I’ve had a few clients ask, “What’s the point of carbohydrate cycling?” So, I’m going to answer that, explain what it looks like on a day-to-day basis, and explore the benefits of utilizing this dietary approach.
What is Carb Cycling?
Essentially, it’s a dietary method in which carb intake is alternated on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. Carb cycling allows our bodies to burn fat as fuel, maximizing the benefits of the carbohydrates we eat. The point of the cycling is to lose fat, manipulate metabolism, and improve (or at least maintain) physical performance. Carbs can be adjusted from day-to-day, so one day you can have a higher carb intake and the next can be lower.
Implementing low carb days (days when you eat fewer carbohydrates) manipulates insulin levels. Doing so improves insulin sensitivity, metabolic flexibility, and ultimately, the body's ability to burn fat. The goal of carb cycling is to match the body’s need for glucose or calories. Higher carb days are for refueling your muscle glycogen stores. This can result in reduced muscle breakdown, better performance, and improved function of the hormones, ghrelin and leptin. Low carb days enable the body to switch its way of metabolizing, using fat as the main energy source.
Benefits of Carbohydrate Cycling
Individuals often utilize carbohydrate cycling for weight loss. This is achieved by consuming less food than your body burns over a period of time, creating a calorie deficit. Carb cycling is beneficial for physical performance and muscle gain. It’s also useful in improving cholesterol levels and insulin sensitivity, as well as increasing fat burning.
What Carbohydrates Should I Eat and How Much?
Healthy, whole, or "clean" carbohydrates should be utilized during carb cycling. This excludes refined sugars, refined flours, processed foods, and soft drinks. On the other hand, healthy carb sources are delicious and full of vitamins, minerals, and fiber. They digest efficiently; fight inflammation, diseases, bacteria; and slow aging. Good sources of carbs include vegetables, fruits, legumes, and tubers.
Healthy Carb Examples:
✓ Sweet Potato
How to Implement Carb Cycling
There’s really no right or wrong way to carb cycle. You can alter your cycling plan daily or you can perform longer periods of time with high or low carbs. Since this dietary approach is different than a regular diet, it takes trial and error. So be patient with yourself and your body and know that some experimenting will be required in order to reach optimal results. To better understand what a week of carbohydrate cycling looks like, I’ve included a sample below.
Day Carb Intake Grams of carbs
Sunday Low carb 50g
Monday High carb 200g
Tuesday High carb 200g
Wednesday Low carb 50g
Thursday Low carb 50g
Friday Moderate 100g
Saturday Moderate 100g
Carb Cycling Menu Examples:
Low Carb Meal Day
✓ Breakfast: 2 eggs, 2 egg whites, w/ bacon or turkey sausage & spinach salad (12g carbs)
✓ Lunch: 6 oz grilled chicken salad with 1 tsp olive oil (12g carbs)
✓ Dinner: 6 oz grilled salmon with mixed vegetables (12g carbs)
✓ Snack: 1 oz almonds and deli chicken slices (10g carbs)
Moderate Carb Meal Day
✓ Breakfast: 2 eggs with 1 cup blueberries & sunflower seeds (25g carbs)
✓ Lunch: 1 chicken salad sandwich w/ carrots (25g carbs)
✓ Dinner: 4 oz baked sweet potato, 6 oz chicken breast, 1 serving kidney beans & mixed veggies (40g carbs)
✓ Snack: 1 banana w/mixed nuts & tbsp. peanut butter (25g carbs)
High Carb Meal Day
✓ Breakfast: 2 eggs, 2 slices gluten free toast, spinach, & tomatoes w/1 cup apple slices (50g carbs)
✓ Lunch: 4 oz baked sweet potato, 6 oz pork chop, mixed veggies, and 1 serving kidney beans (40g carbs)
✓ Dinner: 1 serving quinoa, 6 oz lean chicken breast, 1 serving black beans, lettuce, tomatoes, & peppers (65g carbs)
✓ Snack: I serving oatmeal, skim milk, 1 cup strawberries (50g carbs)
Going Out to Eat
Low carb restaurant examples:
• Panera- Chicken caesar salad without croutons & dressing on the side
• Chick-Fil-A- Grilled nuggets
• Canes- Naked chicken fingers
• Chipotle/Qdoba- Salad w/ grilled chicken, veggies, pico & dressing on the side
• BurgerFi- Lettuce wrapped burger w/tomato
• Waffle House/iHop- Bacon or sausage and eggs
• Jimmy John’s- Unwich (lettuce wrap)
Tips for Dining Out
• If you’re ordering a salad, ask for dressing on the side
• If you’re ordering a salad, eliminate the croutons or wontons.
• If you’re ordering a sandwich, wrap, or burger, drop the bun/bread or use lettuce
• Eliminate or reduce condiments (choose mustard)
• Avoid bread and chips
Reaching a Plateau
It’s likely that you'll reach a fat-burning plateau while utilizing carbohydrate cycling. If this becomes the case, then you need to switch things up a bit. Have a cheat meal one day or have three to four high carb days to jumpstart your metabolism. This will allow the fat burning process to re-set. Another option is to try zero carbs (none whatsoever) for multiple consecutive days.
Take Home Message
Carbohydrate cycling is a great tool to improve health, physical performance, and diet. A balance between a low and high carbohydrate diet may be most beneficial for an individual’s psychological and physiological state. Finally, utilizing carb cycling requires adjusting high and low carb days to best fit your lifestyle.