The carb cycling diet has been popular among bodybuilders, fitness models and certain types of athletes for decades. Carb cycling — eating more carbs only on certain days — is believed to be beneficial as one of the best diet plans to lose weight and gain muscle because it stimulates certain digestive and metabolic functions.
What makes carbs so special? Carbohydrates are the body’s first source of fuel, since they’re easily turned into glucose and glycogen, which feed your cells and help create ATP (energy). Your metabolism rises and falls based on your consumption of calories and different macronutrients, including carbohydrates. (1) And many studies have found that adequate carb intake improves performance in both prolonged, low-intensity and short, high-intensity exercises. (2)
Perhaps you’ve heard that your metabolism is a lot like a fire: If you fuel “the fire” with the right ingredients, it keeps burning hotter. As Chris Powell, one of the leading authorities on carb cycling, puts it, “If you don’t throw enough fuel on the fire, the flame fizzles out.”
Eating enough carbohydrates at the right time resets your metabolic thermostat and signals your body to create enough beneficial hormones (like leptin and thyroid hormones) that keep you at a healthy weight. However, as we all know, too many carbs can have the opposite effect and cause weight gain.
What’s key about a carb cycling diet that makes it different from other plans? Carb cycling increases carbohydrate (and sometimes calorie) intake only at the right time and in the right amounts. While other long-term diet plans might seem overly restrictive, daunting and overwhelming, many find that a carb cycling diet is easy to follow and even fits into a hectic schedule.
What Is Carb Cycling?
Carb cycling is a type of diet plan that involves eating more carbohydrates on certain days of the week but doing the opposite on the other days: cutting carbs very low in order to achieve easier weight loss. In other words, carb cycling means you eat adequate amounts of carbs (ideally those that are unprocessed and nutrient-dense) about every other day or every few days depending on your specific goals.
Although every carb cycling diet plan is different and needs to be customized based on whether weight loss or muscle gain is the primary goal, most carb cycling diets build in about one to three days per week when you can consume more carb-heavy foods (like potatoes or grains). Some carb cycling diet plans also include a day for indulging on some decadent foods to “reward” yourself for your hard work, guilt-free.
What types of things do you eat when you’re not boosting your carb intake? On lower-carb days, foods like non-starchy veggies, grass-fed meats, eggs and healthy fats are the base of your meals. Why would someone choose to carb cycle instead of just dieting the old-fashioned way? Some the advantages that a carb cycling diet has include: (3)
- preserving muscle mass and preventing muscle wasting
- helping muscle recovery after workouts
- boosting weight loss or reducing body fat percentage
- preventing a dip in your metabolic rate
- including flexibility and a variety of healthy foods
- allowing you to keep your favorite meals as part of your plan
- giving you more energy
- preventing extreme hunger or fatigue
- helping to prevent hormone imbalances
The primary benefit of a carb cycling diet is it intensifies and often speeds up weight loss while still preserving and even building lean muscle mass. When it comes to improving body composition, this is the gold standard because it keeps your metabolism running efficiently and allows you to maintain your weight more easily long term.
5 Carb Cycling Diet Benefits
1. Helps Build and Preserve Lean Muscle Mass
Strength training and other forms of resistance exercise actually break down muscle tissue, only to make it grow back stronger. The process of rebuilding and repairing muscle tissue takes a lot of energy, and once again your body requires some of its primary fuel source (carbs) to do this. This is known as the post-workout anabolic window. (4) Carbs help restore your energy and provide muscles with glucose for rebuilding or glycogen to be stored for future energy.
If you don’t consume enough calories and carbohydrates following resistance training, it’s likely you’ll starve your muscles of the fuel they need to grow back bigger and stronger. For this reason, many people focused on building muscle choose to have higher carb days after tough workouts.
Simply restricting calories and working out more can take a toll on your metabolism and even have the opposite effect of what you’d like — leaving you weaker, fatigued and unable to consume as many calories without gaining weight. Alternating days of higher vs. lower carb intake, especially when timed around workouts, is beneficial for cutting your body fat percentage down while still not sacrificing your muscle mass. And keep in mind you want to hold on to all the muscle mass you can, since this is what keeps you burning calories at a healthy rate even into older age.
2. Encourages Weight Loss (or Maintenance of a Healthy Weight)
When you enter into a “carb deficit,” meaning you take in less carbs than your body needs, you encourage weight loss because your body begins to burn stored fat for fuel.
Cutting carbs very low, and following plans like the ketogenic diet or Atkins, works for many people to improve certain health conditions and help them reach a healthy weight. But for others it’s difficult to sustain and actually can slow down the metabolism when followed long term due to hormonal changes. Carb cycling is one way to prevent weight regain and reduced motivation — plus it’s effective both the short term (giving you quick results and energy) and long term.
3. Encourages You to Eat More Plant Foods
Carbohydrates are the primary type of macronutrient found in most plant foods, although exactly how many carbs a plant food has depends on the specific type. Whole foods that are higher in carbs, such as sweet potatoes and other root veggies, beans/legumes, and fruit, are often encouraged on higher carb days. Some of the healthiest foods in the world — such as leafy green veggies, cruciferous veggies, artichokes, asparagus, sea veggies, herbs and spices, for example — are actually pretty low in carbohydrates and therefore suitable for both high-carb and low-carb days.
A bonus of eating these foods is that they contain plenty of dietary fiber and antioxidants. Fiber has many benefits, including helping make you feel full and reach satiety, while antioxidants fight free radical damage and slow the effects of aging. A healthy carb cycle diet plan does more than boost protein intake and vary carbs — it also teaches you how to incorporate essential foods into your meals in ways you actually enjoy.
4. Helps You Stick with Healthy Eating Long Term
While it’s possible to lose weight following other diet plans that restrict overall calories, many find that carb cycling works faster and involves fewer feelings of deprivation. Because things like grains, fruit and legumes are included at least one to three times per week while carb cycling (sometimes also along with a “cheat meal”), there’s more flexibility with a carb cycling diet compared to other diets, which can encourage people to stick with it.
5. Can Help Reduce Hormonal Fluctuations and Blood Sugar Swings
Many studies have shown that a low-carb diet is a natural diabetes treatment and effective tool for patients with type 2 diabetes. (5) Because it can reduce overeating, especially of empty calories and junk foods, lower-carb diet approaches can also help lower risks for diabetes complications and related risk factors like obesity or heart disease.
Why does cutting carbs on certain days improve blood sugar and hormone levels? Low-carbohydrate diets encourage improvements in the dyslipidemia of diabetes and metabolic syndrome, as well as control of blood pressure, postprandial glycemia and insulin secretion.
How to Eat a Carb Cycling Diet
Structure (How to Carb Cycle):
- The difference in your carb intake throughout the week means you alternate lower-carb days with higher-carb days. Remember that eating more carbs and calories gives you a metabolic boost, while doing the opposite slows your metabolic rate down. However, cutting carbs and calories some days is what allows for weight loss.
- Many people also like to incorporate specific meal timing into their carb cycling diet plans. Some choose to eat more frequently (four to six times per day) because it helps them stick with their plans and might offer some metabolic advantages. Others like to incorporate aspects of intermittent fasting for quicker results, such as only eating twice daily (skipping breakfast entirely).
- How many carbs and calories should you aim for? This depends on your specific body type, gender, age, level of activity and goals. Women usually stick within the 1,500—2,300 calorie range throughout the week, while men typically stay within a range of about 1,500—3,000 calories. (6)
- You might find carb cycling to be easiest to sustain if you add or decrease only about 400—600 calories between high-carb and low-carb days.
- Higher-carb days might include 200—300 grams of carbohydrates, while lower-carb days might include 75—150 grams (sometimes even as little as 50). Once again, men who are bigger and more active tend to require more of both calories and carbs than smaller women do.
- On both days, your protein intake in grams should stay roughly the same, but fat intake will likely increase or decrease. On higher-carb days fat might decrease to only about 15 percent to 25 percent of calories. (7)
Although there’s room for customization, here’s an example of a typical carb cycling diet meal plan:
- Monday: higher-carb day
- Tuesday: lower-carb day
- Wednesday: higher-carb day
- Thursday: lower-carb day
- Friday: lower-carb day
- Saturday: higher-carb day/optional reward day where you enjoy a favorite meal “off plan”
- Sunday: lower-carb day
Tips for Sticking with It:
- At first, don’t take on more changes than you can handle. Always eat breakfast, including some protein and fiber to help keep you full. Then you can experiment with fasting once you’re more accustomed to the dietary changes you’re making.
- To sustain muscle mass and further improve your body’s ability to use carbs and calories, incorporate strength training into your exercise routine. Ideally do a combination of aerobic and resistance training every week, since both have major health advantages.
- Assuming you are somewhat active, try not to eat any less than about 1,500 calories daily. This can trigger a drastic metabolic slowdown and leave you feeling overly hungry and sluggish.
- Eat lots of high-volume, nutrient-dense foods no matter what type of carb day it is. Load up on filling, healthy foods like leafy greens, other non-starchy veggies, clean protein, and healthy fats like avocado, olive oil and coconut oil.
- Avoid drinking calories, especially if weight loss is your goal. Drink mostly plain water, herbal tea, unsweetened coffee, etc.
- To keep your metabolism thriving and boost digestive health, consider also taking some beneficial supplements. Recommendations include omega-3 fatty acids to lower inflammation, probiotics to help improve gut health, magnesium to help you recover from workouts, adaptogen herbs to help your body handle stress, and a high-quality multivitamin to make sure you meet your needs.
- Get enough sleep and manage daily stress. Both a lack of sleep and high levels of emotional stress can contribute to overeating, hormonal imbalances, weight gain and even poor immune function.
High-Carb Foods vs. Low-Carb/No-Carb, High-Protein Foods:
- The healthiest higher-carb foods to include in your meals are those that are complex carbs and unprocessed, such as: sweet potatoes; ancient grains (ideally sprouted) like oats, quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth and brown rice; whole fruits; beans and legumes; and natural sweeteners in moderation like raw honey.
- Because they’re loaded with junk, very high in calories and essentially bankrupt in terms of nutrients, it’s best to avoid processed high-carb foods, including those made with white flour or wheat flour products, added table sugar, conventional dairy, bread and other processed grains like pasta, sweetened snacks like cookies and cakes, most boxed cereals, sweetened drinks, ice cream, and pizza.
- Other healthy sources of carbs, which are lower in carbs than those described above but still provide some carbs, include vegetables like mushrooms, tomatoes, carrots, broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, spinach, kale, sea veggies, peppers, etc.
- Healthy food choices that are high in protein but low-carb or no-carb include grass-fed meat, pasture-raised poultry, cage-free eggs, bone broth protein, wild-caught fish, organ meats and raw dairy products, such as raw goat cheese.
- Healthy fats, which are also low-carb or no-carb, include olive oil, coconut oil, grass-fed butter, palm oil, nuts and seeds.
Recipes to Help You Carb Cycle:
Need help coming up with tasty meal ideas for low-carb days? Here are dozens of recipes to get you started and keep you on track:
- 26 Low-Carb Snacks that Satisfy for Hours
- 18 Low-Carb Desserts You’ll Love
- 18 Low-Carb Meals that Energize + Actually Fill You Up!
- 23 Low-Carb Breakfasts That Go Way Beyond Eggs & Bacon
Atkins Diet vs. Ketogenic Diet vs. Low-Carb Diet vs. Carb Cycling Diet
- The Atkins diet is a high-protein, low-carb diet that emerged in the 1990s and gained tons of popularity for causing rapid weight loss. The biggest disadvantage to Atkins is that it can be hard to sustain, lost weight might come back as soon as you begin eating carbs again, it can cause digestive problems and it doesn’t focus enough on consumption of a generally healthy diet.
- The ketogenic diet is a very low-carb diet (or what some people even call the “no-carb diet”). People following a keto diet plan begin burning fat for fuel instead of carbohydrates. (8)
- Most keto diets reduce carbs to about 50—75 grams per day or less. This can be very advantageous for reducing hunger, cutting out junk carb foods, slimming you down and even reducing symptoms of many inflammatory diseases (like cancer and diabetes). Studies show that some athletes even experience improvements in energy and performance when following a keto diet. (9)
- However, very low-carb diets are not always a good fit for everyone, including women with hormonal imbalances, those with thyroid disorders, people who are already underweight or some who are very athletic.
- One possible advantage of a carb cycling diet over low-carb diets or ketogenic diets is that “going very low carb” might increase fatigue and irritability in some people — a side effect that has been nicknamed “the carb flu.” However, this is usually the case when cutting back carbs dramatically to just about 5 percent to 10 percent of total calories. Keeping carbs in your diet on intermittent days can help offset these effects, although it’s possible that this will slow down weight loss a bit too.
Carb Cycling Diet Precautions
If carb cycling is a very different way of eating than what you’re accustomed to, expect that your body (cravings, energy, fluid levels, etc.) will take some time to adjust. You might experience some of the following effects when you begin carb cycling — but not to worry since most consider these to be “normal” and likely to go away within one to two weeks:
- Feeling more tired than usual
- Craving carbs at times
- Constipation or bloating due to water retention (especially after higher carb days)
- Feeling weaker during workouts
- Having trouble sleeping
- Being moody or irritable
If these side effects last more than one or two weeks, carb cycling might not be a good fit for you. Everyone is different when it comes to the reaction to different eating plans. Factors like someone’s age, gender, level of activity, bodyweight and genetic disposition all affect how that person feels when following a low-carb diet. Always listen to your body and use your best judgment instead of just following someone else’s advice.
Final Thoughts on a Carb Cycling Diet
- Carb cycling diets alternate lower-carb days with higher-carb days. Many also boost calorie intake on higher-carb days but reduce calories on lower-carb days.
- Carb cycling benefits include building or retaining lean muscle mass, improving workout performance, encouraging weight or fat loss, giving you more energy, and preventing weight loss plateaus due to a slowed metabolism.
- To get the most from carb cycling, focus on eating a healthy diet first and foremost, eliminate empty calories and packaged foods, and reduce your carbohydrate intake on about three to four days of the week, sticking to about 75—150 grams of carbs or less.