Carb cycling is a fitness plan where you alternate between high-carb and low-to-no-carb periods.
Carb cycling involves the intentional fluctuation of daily, weekly, or monthly carbohydrate intake. Some people use carb cycling to boost their athletic performance, while others use it to lose weight.
Let’s dive into the ins and outs of carb cycling to determine if it’s a good fit for you!
From Atkins to keto, there have been a ton of nutritional plans in past decades that limit carb consumption. Carb cycling is no exception — it’s just a bit more flexible. Carb cycling can help:
In theory, carb cycling is pretty simple. If you want to get into a carb cycling routine, you should:
- Schedule periods during which the body relies on fat for energy instead of glycogen.
- Exercise on low-carb days to prompt your body to burn fat for energy.
- Balance between the amount of fat and carbs in your diet. Many experts recommend reducing fat intake on high-carb days and increasing fat consumption on low-carb days.
The “cycle” periods can vary widely. Some peeps adjust their carb intake on a daily basis, while others may choose to consume low-to-no carbs for a week followed by a week of increased carb intake.
In general, restricting carbs tends to be a legit strategy for weight loss. The goal is to burn as much fat for energy as possible on low-carb days. When combined with a calorie deficit, losing weight is likely.
A 2021 study found that lower-carb diets lead to more weight loss and better glucose regulation than exercise alone. In another recent study, researchers found that low-carb diets are hella effective for weight loss compared to low-fat diets.
On high-carb days, your body can restore its muscle glycogen supply, preventing you from losing that good muscle. There’s also some limited research from 2016 and 2018 to suggest that eating carbs can help maintain the function of the appetite-regulating hormones leptin and ghrelin. Basically, carbs can help you feel food for longer.
There’s no such thing as a miracle weight loss cure. Here’s a rundown of the potential downsides of carb cycling.
- It’s complicated. Carb cycling requires planning and monitoring of carb intake, making it a bit complicated to keep up with.
- Lack of research. Carb cycling is a relatively new concept. So, we need more research to showcase its long-term effects and potential downsides.
- Varying results. A 2021 study noted that weight loss plateaus after 6 months on a low-carb diet. Carb cycling may offer a potential solution, but results vary from person to person.
- Not for everyone. While carb cycling aims to assist with insulin regulation, it may pose risks for folks with diabetes or hypoglycemia due to frequent glycogen store fluctuations.
- Reduced nutrients. Cutting carbs can limit nutrient intake, especially from carb-rich vegetables. Without proper planning, this restriction may lead to deficiencies in essential nutrients like fiber, thiamin, and folate.
- Carb quality. There’s a big diff between a basket of fries and a bowl of brown rice. To maximize benefits, it’s important to focus on the quality of carbs you’re consuming.
- Side effects. Low-carb diets may lead to side effects like headaches, brain fog, digestive problems, bad breath, or fatigue.
Carb cycling could be a helpful way to lose weight, burn fat, or boost athletic performance — but there’s not enough research so far to know for sure.
If used as part of a healthy, well-rounded diet, however, it may be able to support you in meeting your fitness goals. But since carb cycling can be a little complex, talking to a doctor, dietitian, or personal trainer before trying is recommended.