Carb cycling is a different approach to eating than most other “diets” that people typically think of for weight loss. It’s something that has been shown to yield incredible results when done the right way. It’s not necessarily a diet as much as it is a different way to modify the way you eat.
When you carb cycle, you are manipulating your macros, and more specifically your carb intake on a daily basis.
Some people carb cycle by adjusting their carbs on a day to day basis while others prolong their carb intake and stretch it out for longer periods of time. More on that later…
The goal of carb cycling is to give you max benefits of the carbs you do consume on the days when you need it the most and to get rid of carbs on the days that you really don’t need them for fuel.
How Does Carb Cycling Work?
Carb cycling is a much easier approach to manipulating your carb intake as opposed to the more intense forms of dieting such as keto or fasting. You are not cutting out carbs completely, like with the keto diet. And you are not going hours (or days) without eating like you are when you are fasting. With carb cycling, it’s all about the timing of when you choose to eat carbs.
With that being said, you probably won’t get the drastic results you will with keto or fasting either. But the results you get will be more sustainable and you will probably find that you have a little more oomph in your workouts with carb cycling.
The great thing about Carb Cycling is that it is not set in stone, meaning there isn’t only one way to do it. Since it is not as strict as keto or fasting you actually have the freedom to choose and indulge a little bit on your high-carb days.
That doesn’t mean that you binge out and ruin the momentum you gained on your low-carb days by gorging on a whole box of Oatmeal Creme Pies (those are soooo good though).
The key is to think of the food you eat as fuel. And the carbs are fueling your heavy workout days. More specifically, your weight training days. Carbs are fueling your muscles to perform an intense workout.
This is why a lot of people who find success with carb cycling are people who lift weights. Lifting weights will burn through most of the glycogen you get on your high carb days, allowing your body to constantly use fat for fuel, thus giving you the benefits of being low carb (like a keto diet) without completely depriving yourself.
I think it is very important to note that we are still talking about consuming “good” carbs. What I mean by that is just because you have a high carb day doesnt mean you can eat the whole bag of Doritos and chase it with a 6 pack of Dr. Pepper. You still want to make healthy food choices and not sabotage yourself by eating in a manner that you got you to this point in the first place. (See our Good Carb vs Bad Carb Infograph)
Benefits of Carb Cycling
Weight Loss on Carb Cycling
I was first introduced to carb cycling when I watched the popular show “Extreme Makeover Weight Loss Edition” with Chris Powell years ago. I was mesmerized by how the people on this show could possibly lose this massive amount of weight and still have the energy to go through these intense workouts. Especially since they were not in the best shape and didn’t look like they could handle it. So I did a little research and saw that Chris’ main dietary tool that he used with his clients was carb cycling. I had no idea what that even meant. But it was obvious that it worked and that it didn’t seem to be too much of a starvation situation.
The other way that carb cycling tends to help with weight loss is that as you carb cycle you naturally calorie cycle as well. Meaning you tend to eat a lower amount of calories on your low carb days and often times are in a caloric deficit on those days. Obviously, this lends itself to weight loss, especially if you are still mixing in some good cardio workouts on those days.
Carb Cycling and Hormone Regulation
One of the biggest drawbacks to intense diets is that they tend to seriously mess with your hormones.
When you restrict your carb intake for an extended period of time your body might have a lower metabolic rate, a lower thyroid output, weight loss resistance, an increase in cortisol levels, and a reduction in the ability to work out intensely. That is why some folks are sketched out about going on the keto diet.
Leptin is a hormone that impacts your energy balance and it has been shown to up-regulate when you do carb cycling. This improvement in leptin response from high carb days will also aid in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis function, which will keep your hormones more balanced.
So, in other words, as you carb cycle you are letting your body know that it is not starving. It allows for you to keep your hormone system more balanced while still benefiting from a low carb lifestyle.
Carb Cycling is the Gateway to Other Low Carb Diets
We already know that low carb diets absolutely work to lose weight, and specifically belly fat (which is the main area we’re all looking to target!). The fact is that going cold turkey on carbs is not the easiest thing to do. Many people get discouraged when they are not able to cut the mustard on a keto diet or when they try fasting and can’t get over the hump and they inevitably quit.
Carb cycling is like a gateway into the more intense dietary approaches. It allows you to dip your toe into the carb cutting world while still being able to maintain some level of sanity.
It also alleviates the worry that you won’t have enough “gas in the tank” to complete your workouts.
Promotes Muscle Gain without Fat Gain
Whenever you consume carbs you get a rise in blood sugar and your pancreas releases insulin.
Insulin is a hormone that helps your body regulate blood sugar levels. It also plays a vital role in muscle growth, as well as glycogen storage.
When you have high carb days on days you are lifting weights, you end up taking advantage of insulin’s muscle-building, as well as recovery properties.
During your low-carb days when you are either resting or having cardio workouts, you can lose fat while simultaneously improving insulin sensitivity, which makes your high-carb days that much more effective.
Cons of Carb Cycling
Carb Counting is for the Birds
It’s not all that much fun to count your macros. A diet like IIFYM (If IT Fits Your Macros) is a great way to lose weight and keep yourself accountable, but it is not the easiest thing to do. Weighing and measuring every single morsel that you consume can be tedious and get your frustrated to no end. It can be extremely time-consuming and deter a lot of folks from sticking with it.
You Even Lift Bro?
If you are not on a weight training regimen with your workouts you may not get as much out of carb cycling as you could if you started pumping a little iron. Carb cycling works best for those who incorporate weight training into their workouts.
Carb Cycling FAQ
How do you Carb Cycle?
Like we said before, carb cycling is a way to manipulate your macros, specifically your carbohydrate intake. Typically you have high carb days and low carb days and you switch them up. You want these to coincide with your intense workouts, having your high carb days be on the days where you have heavy resistance training and your low carb days be on the days where you rest or do more cardio based workouts.
What is the difference between carb cycling and keto?
With carb cycling, you don’t completely cut carbs out of your diet permanently. With the keto diet, you are almost cutting carbohydrates completely out of your diet with the goal being having your body be in a state of ketosis. Carb cycling allows you to use carbs for fuel on the days that you work out intensely. The keto diet is one where you take a hard pass on carbs altogether. Whether you are lifting weights or running the trails. You get no carbs for fuel. While keto does tend to yield faster results, in the long run, most people find that carb cycling is an easier way to continue long term.
Is carb cycling good for weight loss?
Carb cycling can be extremely useful for weight loss because it often coincides with calorie cycling. Typically when you have low carb days, you tend to have lower calorie days. This is a recipe for weight loss and often generates terrific results. There are a few reasons that you tend to have a lower caloric intake on your low-carb days. The main reason is that the foods you are eating more of (fats and proteins) tend to keep you satiated where you’re not hungry 30 minutes after you eat.
How to start carb cycling?
You have to start carb cycling by planning ahead. You have to be in a place where you can plan not only your eating habits with your low carb, high carb days, but you also have to plan your exercise regimen as well. You want to have a decent food scale and guide to give you the macros of all the foods you eat. Having an app like MyFitnessPal can be a great tool to guide you on your carb cycling journey. They have a list with most of the foods and their specific macros already in there and it does the math for you.
What type of workouts should I do when carb cycling?
People who have the most success with carb cycling often do resistance training on their high-carb days. This is because lifting weights will burn through most of the glycogen you get on your high-carb days, which allows your body to constantly use fat for fuel instead of glucose. This will give you amazing results with your carb cycling journey.
Overall, carb cycling is an amazing option for people looking to reap the benefits of a low carb diet without completely depriving themselves of carbs like you do when you are on the keto diet.
Carb cycling pairs splendidly with weight training and can be used as a very good tool to fuel your body on the days when you are pumping iron and allow your body to burn fat on the days when you’re resting or doing a cardio workout.
Carb cycling is also an amazing way to train your body to a lower carb lifestyle. If you ever had thoughts of going keto, you may want to start by carb cycling. It allows you to dip your toe into the low carb lifestyle without completely going cold turkey.