Carb Cycling for Weight Loss

Nutritionist Explains 5 Real Benefits & How to Carb Cycle

By: Jeremy Fox, CNC, CPTUpdated: April 15, 2024

Many traditional weight loss diets focus on reducing carbs and restricting calories. However, cutting carbs can be difficult, and overly restrictive diets often lead to failure. If this sounds like your experience, you might be searching for a diet plan that is more flexible and has long-term effectiveness. 

As a nutrition coach, I have helped numerous frustrated clients succeed with carb cycling for weight loss and body recomposition. In this article, I will explain carb cycling, how it works, and how you can incorporate it into a healthy diet.

Carb Cycling for Weight Loss

What is Carb Cycling?

Carb cycling is a dietary approach in which you alternate your daily carbohydrate intake. This method involves low-carb days, moderate-carb days, and high-carb days.

The primary objective of carb cycling is to burn fat on lower-carb days and improve energy and performance on higher-carb days. However, other physiological factors are involved.

How Does Carb Cycling Work?

It’s important to understand that carb cycling is not a magical solution for fat loss. Instead, it is a way to balance restriction and indulgence.

Low-carb days promote eating fewer calories while lowering blood sugar levels, which can help with weight loss. However, prolonged calorie-restricted low-carb diets can affect your hunger hormones and interfere with your metabolism.

With carb cycling, periodic high-carb days can help balance hormones and feed your metabolism, leading to more sustainable weight loss.

Carb Cycling Chart

5 Benefits of Carb Cycling

  1. More flexible than ketogenic or very low-carb diets
  2. Burn fat and carbs more efficiently
  3. Increase endurance and strength in the gym
  4. Build and maintain lean muscle
  5. Prevent metabolic crash from dieting

Next, I’ll explain the benefits of carb cycling in more detail to help you understand if it’s the right approach for you.

1. More Flexible Than Low-Carb Diets

The keto diet pretty much cancels carbs. Similarly, other low-carb diets leave little room for deviation, which can feel suffocating. By comparison, carb cycling breaks up the monotony of restrictive dieting.

Alternating between lower-carb and higher-carb days allows you to be flexible for social events while enjoying moderate indulgences without guilt. It’s all part of the plan!

2. Burn Fat More Efficiently

When you consume carbohydrates, your body breaks them down into glucose, which is carried by your bloodstream. High glucose levels lead to the release of insulin, a hormone that stores these energy units.

However, when insulin levels are high, your body doesn’t burn fat for energy.

Reducing carbohydrate intake is the quickest way to decrease insulin levels and switch your body into fat-burning mode. Over time, your body becomes accustomed to burning fat instead of relying on carbohydrates for energy.

Moreover, regularly reducing insulin levels also helps enhance insulin sensitivity, which is your body’s capacity to transport and use carbohydrates for energy. Therefore, carb cycling can help your body improve its ability to burn both fat and carbohydrates, which is known as metabolic flexibility.

carb cycling affect on insulin

3. Increase Energy & Performance

Carbohydrates are your body’s preferred fuel for intense exercise like sprints or resistance training. They are also used extensively in endurance exercises.

Moreover, a lack of this fuel source is why active people often feel fatigued or weak on long-term low-carb diets.

Carb cycling taps into these benefits by replenishing glycogen stores, boosting energy levels, and fueling future workouts. In my experience, athletic performance generally improves after a high-carb day on a carb cycling plan.

4. Maintain Lean Muscle Mass

Scientific research has shown that consuming carbohydrates before and after your workout can help reduce muscle breakdown and promote lean muscle gain1. This strategy can be particularly effective when dieting, as it helps prevent muscle loss that often occurs with reduced calorie intake.

Carb cycling enables you to consume moderate carbs on the days you work out. By taking advantage of nutrient timing, you can maintain lean mass while losing body fat and weight.

5. Boost Metabolism

When you reduce your calorie intake for a prolonged period, your metabolism adjusts by slowing down, causing you to burn fewer calories. A study has shown that metabolic rate can decrease by almost 10% after just three weeks of calorie restriction3.

Periodically increasing calorie intake above expenditure can help alleviate metabolic adaptation. High-carb, high-calorie days in a carb cycling plan can help boost metabolism and enable you to continue burning more calories.

Learn More: 5 Ways Metabolic Confusion Helps You Lose More Weight

carb cycling and metabolic confusion

How to Carb Cycle

Carb cycling is a flexible approach that you can customize according to your goals and body response. You may increase the number of low-carb days to burn more fat or add another high-carb day to boost metabolism and reduce cravings.

For instance, when training for bodybuilding contests, I used six low-carb days and one high-carb day weekly to maximize fat loss. However, I generally recommend using high, medium, and low-carb days for a more balanced approach.

Additionally, I find it more practical to coordinate your carb cycle with your workout schedule and activity level for optimal results.

Low-Carb Days

With this approach, low-carb days generally coincide with lower activity levels, such as light cardio or rest days. The amount of carbohydrates consumed on such days is less than 15% of your total calorie intake, although you could go as low as 5%.

For a 1,800-calorie diet, this would amount to 25-70 grams of carbs. However, your actual low-day carb intake depends on your body size, activity level, and fitness goal.

Medium-Carb Days

A moderate carb intake is better when performing resistance training and other high-intensity exercise. On medium days, you should get 25-35% of your calories from carbs.

The 1,800-calorie example would amount to 110-160 grams of carbs. Also, eating most of your carbs around your workout is beneficial. Think of it as energy supply and demand.

carb cycling meal timing

High-Carb Days

High carb days are once a week, although highly active people or naturally lean individuals could incorporate two high-carb days. I typically advise clients to work out on their high-carb days to take advantage of the extra carbs.

Coordinating your high-carb day with your most intense workout, such as leg day, makes sense. Also, I like to train my weakest body part the day after a high-carb day, when glycogen levels are at their highest.

A high-carb day should consist of 45-55% of calories from carbohydrates. Continuing the example, that would be 200-250 grams of carbs for a 1,800-calorie diet.

Additionally, eating slightly more calories than you burn is crucial to mitigating the effects of calorie restriction. Another term for this concept is a refeed day.

High Carb Day vs. Cheat Day

It’s important to distinguish between a high-carb day and a “cheat day.” A cheat day is when you intentionally overindulge in junk foods that aren’t part of your diet, whereas a refeed day is a strategic high-calorie day with mostly healthy foods.

Remember not to go overboard on your high-carb days since doing that can stall your progress.

Carb Cycling Schedule

Now, let’s walk through how a 7-day carb cycling plan would look. This example is for an individual who does strength training four days a week with two light cardio days and a single rest day.

They also consume 1,800 calories a day as part of their weight loss calorie deficit. The table below shows their weekly carb cycling schedule, carb intake, and workout routine.

Example Carb Cycling Schedule Based on 1,800 Calorie Diet

Day Carb Cycle Carb Intake Workout
Mon High 225 g Strength
Tue Med 135 g Strength
Wed Low 50 g Cardio
Thu Med 135 g Strength
Fri Med 135 g Strength
Sat Low 50 g Cardio
Sun Low 50 g Rest

Carb Cycling Meal Plan PDF

If you’re interested in trying carb cycling, you can get more information with my 7-day carb cycling meal plan PDF. The PDF includes what foods to eat and how much protein and fat to target daily.

See the Free Carb Cycling Meal Plan PDF

Carb Cycling Calculator

I’ve also created a carb cycling calculator that helps you create a personalized plan based on your body composition, workout schedule, and fitness goals. Click below to try the calculator and get your free carb cycling plan for fat loss or muscle gain!

Find Your Carb Cycling Macros for Weight Loss or Muscle Gain

carb cycling calculator

Get a Carb Cycling Meal Plan

At this point, you may be overwhelmed. But that’s okay because I have a plan that does everything for you.

With a Custom Meal Plan you get nutrition targets that fit your personal carb cycle schedule. As well as a daily menu with recipes formulated to fit your macros. So you don’t have to count or track anything!

carb cycling meal plan
  • Carb cycle based on your actual schedule
  • Daily menu for high, medium, and low days
  • Recipes formulated to fit your macros – no calorie counting!
  • A healthy grocery list right on your phone

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