Unpopular opinion: “Low-carb diets are so hard to stick to!” Yes, you want to go full keto and get your dream body in a few months. But you hate the idea of giving up carbs entirely. Even worse, your cravings get out of control every once in a while. So you need a moderate diet, one that lets you eat some carbs every so often. Carb cycling does exactly that! It might be the happy medium between going carb-free and letting your carb cravings rule you. So, is carb cycling good for weight loss? How does it work? Here are the answers to your most pressing carb cycling questions, along with a sample 12-week carb cycling meal plan.
What Is Carb Cycling?
Carb cycling is a diet tactic where you eat different amounts of carbohydrates on alternate days depending on your activity.
Unlike intense dieting, which can lead to weight loss then the yo-yo effect once the diet is over, this method helps maintain steady body weight by regulating hormonal stress caused by calorie restriction.
The idea behind carb cycling is that people can’t stick to the same low-carb diet indefinitely without craving something—usually, carbs. When this happens, they either go back to their old eating habits or quit altogether. Carb cycling aims to make it easier to adhere to and lose weight with a zero-, very low-, or low-carb diet.
In some cases, carb cycling can help combat fatigue and decline in energy levels that often occur when following a low-carb diet over a long period.
- High-Carb Days. You eat more carbs than usual and fill up on things like whole grains, legumes, fruit, and starchy vegetables. Research suggests that these types of carbs will not only give you energy but also help keep you full (1).
- Low-Carb Days. Your carb intake is much lower than usual. You may still be in a calorie deficit (eating fewer calories than you burn), but the calories from carbs are drastically reduced. This may lead to greater fat loss and less muscle loss compared to steady-state diets.
Benefits Of Carb Cycling
There are not many studies of how carb-cycling affects a person’s physique. However, we can get some insight from what we know about macronutrients and how they should be consumed to help encourage weight loss.
Fueling Tough Workouts
Insufficient carbohydrates can compromise athletic performance, especially endurance activities or high-intensity training; it may also make sustaining workouts difficult since the body won’t have enough readily available fuel to keep muscles fueled with ATP.
Carbohydrates are used by muscles for high-intensity activity (2). Therefore, it is best to consume larger amounts of carbohydrates around a workout because this will give your muscles enough energy without negatively affecting fat loss efforts.
By consuming a sufficient amount of carbohydrates, you can also help prevent muscle fatigue. In an endurance sport, you want to keep your body fueled with glycogen so that your muscles do not start using gluconeogenesis (a process in which the liver converts protein into glucose) as fuel (7).
The timing of carbohydrate consumption may also influence how well carb cycling works for weight loss purposes in certain situations. In one study, participants who consumed a high amount of carbohydrates two hours before exercising lost more weight than the other groups (5).
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Reducing Hunger And Cravings
In addition to helping decrease body fat levels by fueling intense workouts, another benefit of carb-cycling is that it does not lead to high-level hunger pangs. People who are trying to cut back on calories often complain about how hungry they get. Giving up carbs altogether comes with intense cravings that might make it harder to stick to the diet.
Carb cycling helps with this because you can eat a higher amount of carbohydrates around periods where your energy requirements are at their highest (during and right after a workout) or when you need extra energy in general (for example, if you have a busy day ahead). You also get to indulge your cravings with a moderate amount of carbs every other day.
This may be helpful for some people who find that they do not want to stick to an extremely low-calorie diet plan because they feel hungry all the time even though they have given up soda, candy bars, chips, etc.
Controlling Blood Sugar
The benefits of carb cycling for blood sugar control are massive. It could be an excellent tool for pre-diabetics or those with high blood sugars. By manipulating insulin levels, it may help stabilize and even reduce them naturally. When you cycle your carbs according to the plan, your body’s insulin sensitivity could potentially increase. It means that less insulin is needed to process carbohydrates and sugar. This will also result in lower fasting cortisol levels, as well as lowering cholesterol (including LDL or “bad” cholesterol) and raising HDL or “good” cholesterol levels (6).
Carb cycling may be a good option if you have insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is when the body’s cells do not react to normal levels of insulin. Insulin plays an important role in how glucose, or blood sugar, gets into and out of the cell (4). If you are overweight or obese, your body might overproduce insulin, and this can cause you to become resistant to it.
Carb cycling remedies this by allowing you to eat some carbohydrates on certain days of the week and very little carbohydrates on other days. Then your body might be more efficient at using insulin because it is not overproducing it due to overeating all the time (3).
If you do have insulin resistance or any other health condition, always speak to your doctor before making any major dietary changes, including carb cycling.
How To Carb Cycle?
Carb cycling can get quite complicated for a beginner.
Here is a simplified process that you can use to get started :
Step 1: Learn Your Daily Carb Needs
The first step in any carbohydrate-cutting program is figuring out exactly how many grams of carbs you should be eating to support your lifestyle and body weight goals.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that carbohydrates make up 45 to 65 percent of your total daily calories. So, if you get 2000 calories a day, between 900 and 1300 calories should be from carbohydrates. That translates to between 225 and 325 grams of carbohydrates a day.
However, the exact amount you need for low-carb and high-carb days is based on the calories you are taking to create a deficit and lose weight. The most reliable method of calculating how many calories you should eat each day is by using an accurate calorie needs calculator, and there are several available online.
Step 2: Plan Your Weekly Activities
Do you plan to work out? How often, and how intense will your workout sessions be? Categorize your days based on when you are more active and when you plan to rest.
Step 3: Adjust Your Daily Carb Intake Accordingly
Having a weekly plan is important to schedule a high-carb intake for days when you need more energy. This ensures the extra calories are used up and that you don’t frustrate your weight loss efforts.
Use this for guidance:
- Eat fewer carbs on rest days or on days you are restricting calorie intake for weight loss.
- Eat more carbs on heavy training days, strength training days, and any time you need or use the extra calories.
You should also decide the types of carbs you’re eating based on your weekly activities. Generally, whole/complex carb sources are preferred as they are less likely to cause spikes in blood sugar. However, simple carbs are acceptable after a workout.
Use this for guidance:
- Eat more simple carbs before and after a workout session for quick fuel and optimal recovery.
- Eat more starchy and high fiber carbs throughout the day to promote fullness and better blood sugar control.
Step 4: Track Your Macros
It can be tempting to “eye-ball” your meals and hope you’re getting the figures right. This is even more likely when you’re busy and can’t make time to track everything you eat.
However, tracking macros is extremely important for the success of any carb-cycling or weight loss plan. Using a health tracker to keep on top of your macros is a more efficient and practical method than tracking your daily energy expenditure and adjusting for weight loss or muscle gain.
Step 5: Adjust And Repeat
You might not get it right the first time. During your first few weeks on the carb-cycling plan, you’ll notice some aspects that work and others that need tweaking. Pay attention to your hunger and energy levels and how your workouts are going. Then add more carbs or scale back as needed.
Which Foods To Eat While Carb Cycling?
When on a carb-cycling plan, you’ll have to eat “good” carbs and avoid “bad” carbs. Bad carbs are generally processed, high in sugar and additives. Good carbohydrates have these qualities:
- High fiber content
- Slow digestion
- Less processed
Some foods that contain good carbs that you should make part of your carb cycles include:
Whole Grains And Legumes
Whole grains and legumes are some of the best foods to include in a carb cycling meal plan. This is mainly because they contain high amounts of fiber and are slow to digest. It makes them perfect for a carb cycling meal plan. Some examples of whole grains include oats, brown rice, whole wheat & quinoa. Legumes include all types of beans and lentils.
Higher Fiber Fruits And Vegetables
Fiber is an essential part of any carb-cycling meal plan. Your body will not absorb the carbs contained in fiber, so it passes through your body undigested. This can help you stay full longer and burn fat because it keeps you feeling full for a while (9). Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes all have fiber. Some examples include berries, avocadoes, cabbage, and broccoli.
Complex Carbs With Low Glycemic Index (GI)
These are normally slower digesting carbs that come from whole foods as opposed to refined or processed foods (which are high GI) (8). They also contain lots of nutritious fiber. Examples include pasta, beans, bulgur, and brown rice.
Low Sugar Fruits And Vegetables
Any fruit or vegetable that is low in sugar will be great for your carb cycling meal plan. The reason for this is because they won’t cause insulin spikes which lead to fat storage. Some examples include cabbage, celery, and cauliflower.
Complex Carbs With High Glycemic Index (GI)
These are foods that have a high GI. While not as good for your carb cycling meal plan (because they cause insulin spikes), you can use them at the beginning or end of a cycle when you’re getting leaner to kick start fat burning or to sustain your energy levels during workouts. You need these to replenish your glycogen stores and provide the energy needed for intense exercise or workouts. Some examples of complex carbs with high GI include white rice, sweet potatoes, and instant oatmeals.
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Sample 12-Week Carb Cycling Plan
This week-long carb cycling meal plan can be part of your 12-week routine. The key is to strategically choose your high and low-carb days and keep adjusting your plan based on your results.
Day One – High Carb
- Breakfast: 1 bowl of knock-oats – 63.5g carbs, 19.6g fat, 14g protein, and 451 calories
- Snack: 1 tuna sandwich with 2 slices of whole wheat bread – 27.2g carbs, 3.1g fat, 10.5g protein, and 177 calories
- Lunch: 1 serving of spinach, ham, and pear salad with 1 cup of strawberries and 8 ounces Greek yogurt – 53.2g carbs, 3.4g fat, 31.3g protein, and 341 calories
- Dinner: 1 serving chicken diane with 2 servings of pan-roasted asparagus – 10.9 carbs, 26 g fat, 58.7g protein, and 526 calories
- Total daily carbs: 154.8 carbs
- Total daily calories: 1494 calories
Day Two – Low Carb
- Breakfast: 1 serving of low carb Asiago baked eggs made with 2 large eggs – 1.2g carbs, 36.6g fat, 16.3 g protein, and 397 calories
- Snack: 2 ounces of cheddar cheese slices – 0.8g carbs, 19.2g fat, 13.6g protein, and 230 calories
- Lunch: 1 serving of lettuce cucumber walnut salad and 1 ounce of almonds – 7.6g carbs, 30.9g fat, 10.4g protein, and 355 calories
- Dinner: 1 serving of bacon tuna salad with 1 serving of brown butter sautéed Brussel sprouts – 23.2g carbs, 28.2g fat, 40.4g protein, and 515 calories
- Total daily carbs: 32.8 carbs
- Total daily calories: 1497 calories
Day Three – High Carb
- Breakfast: 1 serving raspberry frosty blended salad with 4 strips of bacon – 41.6g carbs, 20.8g fat, 13.9g protein, and 383 calories
- Snack: 1 medium banana with 2 servings turkey lettuce roll-ups – 32.3g carbs, 3g fat, 19.6g protein, and 224 calories
- Lunch: 1 simple ham sandwich with two slices of whole wheat bread and 4 slices of ham – 31.2g carbs, 14.7g fat, 23.4g protein, and 355 calories
- Dinner: 1 almond butter chicken salad lettuce wrap with 4 easy parmesan crisps – 22.9g carbs, 20.9g fat, 65.1g protein, and 540 calories
- Total daily carbs: 128 carbs
- Total daily calories: 1502 calories
Day Four – Low Carb
- Breakfast: 2 servings of spinach avocado bowl and 1 medium apple – 25.2g carbs, 26.7g fat and 4.3g protein, and 402 calories
- Snack: 1 ounce of pecans – 1.2g carbs, 20.4g fat, 2.6g protein, and 196 calories
- Lunch: 2 servings of deli roast beef pepper and provolone lettuce wrap – 6.8g carbs, 32.6 g fat, 32.6g protein, and 463 calories
- Dinner: 1 philly cheesesteak stuffed pepper – 7.3g carbs, 30.2g fat, 33.7g protein, and 442 calories
- Total daily carbs: 40.5 carbs
- Total daily calories: 1502 calories
Day Five – High Carb
- Breakfast: 1 blueberry almond butter protein smoothie – 39.6g carbs, 9.6g fat, 52.8g protein, and 451 calories
- Snack: 2 stalks of celery with 2 tablespoons of peanut butter – 10.7g carbs, 16.2g fat, 8.6g protein, and 209 calories
- Lunch: 2 servings of peanut butter stuffed dates – 74.3g carbs, 5.5g fat, 4.3g protein, and 329 calories
- Dinner: 1 serving of crushed lentil soup with 1 serving of garlic dill new potatoes – 90.5g carbs, 8.9g fat, 21.7g protein, and 513 calories
- Total daily carbs: 215.1 carbs
- Total daily calories: 1502 calories
Day Six – Low Carb
- Breakfast: 1 egg, cheese, and bacon omelet and 2 strips of bacon – 1.9g carbs, 31.2g fat, 37.2g protein, and 448 calories
- Snack: 1 serving cinnamon flax shake – 10.5g carbs, 7.8g fat, 26.8g protein, and 238 calories
- Lunch: 1 serving turkey lettuce cheese roll-ups with 1 cup of carrots – 16.3g carbs, 16.7g fat, 25.2g protein, and 344 calories
- Dinner: 1 serving zucchini Alfredo with 2 cups of easy fried spinach – 8.3g carbs, 44.5g fat, 9.6g protein, and 469 calories
- Total daily carbs: 37 carbs
- Total daily calories: 1499 calories
Day Seven – High Carb
- Breakfast: 2 servings of cinnamon flax shake – 29.8g carbs, 15.5g fat, 53.7g protein, and 476 calories
- Snack: 1 cup of carrot slices or strips with 5 tablespoons of hummus – 22.4g carbs, 7.5g fat, 7.1g protein, and 175 calories
- Lunch: 1 peanut butter and jelly sandwich made with 2 slices of regular multi-grain bread – 41.7g carbs, 18.4g fat, 12.4g protein, and 371 calories
- Dinner: 1 serving of steak with tomato bean salad – 23.2g carbs, 21.8g fat, 45.1g protein, and 471 calories
- Total daily carbs: 117.1 carbs
- Total daily calories: 1493 calories
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The Bottom Line
If you’re struggling to stick to a low-carb diet, carb cycling may be the weight loss solution for you! It’s a low-carb diet with intermittent periods of high carb intake, which can help reduce cravings and allow you to stick to your goals long term. To successfully use this diet, it is helpful to plan and track your macros. Also, it is important to remember to time your carb intake with activity levels.
This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility.
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- Exercise and Regulation of Carbohydrate Metabolism (2015, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Impact of High-Carbohydrate Diet on Metabolic Parameters in Patients with Type 2 Diabetes (2017, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Insulin and Insulin Resistance (2005, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- International society of sports nutrition position stand: nutrient timing (2017, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Physiology, Carbohydrates (2020, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Physiology, Gluconeogenesis (2021, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Relevance of the Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load for Body Weight, Diabetes, and Cardiovascular Disease (2018, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- The effect of fiber on satiety and food intake: a systematic review (2013, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)