What is a carb-cycling diet?
In the most simplest terms, a carb-cycling diet typically involves alternating between high-carb eating days and low-carb eating days.
Now, my regular readers will know that I’m not particularly a fan of the word “diet”.
In my mind it conjures up images of restricting certain foods (or even entire food groups) for a set period of time in order to lose weight.
With that said, by following a “diet” strictly and to the letter you will actually lose weight.
Sounds great, right?
Whoa, hold your horses, if only it was that simple.
However, once a diet is over most people return to their “normal” way of eating and start piling the pounds back on (and often even more weight than before because of the impact that some diets have on our metabolism).
Nevertheless, carb cycling is something that I personally regularly adhere to.
I don’t follow a particularly strict protocol you understand, but I appreciate how carb cycling can be ideal for weight maintenance and indeed, weight loss.
So, I’d like to delve a little deeper into carb-cycling diets.
What is a Carb-Cycling Diet?
A Quick Word on Carbs
I think before I get into the nitty-gritty of carb cycling I just want to say that carbs aren’t the enemy, and they never have been.
We went through a period a few decades back when fats were considered to be the devil incarnate, but in the current millennium it seems that carbs are now evil, satanic offerings that should be avoided at all costs.
During the 1980s and 1990s everything was low-fat this and low-fat that, but now we have realised that only certain types of fats are bad for us, whereas others are actually very good for our health.
Atkins made an appearance towards the end of the last century before we started eating like our cavemen ancestors and Paleo became all the rage.
And as we go full-steam ahead and enter the third decade of the new millennium (it’s gone really quickly, hasn’t it?) Keto is all that anyone has been talking about for the last 5 years.
Basically, many of us are currently severely restricting carbs and even cutting them out completely.
I will say that eating too many carbs can contribute to you storing body fat and putting on weight.
However, carbs are required to fuel both the body and the brain.
We just don’t seem to focus on eating the right types of carbs, such as whole grains, plus certain fruits and vegetables.
No, we are far more attracted to the sugary and starchy carbs that taste so delicious, and we feel as though we simply can’t live without them.
Then once the pounds start piling on we immediately blame the entire food group, “carbs are bad”, without realising that it’s simply our choice of carbs that is at fault.
This is why for people who are looking to maintain their current weight, or lose weight and body fat, carb cycling may just be the happy medium.
Carb Cycling Explained
There are literally so many carb-cycling systems and diets out there it’s enough to make your head spin.
I guess it’s most commonly associated with serious athletes, especially bodybuilders.
Bodybuilders will typically know day-to-day exactly when they’re going to workout and how long for.
So, they will follow a weekly carb-cycling program.
This may involve eating a high number of carbs one day followed by two or three days of extremely low-carb eating.
They will specifically count the number of grams of carbs they are consuming each day based on their muscle mass, weight, activity levels and overall goals.
However, for us mere mortals, a great way to approach carb cycling is on a daily basis over a longer period of time.
So, let’s say that you workout really hard for 4 days a week.
This may involve heavy weight-lifting, high-intensity intervals, circuits, sprint workouts, etc.
On these particular days your body burns through carbs and fat for energy.
This means that your stores of protein are left alone and can be used for their actual purpose, building and powering your muscles.
So, for your workout days, or higher-intensity exercise days, it’s a good idea to get more of your calories from carbs.
You require more energy on these days, and your body will automatically use these “additional” carbs for energy.
However, on the days that you are either inactive, or you exercise at a lower intensity, e.g. yoga class, long walk, jogging (NO, LOL, I’m not a fan), then it may make sense to lower your carb intake.
CHECK THIS OUT====>Is Jogging Good For Losing Weight?
You see by eating the exact same number of carbs on your “inactive” days your body may store glucose from the additional carbs in your fat cells.
By consuming fewer carbs on these days your body will automatically use fat for energy, and this is how you either maintain your current weight or lose weight (depending on your overall calorie intake).
Carb Cycling and Your Weight
A simplified way to look at this would be:
- To Lose Weight – Eat fewer carbs on your inactive days, but maintain the same amount of protein and fat.
- To Maintain Weight – Eat fewer carbs on your inactive days, but eat more protein and vegetables (if you swap carbs for additional protein and vegetables on “rest” days it’s actually really hard to overeat – don’t believe me, try eating double the amount of chicken and broccoli compared to normal, it’s pretty much impossible).
- To Gain Weight – Eat slightly fewer carbs on your inactive days, but eat more protein, vegetables, and “good” fats.
You’ll note that for putting on weight I’ve mentioned to “slightly” cut carbs on rest days.
The idea behind weight loss or weight gain is not to make wholesale changes, but to aim for small increments every week.
So, if you’re trying to lose weight, you may decide to cut your carbs in half on inactive days – so rather than a full bowl of porridge, you’ll eat half.
Rather than a full portion of rice or pasta, you’ll eat half a portion.
And rather than eating a whole jacket potato, you eat half.
You could argue that if someone is looking to gain weight then they should just stick to eating the same macronutrient split (carbs, protein, fats) every day, regardless of whether they are exercising or not.
However, let’s not forget that eating too many carbs may lead to weight gain by storing fat.
The aim of putting on weight will be to do so in a healthy manner, which is best achieved by eating sensibly and looking to increase lean muscle mass (as opposed to fat).
What’s the Difference Between Carb Cycling and Keto?
The Ketogenic diet has some very specific rules about what you can eat and how much of it.
The basic idea of keto is to reduce carbs and increase fat so that the body is “fuelled” by ketones, as opposed to glucose (basically the body will use fat to burn for energy, which is why the diet requires you to dramatically increase your intake of fat).
However, the various forms of Keto will require you to eat less than 30-50g of carbs most days.
This is generally why people experience “keto-flu” for the first week after starting a ketogenic diet.
As the body tries to adjust to fewer carbs you may feel headaches, fatigue, irritability, difficulty sleeping, constipation, etc.
Just to confuse matters somewhat there is also a process known as Keto cycling, which allows for additional carbs on certain days.
But, that’s for discussion in another article entirely.
The way in which carb cycling differs to Keto is that even on your low-carb days you will still be eating a lot more carbs than on a Ketogenic diet.
For a basic rule of thumb you could say that on your “exercise days” you should be eating 2g of carbs per pound of bodyweight, and on your inactive days, you eat half this amount.
So, for a person weighing 170lb they would consume 340g of carbs on active days and 170g of carbs on inactive days.
As you can clearly see both days offer far more carbs than the restrictive 50g (or below) with Keto.
My “Rules” for Carb-Cycling
Firstly, I have to say that even though I follow a type of carb-cycling method, I’m not overly restrictive and I have learned to be flexible.
In fact, on inactive days it could be something as simple as losing the banana and honey from my morning oats, as well as having about three-quarters of the amount I usually would.
I won’t eat the two tangerines I like to enjoy mid-morning, and my evening meal will have about three-quarters of the carbs it normally would.
In total, just these small changes account for about 125g in carbs.
However, being that I’d like to maintain my weight, I have a slight increase in protein, fat, and vegetables.
This could be as easy as “sweetening” my morning oats with an extra tablespoon (or two if I’m honest) of peanut butter, replacing the tangerines with a handful of nuts and seeds, and piling on the veg (and stealing extra portions of chicken, fish, etc. from someone else’s plate).
So, as you can see, pretty much everything stays the same, and I certainly don’t feel as though I’m restricting myself in any way (which is typically how most people feel when they’re on a “diet”).
You should also be aware that both protein and carbs have 4 calories per gram, whereas fat has 9 calories per gram.
Therefore, if I didn’t have the additional protein, fat, and vegetables on my rest days, the loss of 125g of carbs would equate to 500 calories.
Is losing weight without “dieting” every single day of your life becoming a little clearer now?
The “Rules” of a Carb-Cycling Diet
For those of you who are looking to lose weight via carb cycling it will require a little more planning, and you may even wish to weigh, measure, and count the actual grams that you’re consuming.
This does delve into the realms of being “restrictive” as far as I’m concerned, but with most carb-cycling diets, measuring is a requirement.
Firstly, you’ll need to know how many calories you need on a daily basis.
This is based around a number of factors, e.g. height, weight, age, activity levels, etc.
You can check out my article, How Many Calories Does the Average Person Burn in a Day?
You will find various calorie-calculators (I’ve included one just below), which will work out how many calories you are burning while at rest, as well as how many calories you are burning a day based on your levels of activity.
Once you know how many calories you are currently burning a day you simply need to consume fewer calories than this in order to lose weight.
I would suggest that a good starting point is to consume 300-500 calories less a day than you’re burning, and you’ll lose weight steadily, but healthily.
As for how you should split your macronutrients, once again many carb-cycling diets will require exact amounts, but I’ll make it a little easier for you.
In general, in order to maintain your weight, you can aim to eat 2g of carbs per pound of body weight, 1g of protein per pound of body weight, and make the rest up with healthy fats.
Calories, Carb Cycling & Weight Loss
Here’s an example using all the information above.
A man aged 25, 5ft 10, 170lbs, works in a moderately physical job, and performs heavy weight training regularly.
Using this calculator we know that his Basal Metabolic Rate (calories burned while at rest) is 1,833 calories.
However, based on his activity levels he would need to consume 3,116 calories a day in order to maintain his weight of 170lbs.
His macronutrient split would be:
340g of carbs (his weight x 2) x 4 (4 calories per gram of carbs) = 1,360 calories
170g of protein (his weight x 1) x 4 (4 calories per gram of protein) = 680 calories
A total of 2,040 calories.
The rest of his calories should be made up in healthy fats, i.e. 3,116 – 2,040 = 1,076 calories
1,076 / 9 (9 calories per gram of fat) = 120g of fat
This is the number of calories and macronutrient split that this man would require to maintain his weight.
This is also a very healthy macronutrient split of calories working out to 54% carbs, 27% protein, 19% fats.
In order to lose weight we will reduce this man’s calorie intake by 500 calories a day to 2,616 calories.
We will do this by decreasing 50g in carbs (200 calories), 15g in protein (60 calories), and approximately 27g in protein (243 calories), so 503 calories in total.
So, his new daily totals will be:
- 290g carbs
- 155g protein
- 93g fat
This will still provide him with enough energy to live his active lifestyle, while building lean muscle, and losing weight.
On the days when he isn’t as active (not performing heavy weight training) he can “cycle” his carbs.
I would suggest cutting just 100g in carbs, thus reducing his calorie intake by a further 400 calories, so he is consuming 2,216 calories on his rest days.
This is a very rudimentary way to look at carb cycling and weight loss, but hopefully you understand it a little better now.
I would also say that if you are looking to follow a specific carb-cycling diet it is important to know these calculations, as it will typically be a requirement to follow these for yourself.
Is carb cycling right for you?
I guess this very much depends on the type of person you are and what you’re looking to achieve.
I definitely think there is a benefit to carb cycling in terms of simply consuming fewer carbs on the days when you are less active.
This is what I do and it works for me.
I don’t take any specific measurements, but through experience I have learned what is right for me.
Initially, this did take some working out, as I found there were days when I lacked energy or felt hungry because I hadn’t consumed enough carbs on a low-carb day.
There also happened to be days when I felt stuffed and full because I had overdone the carbs on my inactive days.
It’s just a simple process of working out what’s right for you.
As for whether you should try a more strict carb cycling diet – well that depends on whether you want to be measuring, weighing, counting, and perhaps lacking flexibility in what and when you can eat.
What I will say for anyone who is carb-cycling is that you should keep your low-carb days to an absolute minimum of 130g (your brain and body will still be required to function).
Plus focus more on dropping sugar and refined carbs, such as bagels, muffins, etc, and ensure that you stick with eating the carbs that have plenty of fibre, e.g. oats, apples, broccoli, etc.
Tessa’s Open & Honest Views on Carb Cycling
Hopefully, you’re now aware of what a carb-cycling diet is and how they work.
You may even now have decided whether you’re for or against carb cycling.
As I’ve mentioned, carb cycling is definitely something that I do, but I am flexible in my approach.
Simply put, on the days when I am highly energetic I consume a higher amount of carbs.
And on the occasional day when my activity levels are much lower I eat a few fewer carbs.
What are your thoughts on carb cycling?
I’d love to hear from you, so drop me a line in the comments section below.
Thank you for reading.
Hi, I’m Partha, the founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I’m someone who’s been passionate about exercise and nutrition for more years than I care to remember. I’ve studied, researched, and honed my skills for a number of decades now. So, I’ve created this website to hopefully share my knowledge with you. Whether your goal is to lose weight, burn fat, get fitter, or build muscle and strength, I’ve got you covered.