Carb cycling is central to every quality nutritional guide I’ve ever come across.
It is recommended by some of the most highly-regarded coaches and transformation experts in the world and has been used by fitness models, bodybuilders and athletes to acquire some of the most impressive physiques ever seen.
In 2013, a British study confirmed what the fitness elite already knew instinctively, when it was found that this style of diet was superior to a standard, daily calorie-restricted diet for reducing weight and lowering blood levels of insulin (more on this later).
Yet, despite its effectiveness and popularity amongst the fitness elite, it’s a method of dieting that is shrouded in mystery.
For years, I wrongly assumed that carb cycling was an advanced technique that would make my life more complicated, and that I didn’t need carbs in my diet at all.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Implemented properly, carb cycling makes fat loss easier from a physiological standpoint and, best of all, it makes dieting enjoyable because you actually get to eat carbs (aka pretty much every food you love).
Many diets, such as Paleo or Atkins, almost completely ban you from eating carbs.
When I tried the Paleo diet for myself, I found this style of eating overly-restrictive, and after months on the diet – and many missed social events – I finally gave in.
But here’s the thing: I did lose weight, and lots of it.
To get a better idea of why that might have happened, it’s important to understand the effect that carbohydrates have on our bodies.
How Do Carbohydrates Affect The Body?
When you consume carbohydrates they are broken down into sugars (otherwise known as glucose) that then enter the blood stream.
A hormone called insulin is released to remove glucose from the blood stream.
A large insulin ‘spike’ will occur when you consume a simple, or refined source of carbohydrates (such as fruits, fizzy drinks, or chocolate), whereas a smaller ‘spike’ will occur when you consume a complex source (such as vegetables or certain grains).
Insulin has shouldered much of the blame for obesity in recent years. The idea is that insulin tells your body to remove glucose from the blood and store it as fat.
That’s not entirely accurate, because insulin actually tells your body to burn the glucose, instead of fat stored in cells. You can learn more about this process here.
But whichever way you look at it, carbs can make it difficult for you to lose fat.
So why not just cut them out completely?
Carbs are an extremely important source of immediate energy for your body’s cells.
Without carbs, there’s a good chance your metabolism will slow down, your stress hormones will sky-rocket, and your muscle-building hormones will plummet, making both fat-loss and muscle gain extremely difficult.
You can learn more about the long-term effects of a low-carb diet at Precision Nutrition.
IMPORTANT NOTE: if you live a very sedentary lifestyle (such as working in an office and doing absolutely no exercise), or have a lot of weight to lose, a low-carb diet is probably ideal because your energy requirements are much lower.
But for the rest of us, who exercise regularly, do lots of walking and activities while travelling, or like to eat out, carb cycling can be the perfect compromise.
What is Carb Cycling?
While it has a fancy name, carb cycling simply means eating more carbohydrates on some days and less on others.
High carb days promote muscle growth and help you perform at your best, while low carb days encourage fat loss (or at least, minimize fat gain).
You get the best of both worlds.
The total amount of carbs you consume in a week should average out around the same as it normally would. Your intake of protein and fats will stay relatively consistent the whole time (although some people overcomplicate things and cycle fats as well).
Why Does Carb Cycling Work So Well?
As world-renowned strength coach Jason Ferruggia puts it:
[In] any effective diet program carbs will be cycled.
Not only does cycling carbohydrates make it possible to lose fat and build muscle at the same time, it also means that, by extension, you will also be cycling calories.
Since your intake of protein and fat stay relatively consistent, on high carb days you will consume more calories, and on low carb days will consume less.
A calorific deficit is absolutely essential to losing weight, and carb cycling makes it easy to create a net deficit that you can sustain for a very long time.
Just to reiterate; if you have a lot of weight to lose, you don’t need to carb cycle: to get the best results in the shortest amount of time, simply jump on MyFitnessPal, track your food intake and eat 500kcal under maintenance each day.
As you get leaner, however, it becomes more and more difficult to lose fat.
This is a phenomenon that is sometimes referred to as ‘starvation mode’.
The problem with that phrase is that it has been tossed around very loosely over the years, and by some definitions it is a myth, but by others it is very real.
The scientific term for what we are talking about is ‘adaptive thermogenesis’.
It’s effects are very real and are well documented. Natural bodybuilder Tom Venuto does a great job of explaining it here. Here’s the takeaway:
Since your body can’t distinguish between severe dieting and starving, regulatory mechanisms are activated to decrease your rate of further weight loss… Your body adapts to energy-restricted diets and tries to restore you to energy balance or even back to your original weight.
Carb cycling offsets the effects of adaptive thermogenesis by ‘reassuring’ your body that it isn’t starving.
There’s one other factor that makes carb cycling work so well, and for me, it’s the most important: you only have to ‘diet’ every other day.
When you think about your favorite foods – if you’re being honest – most of them probably contain carbs. Avoiding them 100% of the time is difficult, maybe even impossible, and certainly not enjoyable.
And what about when you are traveling (especially in Asian countries) and want to try new dishes like pad Thai, massaman curry or ramen?
Yes, low-carb days require discipline. But it is much easier when you know the next day (assuming it’s high-carb) you’ll get to eat some of your favorite foods or try new dishes.
So, how do you know if it’s a high-carb or low-carb day?
How to Carb Cycle
When I said carb cycling made fat-loss easier than ever I really meant it.
There are only 2 rules you need to remember:
- Rule 1: On the days that you do your most intense workouts (like lifting weights or bodyweight exercises), eat starchy carbs (explained below) and fruit along with protein, vegetables, and healthy fats.
- Rule 2: On the days that you’re either off from the gym or are doing some kind of cardio, don’t eat any starchy carbs, but continue to eat protein, vegetables, healthy fats and a limited amount of fruit.
That’s all there is to it.
All you need to do is eat the same amount of protein, healthy fats and veggies throughout the week, and vary your intake of carbs depending on when you work out.
Here’s how a typical week might look:
If you know you’re going out for a meal, or are likely to be eating a lot of carbs on a given day, reschedule your week so a workout falls on that day.
This strategy works really well when you’re travelling and know that you might not be able to eat perfectly for whatever reason on a particular day.
In general, you want to try to eat well as much of the time as possible. You shouldn’t think of high-carb days as a ‘cheat day’, but if you know you’re going to be eating carbs then this is the day it should be on.
Now, you’re probably wondering what ‘starchy’ carbs you should be eating on your high-carb days, so here’s a little table to help you figure it out:
|'Good' Carbs||'Bad' Carbs|
|Whole Grain Bread||White Bread|
|Whole Wheat Pasta||Pastries|
The more you stick to the ‘Good Carbs’ column, the better off you will be.
Carb Cycling Meal Plan
With the above in mind, putting your own meal plan together shouldn’t be too difficult.
But if you need a little inspiration, here’s a sample meal plan you can use:
Low-Carb (Rest/Cardio) Day:
|Breakfast:||Eggs or protein shake with water|
|Lunch:||Salad with lots of meat and veggies|
|Dinner:||Steak with veggies|
|Snacks:||A couple of handfuls of mixed nuts|
High-Carb (Workout) Day:
|Breakfast:||Eggs or protein shake with water|
|Lunch:||Burrito with lots of meat and veggies|
|Dinner:||Fish cakes with jasmine rice and veggies|
|Snacks:||Bananas, baby carrots or oatmeal|
Carb Cycling FAQ
What if I get hungry on low-carb days?
Starchy carbs fill you up quickly and typically contain a lot of calories, so you might find that you feel hungry on your low-carb days. When you’re hungry you’re more likely to give in to your cravings, so it’s important that you know what to do when it happens.
Instead of reaching for a frozen pizza eat more protein and vegetables. Eat as much as it takes to make yourself full.
How many carbs should I eat at every meal?
The beauty of carb cycling is in its simplicity, so don’t overcomplicate it by trying to count the amount of carbohydrates you consume. Just remember the rules:
- On high-carb days eat starchy carbs and fruit along with your protein, veggies, and healthy fats.
- On low carb days don’t eat starchy carbs or fruit, but continue to eat protein, veggies, and healthy fats.
There’s no need to overcomplicate your meals. You can eat more or less the same thing each day, but simply swap your starchy carbohydrates for more vegetables on low-carb days.
Can I do a high carb days if I only do cardio?
I don’t recommend it. The reason high-carb days are aligned with the days you do a bodyweight workout or lift weights is that your muscles will be ready to utilise the glucose after a tough workout.
I think everybody should be doing some form of resistance training, but if you want to lose weight and only do cardio, then you should stick with a conventional calorific deficit of 500kcal a day.
Any other questions? Thinking of giving carb cycling a go? Let me know in the comments!