It seems like every day there’s a new theory about the healthiest way to eat carbs. Some food philosophies shun them entirely, while others offer a prescription for the best carbohydrates to consume. The latest craze, carb cycling, takes a slightly different approach to this important macronutrient: Cutting back on carbohydrates some days and indulging in your favorite carb-laden foods at other times.
Carb cycling is an approach that’s a lot more balanced than some diets, but it requires you to pay closer attention to how much you’re eating at certain times throughout the week or month. The payoff might be worth it: Followers of carb cycling say the diet helps them burn fat, lose weight, and hit fitness goals—all without giving up the foods they love.
Wondering if carb cycling is the right eating plan for you? Read on to learn how carb cycling works, why it’s important to balance your carbohydrate intake with other macronutrients, and the best ways to get started.
What is carb cycling?
There are probably as many theories about effective carb intake as there are carbohydrate sources in the world. But when it comes to figuring out exactly what these diet plans entail, there seem to be conflicting definitions. So, let’s level set: What is carb cycling?
“Carb cycling is basically eating higher amounts of carbohydrates on some days and lower carbohydrates other days,” explains Amy Goodson, a registered dietitian and board-certified specialist in sports dietetics. “Many people use carb cycling to maximize their fitness, performance, weight loss, and body composition goals.”
The concept of carb cycling is fairly easy to grasp: Days with heavy training should be fueled by higher amounts of carbohydrates, whereas you’re supposed to cut back on carbohydrate intake during periods of low physical activity. But things start to get less clear once you try to nail down the specifics. How many carbs should you be eating? And how do you decide when to alternate between high- and low-carb days?
“Carb cycling can work if you do it very carefully, but most people should be working with a registered dietitian to dial in on what they need.”
Experts agree that the specifics of carb cycling will depend on your lifestyle and the goals you’re striving to achieve. Carb cycling has been traditionally used by professional athletes to help their bodies reach peak performance and appearance ahead of a competition. (So that’s how people drop that last bit of weight before stepping in front of the cameras and commentators!) It’s generally effective at helping people burn fat while maintaining their muscle mass and strength.
How carb cycling fits into your exercise routine and eating habits will vary, but there are some guidelines you can use to start carb cycling. Celebrity fitness and nutrition expert JJ Virgin, author of The Sugar Impact Diet, makes the following recommendations for carbohydrate intake.
On High-Carb Days:
- Eat 80 to 100 grams of clean, lean protein.
- Eat 150 to 175 grams of slow, low carbs.
- Eat 25 grams of healthy fats.
On Low-Carb Days:
- Eat 80 to 100 grams of clean, lean protein.
- Eat around 50 grams of slow, low carbs.
- Eat 40 to 50 grams of healthy fats.
Even if you’re not actively training for a marathon or competing in a bikini in front of hundreds of people, carb cycling can still be a worthwhile approach to managing your weight and feeling well. The overall goal of this eating philosophy is to give your body the right amount of energy you need to power your days—whether you’re doing back-to-back HIIT classes or binge-watching Real Housewives on a Sunday afternoon. (Hey, we don’t judge.)
Does carb cycling actually work?
The theory behind carb cycling makes total sense—you eat fewer energy-inducing foods when you’re at rest and more carbohydrates when you know you’ll be more physically active. But how exactly does carb cycling work?
It has to do with the glycogen, or the storage of sugar from carbs used for energy, in the tissues of your body.
“When you eat fewer carbs, your body turns to stored fat for fuel,” explains Virgin. “Decreasing your carb intake on low-carb days keeps your insulin levels low, which leads to fat burning. High insulin levels send the signal to your body to store fat and lock your fat-burning doors.”
With that being said, scientific research on carb cycling diets is extremely limited, so results may vary. It’s always best to work with a health professional when starting a new diet to increase the chances of success and reduce potential dangers.
“Carb cycling can work if you do it very carefully, but most people should be working with a registered dietitian to dial in on what they need. If you don’t eat enough carbs, you can experience fatigue and likely not get as much out of your workouts,” warns Goodson.
The Pros and Cons of Carb Cycling
No diet can be classified as completely “good” or “bad.” It all goes back to what works given our own individual circumstances. That being said, there are some clear upsides and downsides to carb cycling.
Pros of Carb Cycling
Carb cycling is accessible and convenient for most people. “One advantage of carb cycling is that it can be less restrictive than low-carb diet plans because it allows folks to consume a higher amount of healthy carbs on certain days,” says Virgin.
Carb cycling is flexible, and you can adjust it based on whatever’s going on in your life at a given time. For example, if you have an active social life, you can make your busiest days less restrictive for carb intake. (Go ahead, enjoy those bar snacks at happy hour, sans guilt!)
You don’t have to cut out your favorite foods. Is a big spaghetti dinner a Sunday tradition in your family? That can totally fit into your carb cycling meal plan.
Cons of Carb Cycling
You have to be disciplined when carb cycling. “It requires some planning and tracking of macronutrients [like healthy fats and protein intake], so it may not work for everyone,” says Virgin. This can be tricky for nutrition novices, and you might experience a learning curve.
You might not feel great on low-carb days. “Many people experience fatigue, headaches, and a lack of energy,” says Goodson.
You might not get enough nutrients. “If you take out lots of grains and fruits when carb cycling, you also take out lots of fiber and nutrients in the diet. While it may provoke a weight-loss response, it’s harder to maintain for most people in the long term,” warns Goodson.
Should you try carb cycling?
Carb cycling used to be reserved for bodybuilders and other high-performance athletes, but it’s since made its way into the mainstream. How do you know if carb cycling is right for you?
First, consider your overall health. Carb cycling might not be a viable option for people with certain conditions, says Goodson.
“People who have blood sugar issues, like diabetes or hypoglycemia, should definitely be working with a registered dietitian if pursuing a low-carb or carb cycling diet. If you have other health conditions, you should definitely talk to your doctor before considering,” she says.
Also, combining carb cycling with other eating plans, like the ketogenic diet, might not be effective or healthy, even though it can get you through those low-carb days.
“True keto diets mean you are in ketosis, which comes from eating next to no carbs and moderate protein. So if you are cycling in higher carb days, you really aren’t eating a keto diet and likely are not in ketosis,” explains Goodson.
Who will see the most benefits from carb cycling?
Overall, carb cycling tends to be a more accessible diet with ample opportunities to consume enough nutrients, but it works better for certain types of people.
“Focus on slow, low carbs. Slow means they’re absorbed slowly, which helps with digestion and fat burning. Low means they’re low glycemic and don’t cause inflammation-inducing spikes in blood glucose or insulin.”
“The people who are most likely to have most success when carb cycling are athletes who participate in endurance training, high-intensity interval training, and weightlifting. Your body relies on glucose and glycogen from carbs for the majority of high-intensity exercise and for about 40 percent of light-moderate endurance exercise,” says Virgin, who recommends using carb cycling only as a short-term diet.
A healthcare professional can help you evaluate whether you’re a good candidate for carb cycling.
Carb Cycling Tips for Beginners
So you’ve decided you want to give carb cycling a try. How do you get started?
First, start figuring out what your carbohydrate intake will look like each week. Choose a day to go high-carb, and then set up a pattern of carb intake around that day. Here are some combinations that Virgin suggests trying.
If you’re new to carb cycling:
If you’re looking for faster results:
A carb cycling calculator can help give you more personalized recommendations about balancing macronutrients, but you should strive to eat what makes you feel your best.
Finally, start building your carb cycling meal plan. In general, each meal should include some protein and fat and lots of whole foods. Choose your carbohydrates carefully, says Virgin.
“Not all carbs are created equal,” she says. “Focus on slow, low carbs. Slow means they’re absorbed slowly, which helps with digestion and fat burning. Low means they’re low glycemic and don’t cause inflammation-inducing spikes in blood glucose or insulin.”
Another added benefit of low carbs (such as oatmeal and lentils) is their fiber content, Virgin adds. “Fiber slows down stomach emptying and takes longer to move through our digestive tract, helping you feel full. In addition, fiber has a host of health benefits from helping you maintain healthy cholesterol levels and manage blood sugar levels to strengthening your gut microbiome and sparking weight loss.”
Feeling overwhelmed? Don’t worry—there are tons of recipes and ideas out there you can use for inspiration. Alisha Temples, a licensed nutritionist at Fueled & Fed Nutrition, has put together a carb cycling meal plan to help you get started:
Carb Cycling Meal Plan for a Low-Carb Day
Eggs with avocado and salsa + a cup of coffee
Tuna salad + a side of green beans with almonds
Chicken breast + cauliflower rice + roasted broccoli
Carb Cycling Meal Plan for a Medium-Carb Day
Sweet potato frittata
Chicken salad + carrots + apple + hummus
Salmon + quinoa + mixed veggies
Carb Cycling Meal Plan for a High-Carb Day
Eggs + oatmeal + an orange + a cup of coffee
Tuna salad sandwich + carrots + apples
Chicken breast + a baked potato + asparagus
Everyone has a slightly different approach to carb cycling. Take these guidelines and adjust them based on your body composition, activity level, and food preferences. And when in doubt, make an appointment with a registered dietitian or your doctor to make sure your whatever dietary approach you’re taking is the right one for you.