly if you are accustomed to eating a lot of starchy foods and simple sugars, many people find that a low-carb diet does help them lose weight.
However, carbohydrates are also a key macronutrient for fueling exercise and are a major source of energy for many people.
Moreover, giving them up almost entirely, or scaling them back so significantly on a low-carb diet like the keto diet, can be emotionally difficult. This can make it hard to stick with your diet long term, which can certainly compromise your weight loss results.
For this reason, rather than exclude or restrict carbohydrates altogether, a carb cycling meal plan allows you to vary your carbohydrate intake from day to day.
In this guide, we will discuss carb cycling diet for weight loss and then present a sample complete carb cycling meal plan.
We will cover:
- What Is Carb Cycling?
- Is Carb Cycling Good for Runners or Athletes?
- Complete Carb Cycling Meal Plan
Let’s get started!
What Is Carb Cycling?
Carb cycling is a dietary practice that involves alternating between days where you restrict your carbohydrate intake and follow a low-carb diet and days where you follow a high-carbohydrate diet.
The carb cycling schedule is flexible such that people who follow a carb cycling diet for weight loss don’t necessarily alternate between high-carb and low-carb every other day.
There can be multiple days of eating a low-carb diet in a row, followed by an “off” day with a higher carbohydrate intake before going back to a low-carb diet for another couple of days.
For example, if you are carb cycling for weight loss, you might do 5 days a week on a low-carb diet interspersed with 2 days a week on a high-carb diet.
You 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.
Typically, when following a carb cycling meal plan, carbohydrates should provide no more than 25% of your caloric intake during the low-carbohydrate diet days.
When 26-44% of the daily calories come from carbohydrates, it’s considered a moderate carbohydrate intake, while a high-carb diet day is anything above 45% of the energy from carbs.
Therefore, it’s important to note that on high-carb days, you don’t have to eat tons of carbs; anything over 25% of your caloric intake from carbohydrates counts as moderate-carbohydrate intake, and anything over 44% is high-carb.
With carb cycling, you can enjoy many of the weight loss benefits of reducing your carbohydrate intake without feeling deprived or like you will never get to enjoy your favorite high-carbohydrate meal again. Plus, you can strategically time your carbohydrate intake around athletic activities to optimize exercise performance.
Is Carb Cycling Good for Runners or Athletes?
Depending on your goals and how you structure your carb cycling diet, carb-cycling can potentially work for runners or other endurance athletes.
In fact, it’s possible that carb cycling, when done right, may improve endurance performance in addition to increasing weight loss.
Carb cycling has the potential to improve your ability to use fat for energy during higher intensities of exercise.
For example, if you are following a carb cycling meal plan to lose weight but also have concurrent physical goals—such as running races, optimizing other endurance exercise performance, or building muscle—you 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 high-carb and low-carb diet days would potentially be grouped together rather than scheduled in an alternating pattern to meet your exercise performance needs.
For example, a distance runner who practices a carb cycling meal plan for weight loss but doesn’t want their low-carb eating to compromise their endurance performance might follow a low-carbohydrate diet Monday through Thursday and then a high-carbohydrate diet Friday and Saturday with a moderate intake of carbs on Sunday.
The consecutive low-carb days with this carb cycling approach would help their body become more adapted to metabolizing fat for energy during exercise. These adaptations can support glycogen sparing during exercise to help prevent “hitting the wall.”
Essentially, the better able your muscles become at oxidizing fat quickly and efficiently for energy, even at higher intensities of exercise, the longer your limited glycogen stores will last.
These adaptations can potentially improve endurance performance by delaying the onset of fatigue and preventing the significant drop in intensity that coincide with glycogen depletion.
Then, with this approach to the carb cycling meal plan, if the runner has a race on Sunday, the high-carb diet days on Friday and Saturday would help replenish depleted muscle glycogen storage and induce a state of glycogen supercompensation (carb loading).
This would help ensure there was adequate glycogen to optimize running performance.
Complete Carb Cycling Meal Plan
Carbohydrates contain 4 calories per gram, so you can calculate the number of grams of carbohydrates you want to eat on your low-carb diet and high-carb diet diets based on your daily caloric needs.
For example, if you decide you want your low-carb diet days to have 20% of the calories from carbs and 50% of calories on high-carb days, and you are following a diet that is 2,000 calories per day, you would consume 400 calories of carbs on the low-carb diet days.
Since there are 4 calories per gram of carbohydrates, you would eat 100g of carbohydrates on the low-carb days on your carb cycling meal plan. On the high-carb diet days, you would eat 1,000 calories of carbohydrates, which is 250 grams.
The following is a sample carb cycling schedule and carb cycling meal plan. We do not include portion sizes so that the diet can be scaled to meet your personal calorie needs.
This carb cycling meal plan is meant to serve as a starting place for ideas of what to eat carb cycling, rather than an absolute carb cycling diet plan that must be followed to a T.
Monday: Low-Carb Diet Day
- Breakfast: Omelet with vegetables (onions, mushrooms, peppers, broccoli, etc.) cooked in coconut oil or ghee.
- Snack: Almonds and pistachios
- Lunch: Tuna salad with a side salad of tomatoes, spinach, and cucumbers.
- Snack: Hard-boiled eggs
- Dinner: Turkey breast or thighs with Brussels sprouts and cauliflower rice
- Snack: Cottage cheese with blueberries
Tuesday: Low-Carb Diet Day
- Breakfast: Eggs with turkey bacon or sausage, sautéed spinach, avocado
- Snack: Peanut butter on celery sticks
- Lunch: Turkey burger wrapped in butter lettuce leaves with veggies, hard-boiled egg
- Snack: Edamame
- Dinner: Salmon with slivered almonds and broccoli
- Snack: Chia seed pudding made with almond milk, coconut flakes, and cocoa nibs
Wednesday: High-Carb Diet Day
- Breakfast: Low-fat, plain Greek yogurt with almonds, flaxseeds, and berries
- Snack: Apple with almond butter
- Lunch: Turkey wrap with lettuce, sprouts, and veggies
- Snack: Snap peas
- Dinner: Turkey with one sweet potato and a large Greek salad
- Snack: Cottage cheese with peaches and dark chocolate
Thursday: Low-Carb Day
- Breakfast: Cottage cheese with berries and grain-free granola
- Snack: Guacamole and chicken salad on carrot sticks, celery, cucumbers, and pepper strips
- Lunch: Large salad with shredded chicken, egg, walnuts, and tons of veggies with a tahini or olive oil dressing
- Snack: String cheese and mixed nuts
- Dinner: Pork chops with zucchini and summer squash medley and cauliflower rice
- Snack: Avocado chocolate pudding
Friday: High-Carb Diet Day
- Breakfast: Protein smoothie with banana, spinach, blueberries, pineapple, hemp seeds, Greek yogurt (or coconut yogurt if you are vegan), and protein powder
- Snack: Apple with almond butter
- Lunch: Hummus with whole-grain crackers, carrots, pepper strips, celery, and cucumbers; red grapes
- Snack: Pumpkin seeds and walnuts
- Dinner: Fajitas with chicken or tofu, black beans, brown rice, peppers, lettuce, onions, tomatoes, corn, salsa, and vegan or regular cheese with a spinach salad on the side
- Snack: Greek yogurt with berries.
Saturday: Low-Carb Diet Day
- Breakfast: Omelet with eggs, cheese, peppers, onions, spinach, and mushrooms
- Snack: Blueberries and pistachios
- Lunch: Large salad with spinach, arugula, cucumbers, tomatoes, sprouts, chickpeas, sunflower seeds, snap peas, broccoli florets, and craisins
- Snack: Tuna fish or hummus with carrots, celery, pepper strips, and cucumbers
- Dinner: Roasted turkey breast or grilled tofu over wilted greens with broccoli on the side
- Snack: String cheese
Sunday: High-Carb Diet Day
- Breakfast: Overnight oats made with almond milk, chia seeds, flax seeds, hemp protein powder, blueberries, cinnamon, and unsweetened coconut flakes
- Snack: Hard-boiled egg and cheddar cheese slices
- Lunch: Grilled chicken or tempeh, roasted Brussels sprouts, kale, walnuts, and sesame seeds
- Snack: Peanut butter on apple slices with cinnamon
- Dinner: Roasted salmon or tofu steaks with spaghetti squash, Greek salad, and asparagus
- Snack: Greek yogurt with low-sugar granola and raspberries
If you tend to struggle with weight but don’t want to give up carbs entirely, consider giving a carb cycling meal plan a try!
For a list of great high-protein foods for your low-carb days, check out our list here!