The carb cycling diet is an eating technique primarily used by athletes and bodybuilders. Their goal is to load up on carbohydrates shortly before high-intensity workouts to increase their glucose levels while reducing their carb intake on rest days.
However, the carb cycling diet has become more mainstream in recent years for non-athletes looking to lose weight by maximizing when they do—and don’t—eat carbs.
Even people like Kim Kardashian and Julianne Hough have publicly advocated for carb cycling.
So, if you’re interested in learning about the carb cycling diet, its benefits, and its downsides, we’ve got all the details for you here.
An Overview of the Carb Cycling Diet
The carb cycling diet is the concept of alternating how many carbs you eat on any given day according to your exercise levels. People have different approaches to carb cycling, and there are numerous books with their own tips and takeaways.
However, below are the three general categories that carb cycling can fall within:
The reason for carbohydrate cycling comes down to the scientific way that carbohydrates operate. Carbs are known for giving the body a quick boost of energy. Therefore, when you eat a lot of carbohydrates leading up to a big workout (known as carb loading), your body will have quick access to glucose, which is the energy it gets from carbs.
Following this reasoning, carb cycling tries to help people increase their metabolism to burn off glucose. In contrast, on your rest days or low-intensity exercise days, you’ll eat a diet higher in protein and fat, which, as the theory goes, will help you burn more fat.
While there are die-hard believers in carb cycling, researchers haven’t conducted many studies on the impact of carb cycling on weight loss. So, these claims are largely theoretical.
However, some research suggests that diet cycling, which involves rotating many types of foods you eat, had “significant effects” on reducing weight, fat mass, and percent body fat in female participants.
Food You Can Eat on the Carb Cycling Diet
The carb cycling diet is a two-step process in terms of what you can eat.
On days that you’ll be exercising a lot, or in the days leading up to a high-intensity activity like a marathon, you should eat high-quality carbohydrates such as:
The goal of eating carbs on high carbohydrate days is to ensure the carbs are complex. That way, your body will have to spend more energy digesting the food. Many people eat 2 - 2.5 grams of carbs per pound of body weight on exercise days.
In contrast, processed and sugary foods offer a quick energy boost followed by a crash that won’t sustain you as well through a workout. Not to mention that they can cause a range of issues like diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure.
Furthermore, it’s important to eat protein and fats on carbohydrate days. Examples of such foods include:
On days you don’t work out, the carb cycling diet indicates that you should eat about the same amount of fat and protein as on carb days. However, any carbohydrates you consume should come from low-carb veggies, including:
Olive oil, fatty fish, avocado, and seeds are other excellent foods to eat during your rest days.
The trick to following low-carb rest days is figuring out just how many servings of carbohydrates you should have. Since there’s no single way to approach carb cycling, some carb cyclists have under two servings per day while others have as many as 20 servings.
That can amount to as little as .5 grams of carbs per pound of body weight.
Therefore, you’ll need to do some trial and error to see if you can strike a balance that works for you and your goals, whether it be increasing your fitness, losing weight, or both.
Carb Cycling Diet Pros
Below are some of the pros of incorporating carb cycling into your diet and exercise routine.
Studies indicate that carbohydrates significantly improve endurance and high-intensity performance when exercising. The reason is that it causes the body to produce more glycogen, which your organism can use for energy.
There’s no right or wrong way to approach the carb cycling diet, as long as you increase your intake of high-quality carbohydrates on exercise days and reduce it on rest days. Therefore, you can make this diet fit a style that feels best for your needs.
Many people experience weight loss when carb cycling, as long as you watch your daily caloric intake. Although there aren’t many studies on the correlation between carb cycling and weight loss, you’ll burn glycogen when exercising on high-carb days. Furthermore, studies show that high protein intake can lead to weight loss.
Carb Cycling Diet Cons
Before you jump onboard the carb cycling train, below are some cons of this diet to consider.
Finding the Right Carb Ratio
Nailing the right ratio of carbs to fat and protein can be challenging on the carb cycling diet. That’s because everyone has different fitness and weight loss goals and intensities at which they exercise. So, you’ll likely have to tweak your carb intake to find the right balance.
Lots of Counting
Partaking in the carb cycling diet involves keeping track of the number of grams of carbohydrates, protein, and fat you eat. Doing so can be a tedious and time-consuming task, making it difficult for people to stick within the long term.
Potential for Overeating
Most dietitians agree that carbohydrates are an essential part of a balanced diet. So, by limiting your carb intake on rest days, you might crave them. That means once you hit a high-carb day when you’re going to exercise, you might end up binging on carbs.
Benefits of the Carb Cycling Diet
Carb cycling can help ensure your body has sufficient glycogen to power through tough workouts. As a result, you may be able to build stronger muscles faster, given that muscles need both glycogen and protein for repair.
Furthermore, the carb cycling diet promotes eating healthy, whole food. As a result, it can aid with weight loss, helping you avoid severe conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.
Risks of the Carb Cycling Diet
The carb cycling diet comes with risks, given that it requires you to eat far below the minimum carbohydrate recommendation on your rest days. According to mainstream nutrition recommendations, you should receive 45% - 65% of your daily calories from carbs.
While carb cycling isn’t as extreme as ultra-low-carb diets like keto, it can still cause you to run into dangerous territory. A lack of carbs for too long can cause headaches, low blood pressure, kidney stones, and nutrient deficiencies.
Is Carb Cycling Right for You?
Some people swear by carb cycling for the casual person trying to lose weight. Others stand firm that it’s only a diet suitable for athletes, while some denounce the diet as a whole.
If you’re thinking about partaking in the carb cycling diet, we strongly recommend speaking with your doctor. That way, they can offer advice on how many carbs you should consume on your active and rest days.
Lainey Youkin, M.S., RD, LDN, Carb Cycling Diet—What Is It? Does It Work?, retrieved from https://www.eatingwell.com/article/286043/carb-cycling-diet-what-is-it-does-it-work/
Mary Jo DiLonardo, Carb Cycling, retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/diet/carb-cycling-overview
Julia Malacoff, What Is Carb Cycling—and Should You Try It?, retrieved from https://www.shape.com/healthy-eating/diet-tips/what-is-carb-cycling