Are you tired of your weight not budging? You’re not alone! It seems like the more we try, the harder it is to lose that stubborn fat. And at some point, we just give up and give in. But what if there was a way to melt away pounds without feeling hungry or deprived? That is where carb cycling comes into the picture. You may have never heard of it, but carb cycling is a great way to trick your body into burning more fat. Although not much research has been done into this manner of eating yet, it offers a more flexible dieting option for many. Here’s what you need to know about 21 day carb cycling.
What Is Carb Cycling?
Carb cycling is the practice of eating a low to moderate amount of carbs one day, then a high amount of carbs another day (1). This can be done for specific days (2 high carbs, 5 low carbs) or every other day (3 high carbs, 4 low carbs).
Low carb days should stick to about 20-50 grams of net carbs if ketosis is the goal (5). High carb days can go up to 100-150 grams or more if you are not sensitive to sugars. Even though there are some varying opinions on low and high carb days, this seems like a reasonable amount for most people. Net carbs subtract out the fiber, which is beneficial since it doesn’t raise blood sugar levels.
The best way to illustrate carb cycling is to compare this diet plan to anaerobic exercise – the intense burst of energy you get when you sprint or lift weights. Just like these exercises use carbohydrates for fuel and then replenish them in the recovery phase, carb cycling does precisely that by alternating which days you’re eating high-carb and low-carb meals.
During the high-carb day, your body uses carbohydrate stores as energy, which are plentiful. During the low-carb days, your body is forced to use up its stored fat for energy which could help you shed pounds and burn more calories (5).
In other words: carb cycling makes your calorie deficit last longer so that the scale keeps moving lower – plus, it prevents those intense food cravings!
How Long Can You Be On A Carb Cycling Diet?
Many people choose to carb cycle for a certain number of days or weeks (usually after reaching their goal weight). Some may choose 21-day rapid fat loss carb cycling to break a weight loss plateau or a permanent way of eating.
This is fine, but you need to be careful not to go back to your regular eating habits. If you want this dieting method to last long-term, it’s best done in conjunction with a healthy lifestyle that includes regular exercise and frequent portion control.
Does Carb Cycling Work?
The 21-day carb cycling results depend on many factors outside of the diet. Like any other weight loss initiative, it’s the combination of portion control and regular exercise that makes it successful (4).
If you don’t work out on your high carb days and only focus on diet, you severely limit your potential results. This doesn’t mean you can’t see success without exercise and portion control, just keep in mind that you need to combine this diet with those elements to get sustainable results.
Be wary of a 21-day fix of extreme carb cycling; anything that’s too restrictive or too excessive will not give you the best results. As always, safe, gradual weight loss is more sustainable than a quick fix.
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Is Carb Cycling Safe?
The short answer is, “Yes!” As long as you don’t overeat on your high days! It is vital for anyone used to a low carb diet and considering carb cycling to pay attention to how their body reacts when they eat more carbs. Reactions include migraines, fatigue, insomnia, and other symptoms related to insulin sensitivity (5).
If you feel these side effects coming on, take immediate action by reducing your calorie intake for the rest of the day (or even switch to a low-carb day) until you feel better.
If you are currently on a moderate to high carb diet and thinking of going low carb or carb cycling, speak to your doctor first, especially if you have any existing health conditions.
What Are The Benefits Of Carb Cycling?
Again, not much research has been done to prove the benefits of carb cycling. However, those who follow this way of eating have reported improvements in various aspects.
Better Adherence To Diet
It promotes steady energy and stable moods, which, in turn, helps the dieter stick with their plan. It helps avoid the feelings of deprivation that often come with restrictive diets. Experts have also found that carb cycling can help you eat less food per meal without feeling hungry.
Improved Sports Performance
Some studies have shown that consuming more carbs around intense workouts can improve performance for athletes (10). This is due to the ability of this diet to keep sugar levels stable during workouts and peak performance periods.
For athletes who do high-intensity workouts such as weight training and sprints, results show it can be more beneficial than low-carbohydrate programs because it helps the body function at its maximum level.
Improved Insulin Sensitivity
Carb cycling involves controlling carbohydrate intake. Studies show that a high fiber-rich carb intake helps the body’s cells to become more sensitive to insulin (7). By reducing blood sugar levels, there is less chance of gaining weight and experiencing spikes in hunger.
Decrease Risk Of Cardiovascular Disease
When you consume too many carbs during meals, the excess glucose unused by your body gets deposited as fat into your bloodstream. When this happens regularly, it promotes inflammation and puts you at risk for developing heart disease or type 2 diabetes. Alternatively, those who eat high fiber diets tend to have lower LDL (bad cholesterol) and higher HDL (good cholesterol) levels (7).
Read More: Carbs Before Bed: What Does Science Say?
Improved Cholesterol Levels
Carb cycling can lead people to eat fewer calories, which makes them less likely to gain weight. Although no controlled trial has scientifically proven this, many people who practice carb cycling have reported improvements in their fasting blood glucose and LDL (bad cholesterol) levels over time.
Reduce Excess Body Fat
A diet high in carbs can lead to fat accumulation in your body because it stimulates an increase in fat storage hormone known as Insulin-like Growth Factor 1 (IGF-1). By cutting down on your intake of carbohydrates during certain meals or days, IGF-1 may be reduced, which is a sign that your body is at an optimal weight.
Which Foods Are Good For Carb Cycling?
Rather than listing good and bad foods, this is what you need to know for the carb cycling diet to work for you.
Foods For A Moderate-Carb Day
On a moderate carb day, get 40% of calories from carbs, 30% from protein, and 30% from fat.
Some foods to eat on such days include:
- Whole wheat cereals
- Whole grain cereals and grains, such as brown rice
- Wholemeal bread
- Potatoes and other starchy vegetables
- Pulses, such as beans, lentils, and chickpeas
- Non-starchy vegetables
- Fresh fruit
Foods For A Low-Carb Day
On a low-carb day, get 20% of calories from carbs, 50% from protein, and 30% from fat.
Some foods to eat on this day include:
- Meat, including beef, lamb, pork, veal, and venison
- Fish and shellfish
- Cheese eggs
- Non-starchy vegetables
- Margarine and plant oils, such as olive oil, sunflower oil, etc. (for cooking purposes)
- Low-glycemic index carbohydrates, such as beans, lentils, and brown rice
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The 21-Day Carb Cycling Meal Plan
It helps if you have a meal plan set up ahead of time when starting with carb cycling. Here’s a sample week-long plan that can be part of your 21-day carb cycling menu:
Day One – High Carb (8)
- Breakfast: 1 bowl of knock-oats – 63.5g carbs, 19.6g fat, 14g protein, and 451 calories
- Snack: 1 cup of grapes and 1 medium banana – 54.3g carbs, 0.6g fat, 2.4g protein, and 209 calories
- Lunch: 1 serving of tuna stuffed peppers with 1 ounce of almonds – 18.5g carbs, 16.9g fat, 41g protein, and 376 calories
- Dinner: 1 serving of tomato mozzarella tuna melt – 31.6g carbs, 15.8g fat, 51.1g protein, and 461 calories
- Total daily carbs: 167.9 carbs
- Total daily calories: 1498 calories
Day Two – Low Carb (8)
- Breakfast: 1 serving of sausage, egg, and cheese scramble with 2 bacon strips – 9.2g carbs, 31.3g fat, 25.1g protein, and 423 calories
- Snack: 1 serving of cottage cheese and pineapple (1 cup cottage cheese and ½ cup of pineapples) – 15.4g carbs, 2.4g fat, 28.5g protein, and 202 calories
- Lunch: 1 serving of chicken celery sticks – 9.1g carbs, 16.8g fat, 33.4g protein, and 341 calories
- Dinner: 4 ounces of pan-fried T-bone and 1 serving of steamed broccoli with olive oil and parmesan – 7.2g carbs, 42.1g fat, 31.6g protein, and 543 calories
- Total daily carbs: 40.9 carbs
- Total daily calories: 1509 calories
Day Three – High Carb (8)
- Breakfast: 1 serving of peanut butter protein oats – 32.6g carbs, 13.9g fat, 35.7g protein, and 390 calories
- Snack: 1 ounce of almonds – 6.1g carbs, 14.2g fat, 6g protein, and 164 calories
- Lunch: 1 strawberry protein smoothie with 1 cup of cucumber slices – 23.8g carbs, 11.4g fat, 52.9g protein, and 400 calories
- Dinner: 2 servings of beef stir fry – 58.2g carbs, 17.4g fat, 47.2g protein, and 586 calories
- Total daily carbs: 120.7 carbs
- Total daily calories: 1540 calories
Day Four – Low Carb (8)
- Breakfast: 1 serving mug omelet – 2.6g carbs, 30.6g fat, 30.7g protein, and 416 calories
- Snack: 2 servings of turkey lettuce rolls with 1 orange – 16.3g carbs, 2.8g fat, 19.5g protein, and 180 calories
- Lunch: 2 servings deli beef and sharp cheddar roll-ups and 2 servings of turkey and avocado wraps – 11.1g carbs, 28.9g fat, and 26.4g protein, and 428 calories
- Dinner: 1 serving firecracker burgers with 6 spears of roasted asparagus – 3g carbs, 36.5g fat, 29.2g protein, and 467 calories
- Total daily carbs: 33 carbs
- Total daily calories: 1491 calories
Day Five – High Carb (8)
- Breakfast: 1 serving of berry yogurt smoothie with 1 ounce of granola – 52.1g carbs, 7.5g fat, 19.1g protein, and 346 calories
- Snack: 2 cups of blueberries – 42g carbs, 1g fat, 2.2g protein, and 168 calories
- Lunch: 1 simple ham sandwich made with 2 slices of bread and 1 ounce of cheddar cheese slices – 31.5g carbs, 24.3g fat, 30.2g protein, and 470 calories
- Dinner: 1 serving of cheesy chicken and spinach – 7.7g carbs, 24.7g fat, 62.2g protein, and 508 calories
- Total daily carbs: 133.3 carbs
- Total daily calories: 1492 calories
Day Six – Low Carb (8)
- Breakfast: 1 serving of pice de Gallo egg white cups with 4 strips of bacon – 2.7g carbs, 28.7g fat, 13.4g protein, and 326 calories
- Snack: 2 slices of cantaloupe and 1 ounce of almonds – 17.2g carbs, 15.3g fat, 7.1g protein, and 216 calories
- Lunch: 1 serving of cucumber tomato salad with tuna and 2 ounces of cheddar cheese slices – 17.4g carbs, 21.6g fat, 50.4g protein, and 467 calories
- Dinner: 1 serving of feta and spinach hamburger patties – 6g carbs, 32g fat, 46g protein, and 498 calories
- Total daily carbs: 43.3 carbs
- Total daily calories: 1507 calories
Day Seven – High Carb (8)
- Breakfast: 8 ounces of Greek yogurt with ½ cup of blueberries, ½ cup of blackberries with 2 slices of buttered toast – 49.7g carbs, 15g fat, 31.8g protein, and 450 calories
- Snack: 2 medium bananas – 53.9g carbs, 0.8g fat, 2.6g protein, and 210 calories
- Lunch: 1 turkey sandwich with 1 ounce of almonds – 33.3g carbs, 17.3g fat, 16.5g protein, and 341 calories
- Dinner: 1 serving of easy grilled chicken teriyaki and 1 serving of steamed broccoli – 24g carbs, 17.7g fat, 62.4g protein, and 507 calories
- Total daily carbs: 160.9 carbs
- Total daily calories: 1508 calories
How To Make Carb Cycling Work For You?
For this diet to be effective, there are some things you need to do:
Eat Within A Specific Window
Some research suggests that eating within an 8-10 hour window may be most effective for fat burning (2). People who eat their meals within an 8-10 hour window may metabolize fatty acids more efficiently, improve insulin sensitivity, and may also clear away damaged cells than those who are grazing for 15+ hours.
Plan Your Meals In Advance
It would be best if you gave yourself time to prepare your meals. If you have meals planned, you are less likely to reach for the wrong foods or eat at the wrong times. It’s okay if you don’t exactly know what meal will be consumed during each week of your schedule because your week one meal plan can be adjusted as time progresses and you find out what works best for your specific body type.
For this diet to be effective, lifting weights needs to be a part of your workout routine. Doing so has been found to keep growth hormone levels elevated even after exercising, which helps shift energy from carbs towards fat-burning mode. It also reduces cortisol levels and increases testosterone levels which helps maintain lean muscle mass while repairing damaged cells faster (9).
Workout Pre- And Post-Meals
Exercising within an hour after eating will ensure that your body is at a time when it can shift energy efficiently. Working out post-meal aids in metabolizing the food eaten into fuel and turning energy levels to perform physical activity. It is also important to refuel after a workout to aid in muscle recovery.
Have A Smart Meal Schedule
It may be tempting to cycle between extreme diets. Still, if you don’t take into consideration how much physical activity your body has been doing over the course of the week, then you’re not taking advantage of all your carb cycling diet can do for you. If you’ve been hitting the gym pretty hard with a lot of heavy lifting, then your carb cycling plan can be adjusted to focus on utilizing carbohydrates for energy instead.
Additionally, suppose you’ve been doing light exercise or cardio, it may do more good to give your body ample amounts of readily available fat so that you’re able to keep going when strength training without feeling exhausted. Adjust the amount and type of food consumed throughout the day according to how well your body responds to gain muscle or lose weight.
Keep It Up Long Term
While this diet is very effective in conjunction with working out consistently and eating healthy foods, there will come a time where your goal has been achieved, and you no longer need this type of diet for maintaining it. That’s not to say that carb cycling is a “diet” to be followed on a long-term basis, but rather that it should be worked into your lifestyle once you’ve reached your goal.
Once you get used to eating healthy meals consistently and regularly timing them with physical activity, it becomes easy to maintain a most comfortable and healthy weight for you. The benefits of having an active carb cycling plan in place are that the metabolism does not slow down like what happens when losing weight slowly with diet alone or gaining body fat by consuming too many calories without working out enough.
The Bottom Line
Carb cycling isn’t for everyone, and it may not be the best way to lose weight, especially for people with a history of disordered eating. However, if you’ve tried various low-carb diets but still find yourself struggling with hunger or unable to shed excess pounds, this may be worth trying out.
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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!
- Carb Cycling: What Is It, and How Does It Work? (2020, webmd.com)
- Clinical study finds eating within 10-hour window may help stave off diabetes, heart disease (2019, sciencedaily.com)
- Impact of High-Carbohydrate Diet on Metabolic Parameters in Patients with Type 2 Diabetes (2017, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Losing Weight | Healthy Weight, Nutrition, and Physical Activity (2020, cdc.gov)
- Low Carb, High Carb, Bad Carb: How Much is Best? (2020, webmd.com)
- Low Carbohydrate Diet – StatPearls – NCBI Bookshelf (2021, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Physiology, Carbohydrates (2020, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Put your diet on autopilot (n.d., eatthismuch.com)
- Resistance training is medicine: effects of strength training on health (2012, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Timing and method of increased carbohydrate intake to cope with heavy training, competition and recovery (1991, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)