What is Carb Cycling and Does it Work?

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Carbohydrates and how many or how little a person consumes has been a hot topic for many years. Most people assume that we should avoid carbs at all costs in order to limit weight gain. But is that the real truth? One such means of controlling carb intake is carbohydrate cycling, which has long been used by professional athletes and bodybuilders but only made it into the mainstream in the past couple of years as people aim to optimize their diets.

So what is carb cycling and does it work? If you’re interested in learning more follow along as we discuss what it is in more depth and what it can help you achieve.

What is Carb Cycling?

Carb cycling or carbohydrate cycling is a strict diet in which a person alternates between periods of time of high carb consumption and low carb consumption. Sometimes, there may also be no-carb periods of time, though they are normally very short. Carb cycling is not quite the same at the ketogenic diet, in which a person intakes low amounts of carbs and high amounts of fats, though some people on the keto diet do practice it.

Each person tailors the amount of carbs they consume based on individual needs throughout the day, week, month, and even year, revolving around an exercise schedule. On days of intense training, a person would consume more carbs – perhaps around 2- to 2.5-grams per pound of body weight – while on less intense days they would significantly reduce their carb intake to somewhere around 0.5-grams per pound. This ensures that the energy available on a given day is properly matched to the energy required.

variety of carbs including potatoes, pasta, rice, grains, and beans.

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Methods of Carb Cycling

While it may not be ideal to use a technique like this year-round, carb cycling can provide a helpful boost to your weight loss or performance increase efforts. However, it is generally best suited for high performing athletes with performance or physique goals. Some of the common goals and methods include:

  • Body Fat: Cycle carbs based on the level of body fat that a person has, therefore increasing high-carb periods as they become leaner.
  • Training: Cycle carbs based on the intensity and length of a training session, therefore increasing carbs the more intense the session is and vice versa. This includes lower carb intake on rest days.
  • Events and Competitions: Professionals may “carb load” just before an event or show.
  • Body Composition: Reduce carb intake during a diet and then add them back during a muscle-building period.
  • Scheduled Re-feeds: Several days of a very high-carb intake, which acts as a “refeed” during a prolonged period of dieting.
muscular man

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The Science of Carb Cycling

Your body needs carbohydrates to function, getting energy from them as well as from proteins and fats. The success of carb cycling rests on the fact that when carbs are not readily available, your body will burn fat instead. One gram of carbs or proteins has 4-calories, while 1-gram of fat has 9-calories, so when you burn fat, you burn more calories resulting in weight loss, increased lean muscle, and a reserve of carbs (useful for long-haul exercise such as a marathon).

Though your daily requirements for fat and protein remain the same, your carb requirements are changing all the time. Eating a higher amount of carbs on days with a strenuous workout ensures that carbs are easily accessed for energy, leaving protein untouched to build muscle.

woman working out on stairs

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Carb Cycling, Weight Loss, and Performance

Carb cycling may be used to kickstart weight loss or to overcome a weight loss plateau. Reducing your carb intake and increasing protein, especially if you’re not spending much time being active, can significantly improve your chances of weight loss. Also, it’s much more difficult to binge and overindulge on fruit, vegetables, and lean protein compared to bread and cake.

strong woman

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Challenges of Carb Cycling

While carb cycling may have great results, it can also be mentally draining. After all, it’s a diet that originally only elite athletes followed. It may also lead to unusual fatigue if not done correctly and therefore it may be useful to speak to a health practitioner.

Additionally, as with any diet that is restrictive, it’s important to know when to take a break or walk away if you find yourself struggling with an unhealthy mindset or feelings of guilt when you eat foods you have deemed off limit.

woman eating donuts

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Julie Ching, MS, RDN, CDE

Julie Ching, MS, RDN, CDE

Julie Ching is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator in Los Angeles. She decided to become a Dietitian after traveling through Europe, South America, and Asia and discovered a passion for food. She now works with people of all ages and varying disease states to improve their health. She is passionate about teaching people about nutrition so they can live their best life while still considering their cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds.