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What is Carb Cycling? And 5 Reasons it Helps Your Diet

You’ve probably heard of cutting carbs for weight loss, but what about cycling them? Fine-tuning carb intake has long been used by endurance athletes to optimize their fueling and recovery, however, this nutrition strategy might have some serious perks for fat loss as well.

Ready to get serious about your macro intake and fine-tune your carbs for optimal results? Here’s your go-to guide: what is carb cycling, why it works, and how to do it right.

What is Carb Cycling?

Carb cycling or carbohydrate cycling is the act of adjusting the amount of carbs you eat from one day to the next based on your daily output and fitness needs. This typically means alternating between high and low carb days to provide your body fuel when it needs it.

The trick is to eat more carbs when you are moving more or using your brain, and fewer carbs when you’re at rest. You can also change your carb intake weekly or monthly to support an upcoming race or athletic event, or to help overcome a weight loss plateau.

Why Should You Consider Changing Up Your Carb Eating Habits?

Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred source of energy because they provide immediate fuel when you eat them. Unlike fats and protein that need to be digested and metabolized, many types of carbs can be broken down into simple sugars and released into your bloodstream quickly.

The role of carbohydrates as quick energy has its perks and downfalls. Carbs provide a valuable source of fuel for your hard-working muscle and your brainpower. But it is possible to overdo it and eating too many carbs, especially the wrong kinds, may negatively impact the way you metabolize other macros.

Essentially, your body will prioritize carbohydrates first, before turning to fat or protein as a source of energy. Meaning, eating a high carb diet when you don’t need a lot of carbs could theoretically inhibit your ability to burn fat. This phenomenon is known as poor metabolic efficiency.

However, it is crucial to note that burning body fat and losing fat don’t necessarily mean the same thing. Calorie control is still crucial to fat loss and it is entirely possible to lose weight and lose fat on a high carbohydrate meal plan.

Additionally, because of the role carbs play in your metabolism, your macro balance can also have an impact on your daily energy, mood, and appetite.

How Carb Cycling Can Support Your Fitness

Because carbs can be a source of immediate fuel, they can play a crucial role in supporting your workouts - depending on the type of training you do. However, carbs are not the only source of energy your body relies on, and exactly how many carbs you need to fuel exercise is commonly misunderstood. 

In other words, just because you are exercising or moving around a lot, doesn’t automatically mean you need more carbs in your diet. The type of workouts you are doing and the intensity, most strongly affect your daily calorie and macro needs. 

In basic terms, here's how your level out output can impact your carb cycling needs. For the ultimate results, consider adjusting your macros each day based on your fitness regime.

Your Macro Needs at Rest

At rest, when plenty of oxygen is available and you don’t need large amounts of fuel quickly, your body is using mostly fat for long lasting energy. Since fat provides about nine calories per gram and carbs provide four calories, your body can work half as hard for the same amount of energy. 

Additionally, the amount of carbohydrates you are able to store in your body for later use is limited. Most of us can only hold on to roughly 500 grams of carbohydrates at a given time, whereas our fat storage capacity is fairly unlimited. 

Remember, carbs are a source of quick energy when you need it most, so your body prefers to save these stores in case you need to kick it into high gear for survival purposes. So fat becomes the desirable fuel type when you’re at rest or at a low energy output. 

The moment this changes is when you consume food and your body has immediate access to sugars from any carbs you consume. 

When carb cycling, these are the days or time periods when you might want to consider decreasing your carb and calorie intake. 

Your Macros Needs at Moderate Output

During moderate exercise, your body is still using mostly fat for energy but you start needing a bit more fuel more quickly. Fat metabolism is slow and requires plenty of oxygen. 

As you start moving around, oxygen becomes less available and you need energy faster. Thus, it becomes harder for you to break down fatty acids and keep up, so you start using some carb stores. 

If carb cycling, there is not much need to adjust your macros for moderate activity days. 

Your Macros Needs at High intensity Output

When performing at higher intensity levels, oxygen is not readily available and quick energy is more needed. At this level of output your body is burning mostly carbs for fast energy, and some fat for sustained endurance. 

When carb cycling, having more carbs and calories on these days, especially before and after your workouts, might help support your performance. 

carb cycling for fitness

5 Ways Carb Cycling Supports Fat Loss

How many grams of carbs you eat each day is only one piece of the fat burning equation, and far from the most important factor to consider. Regardless, fine tuning your macro goals is not without its benefits and proper carb cycling could potentially make the process of losing fat feel a little easier.

Here are five ways carb cycling could positively impact your diet success.

1. Carb Cycling Can Make Cutting Carbs Easier

Sticking to a low carb diet can feel like a serious challenge - especially when cutting carbs ultra low, like when following a ketogenic diet.

When you restrict carbs too low this can cause a temporary physiological response in your brain that increases cravings (especially sugar cravings), decreases willpower, and can even make you a bit cranky. This mindset can do some damage to your good intentions and make cutting calories an uphill battle.

But by feeding your body more carbohydrates when you are using them, you might be able to satisfy your cravings for them and cut back more easily on low carb days.

Another common approach to this is “refeeding days” where individuals will restrict carbohydrates for a period of time and then designate high carb days to replenish lost stores and give your body a break.

2. Carb Cycling Might Improve Your Metabolism

But not in the way you think! Carb cycling wont override your need for calorie control, but it might help you process your macros more efficiently. 

There is some limited research suggesting that swinging your calories and your carb intake from one day to the next may benefit your metabolism  (1,2). This is likely due to improved metabolic efficiency as a result of feeding your body the right fuel at the right time.

3. Carb Cycling May improve Energy Levels

When you aren’t putting enough gas in the tank, you’re bound to feel depleted and fatigued. This is exactly why so many people feel incredibly tired when starting a low carb eating style - especially if they are fairly active.

4. Carb Cycling Could Keep Your Hunger in Check

Satisfying sugar cravings by giving your body carbs when it needs them is part of why carb cycling can support appetite control, but carb alteration might also positively impact hormone levels - particularly leptin.

Some limited research suggests that carb overfeeding can increase leptin levels, a key hormone involved in satiety and fat burning (3). Although much more research is needed to reveal how promising this effect might be for your weight loss goals.

5. Carb Cycling Supports Your Workouts

Carbohydrates and workouts are a match made in fitness heaven. Carbs provide the necessary energy for high intensity training and weight lifting. Not to mention, they support muscle recovery and growth in unique ways. And getting more out of your workouts can mean more calories burned, more muscle built, and better results overall!

How to Carb Cycle in 5 Simple Steps

While the art of carb cycling can get quite complicated depending on your diet goals and how strategic you choose to get, there are some basic principles you can start with.

Step 1: Learn How Many Carbs You Need a Day

The exact amount of carbs, protein, and fat you need is directly dependent on your unique health and fitness needs. Thus, figuring out exactly how many grams of carbs you should be eating to support your lifestyle and body weight goals is a crucial first step.

Dial in your carb goals in just a few minutes with this simple carb calculator.

Following a ketogenic meal plan? Check out our keto carb calculator.

Step 2: Map Out Your Week

Identify when you plan to workout, when you are more active in general, and when you plan to rest. Map this out on a calendar, piece of paper, or anywhere you can easily reference as you go about your week.

Step 3: Adjust Your Daily Carb Goals Accordingly

Determine which days to keep your carbs high and which days to cut them low and note this on your weekly plan. Use the following 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 are needing or using the extra calories.

You should also consider eating more carbs around the time of day that you are most active and less during other times of the day. Most of us are more active earlier in the day and wind down towards the evening, but this depends on the person.

When it comes to the type of carbs you are choosing here are a few suggestions you can consider.

  • 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

Track your daily food and beverage intake to account for how many grams of carbs you are eating. Download a macro friendly app to get started.

Step 5: Assess, Adjust, and Repeat

Assess your progress and adjust as needed. Pay attention to your hunger and energy levels and how your workouts are going. Then add more carbs or scale back as needed.

Sample Carb Cycling Plan

Here's a sample five day plan for carb cycling based on high intensity training three days a week. 

On difficult workout days, carbs are increased by 15 to 20%, fat is decreased by 10 to 25%, protein goals remain the same, and cals are slightly increased. 

On rest days, carbs are decreased by 15 to 20%, fat is increased by 10 to 25%, protein goals remain the same, and cals are slightly decreased. 

Your average weekly calorie and macro intake should be at our below your estimated needs for weight loss

how to carb cycle

Should You Try Carb Cycling?

A lot more research is needed to determine how beneficial carb cycling truly is for fat loss. But the truth is, many of us live sedentary lives and don’t require high intakes of carbohydrates to thrive. In fact, most of us over do it or choose the wrong types of carbs too often - loading up on sugary, processed foods instead of carbs from quality whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. So learning how to adjust your intake might be the game changer you need.

But you'll also want to focus on general healthy eating habits long term by including plenty of nutrient dense foods, lean proteins, and healthy fats in addition to your carb control.

Carb cycling might be right for you if...

  • You used to eat a high carb diet and are looking to decrease your intake
  • You struggle with sticking to a low carb diet
  • You are looking to get more out of your workouts

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