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Home » OSL Blog » Carb Cycling Diet: Is It Right For You?

Carb Cycling Diet: Is It Right For You?

November 1, 2019

Key Takeaways

  1. Carb cycling is a way of eating where the amount of carbs you eat fluctuate to help you meet your goals.
  2. There is not a tried and true way to do carb cycling - it is highly individualized based on your body type and goals.
  3. Carb cycling is not for everyone, and it takes time to determine the best way to carb cycle.

Do you follow a specific diet or way of eating to help you meet your goals?

It seems like most people these days meal prep and count calories, especially bodybuilders and lifters. In the days of the Golden Era of bodybuilding, there wasn’t much of this going on. 

In fact, most bodybuilders ate what they felt like they needed, without much thought. Or, they switched around to different ways of eating but didn’t follow a specific plan.

These days, there is so much information out there when it comes to eating. It’s hard to not feel like you’re “dieting” in one way or another.

Today, we’re going to discuss the carb cycling diet:

  • What is it?
  • How is it done?
  • The benefits of carb cycling
  • Mistakes and how to avoid them
  • Potential dangers
  • A sample meal plan for each carb cycle

One thing’s for sure, there isn’t a one size fits all way of eating that works for everyone.

What is Carb Cycling?

You may be wondering what a carb cycling diet is and if it’s a good fit for you. 

A carb cycling diet means that you eat a different amount of carbs either daily, weekly, or monthly. 

The most common reasons someone would carb cycle:

  • Overcoming a plateau in weight loss
  • Looking to accelerate losing weight
  • Meet specific performance goals
  • Training intervals
  • Maintain or reach certain body fat percentages

Athletes, bodybuilders, and performers especially use the carb cycling diet. There is proof that carb cycling during training sessions has its benefits.

Man using curling bar

Eight men were studied to see how their exercise performance changed based on ingesting carbs or not during exercise. They trained for two hours, then completed a 15-minute performance ride while either ingesting a:

  • Seven percent carbohydrate-electrolyte solution
  • Placebo
  • Placebo followed by a glucose solution

Of the three separate tests, seven out of eight men performed best when using the carb-electrolyte solution

Man with Barbell

Carb cycling does not work for everyone.

It is popular with athletes and competitors because they have the discipline to figure out what works for them. As your goals change, so will your carb limits and length of time between cycles.

Let’s take a look at some of the benefits of carb cycling.

What are the Benefits of Carb Cycling?

Carb cycling may not be for everyone, but it can be a great short-term way to reach goals for bodybuilders.

man doing pullup

There are quite a few benefits of carb cycling, including:

  • Weight loss
  • Overcoming a plateau
  • Meeting competition goals
  • Improving metabolism and energy
  • Reducing cravings and overall hunger
  • Improved exercise results

If you’ve struggled with any of these issues, carb cycling might be something to consider.

Let’s take a look at some of these benefits and how carb cycling can improve your results.

Weight loss and Plateau

No matter what way of eating you choose, the only way to lose weight is to eat a calorie deficit.

Even still, sometimes you reach a plateau that is hard to overcome. If you are stuck not losing weight or are just starting your weight loss journey, consider carb cycling.

man standing on scale

We’ve discussed the keto diet before, which is a low-carb, high-fat way of eating. When losing weight, choosing to carb cycle at a slower pace (weekly or monthly) can jumpstart your weight loss.

In this study, 21 resistance-trained men were divided into two groups: keto and the traditional western diet.

Each group exercised three times per week. Their body composition was measured at the start and then again at week 11. 

Old-fashioned Scale

At the end of the study, the keto group had the following results compared to the western group:

  • Lost more than twice as much lean body mass
  • Doubled their muscle mass
  • Lost more than twice the fat mass

One of the biggest reasons that carb cycling is great for weight loss, is due to the change in carb loading. When you are eating low-carb, it will naturally decrease your hunger (more on this later).

But inevitably, most people will start to get hungrier the longer they are eating low-carb. This is why many people can’t sustain a low-carb diet indefinitely.

If this happens to you, then the body is signaling that it needs more carbs. This is when you’ll want to switch to high carbs if you haven’t already.

By listening to your body and upping your carb intake, it will actually help you curb hunger cravings. By adjusting your calories along with your carb load, you can continue successfully losing weight.

Improved Metabolism and Energy

Another benefit of carb cycling is improved metabolism and increased energy. By fueling your body this way, you’ll be able to succeed in your workouts more effectively.

This results in increased muscle gains and weight loss.

Man Running on Beach

This study aimed to determine how metabolism and body type are affected by carbs. It started with getting participants to lose 12% of their body fat, an average of 25 pounds.

Those who could achieve these results were then randomly assigned to three different test groups:

  • Low carb (20%), high fat (60%)
  • Moderate carb (40%), moderate fat (40%)
  • Low fat (20%), high carb (60%)

During the 20 week study, the 164 participants were fed to maintain their weight.

The goal was to see which group spent the most energy while maintaining the same activity levels. The group with the highest metabolic change and energy expenditure was the low carb group.

The researchers took note that “apple” shaped participants had the highest expenditure numbers. There are two hormones at play here: leptin and ghrelin. In the low carb group, both hormones decreased.

Doctor Explaining things

What are these hormones’ roles?

  • Leptin – helps to maintain weight, controls energy balance, decreases appetite and hunger
  • Ghrelin – promotes fat stores, stimulates appetite, helps to regulate energy balance

Some overweight or obese people have “leptin resistance,” where their bodies don’t alert the brain of satiety. The brain will continue to send hunger signals even though the body has enough to be satisfied.

Depending on your body type and any hormone resistance, you can determine the best schedule to carb cycle.

Keeping a food diary that includes how your body responds during cycling can help key into your preferred cycle.

Macronutrients Play a Vital Role

For some, a low carb diet might be the only way to lose weight. For others, high carb and low-fat work well for weight loss. The types of food, as well as the overall macronutrients, play a vital role in weight loss success.

In this study, a plant-based vegan diet was used on 75 overweight participants. This time, a high carb, low-fat diet was used. The high carb, high fiber diet showed a decrease in fat mass, body weight, and insulin resistance.

Plant Based Diet
 High Carb, High Fiber, and Plant-Based Diet

The types of food eaten play a huge role in weight loss and hormone resistance. It’s important to note that for each individual, success will vary. This is one of the reasons carb cycling is attractive for weight loss.

Knowing if you are leptin or insulin-resistant will help you determine the right ratio of carbs for you. To determine the right macro levels for carb cycling, consider a calculator or use our guide to calculate it yourself.

Meeting Competition Goals

As any competitive lifter can attest, gearing up for competition usually means altering eating patterns. Regardless if you need to bulk or cut, carb cycling can be a great tool to use to meet your goals.

Lifting Competition

This study was conducted on eight gymnasts who either adhered to a low carb diet or the western diet. This was a short term study of 30 days to determine if strength was negatively affected due to diet.

The researchers found that strength was not diminished in the low carb diet, but body weight was. Fat mass also decreased at a faster rate than body weight.

This shows that for the short-term, athletes can cut prior to competition without any detrimental effects on strength.

In this study, CrossFit participants were provided a low carb diet for a week and then tested. After a day of rest, they were then given a higher carb diet and retested.

Participants were able to increase their reps by 15.2 after carb increase, compared to 5.7 in the control group.

Crossfit Ropes

This study highlights the benefits of carb-loading for intense competitions like lifting. While some may need to cut to meet their goals, others need to bulk by carb-loading to meet theirs.

In this study, experts got together to discuss the last few decades of data following various athletes. What do they believe is the best way to enhance performance?

A panel of experts was brought together in 2017 to discuss the implications of the low carb keto diet.

Here is their advice when it comes to improve physical performance and recovery: “To enhance physical performance, high-quality, nutrient-dense carbohydrate sources are still critical.”

These mixed results show that the carb cycling diet can help with meeting competition and performance goals.

How to Carb Cycle

So far, we’ve discussed what carb cycling is, and the benefits you might expect from this way of eating. Now, let’s take a look at what carb cycling actually looks like.

Here is an example of carb cycling on a daily basis throughout the week:

  • Monday: high carb, low fat
  • Tuesday: low carb, high fat
  • Wednesday: Moderate carb, moderate fat
  • Thursday: low carb, high fat
  • Friday: moderate carb, moderate fat
  • Saturday: high carb, low fat
  • Sunday: low carb, high fat

A person who carb cycles on a weekly basis might find themselves eating:

  • Week 1: low carb, high fat
  • Week 2: high fat, low carb
  • Week 3: moderate carb, moderate fat
  • Week 4: low carb, high fat
Deltoid Workout

When carb cycling, protein intake remains the same throughout at roughly 20%. Carbs and fat will be 60/20 depending on the day or week. We discuss calorie consumption more in the next section.

Please note that these are just examples to show you how carb cycling works. You may find that you need to go low carb for a few days and then high carb for a day or two. Or, the daily switch may work for you.

There are so many factors that go into carb cycling, there is no one size fits all approach. It can take some time to figure out the best schedule for you, so don’t get discouraged!

Mistakes to Avoid When Carb Cycling

With any way of eating, mistakes are inevitable. Here are the top mistakes that happen when carb cycling, and how to avoid them.

1. Mind your Calories

When carb cycling, it makes sense that calories will fluctuate due to the different foods being consumed. But that doesn’t mean that you should have wildly different calorie numbers.

When it comes to the number of calories you should be consuming, there isn’t a definitive answer. Start with your determined maintenance calories, and go from there.

When you cycled back to high carb, did you find that you were sluggish or had brain fog? You likely didn’t eat enough calories.

Man Bloated

Feeling super full, bloated, and unable to meet your workout goals? Then you likely binged too hard on calories, and need to dial it back.

When it comes to carb cycling, you really need to listen to your body and adjust accordingly. What happens if you don’t? It can derail your workout progress, your weight loss success, or cause you to want to give up.

One way to make it easy to always know your calorie consumption when carb cycling is to track your food. Entering your food daily can help you keep your calories in check, as well as your macros.

2. All Macros are Important

We know this is a carb cycling diet, but you need to pay attention to your other macros as well. A balanced diet full of macronutrients is key to any successful way of eating.

If you have already calculated your macros using one of the links above, you know what your maintenance calories are. 

Nutritious Foods

On your low carb days, aim to reduce your overall carbs by up to 20% without increasing your calories.

If your maintenance calories are at 2,000 daily, you should be eating between 1,700 – 1,800 on low carb days. This will help make sure your metabolism stays at a high level and reduce the risk of plateauing.

3. High Carb Days are not always Cheat Days

Your high carbs days will usually be followed by your highest activity days. Even though you will be burning a good amount of calories, that isn’t an invitation to eat junk.

nutrient-dense foods
Foods Dense in Nutrients

To meet your goals, make sure you are always eating quality foods. Whole, nutrient-dense foods are best. Not sure what high and low carb foods you should be including in your meal plan diet menu?

High Carb Foods:

  • Beans
  • Potatoes
  • Oats
  • Quinoa
  • Bananas
  • Oranges
  • Blueberries
  • Apples 
  • Chickpeas
  • Mangos
  • Raisins
  • Goji berries

Low Carb Foods:

  • Broccoli
  • Asparagus
  • Mushrooms
  • Avocado
  • Spinach
  • Cauliflower
  • Bell peppers
  • Zucchini
  • Cucumbers
  • Celery 
  • Eggs
  • Artichokes

Now, we know you’re human, and it’s not always feasible to never cheat. It’s okay to eat high calorie, nutrient-devoid foods sometimes like pop tarts, white starches, and your other favorites.

Even Golden Era greats like Ric Drasin had cheat days!

Ric Drasin
Old School Labs Ambassador: Ric Drasin

Don’t make cheat days a habit, limit the intake, and stay within your macros and calorie limits.

Potential Dangers of Carb Cycling

In the short-term, there seem to be minimal to no dangers of carb cycling, especially in athletes and bodybuilders. There are even workout programs that combine carb cycling and a diet meal plan for females.

However, there is still research needed to determine if there are long-term implications. One thing to note is what can happen to the body if carbohydrates are restricted continuously.

Particular health effects include:

  • Heart arrhythmias
  • Kidney damage
  • Increased cancer risk
  • Lipid abnormalities

This meta-analysis followed over 400,000 people throughout their lives in a 25-year study. Trends showed the highest mortality in people who:

  • Ate mostly low carbohydrate or high carbohydrate diets without carb cycling
  • Ate mostly animal-derived fat and protein
Types of rice, beans, and protein

According to this study, sticking closer to a moderate carbohydrate diet with plant-based fats and proteins is best.

While we wait for more data on long-term carb cycling, consider this a short-term solution to meet specific goals.

An Example of a Carb Cycling Meal Plan

Your meal plan will look different each day while you’re carb cycling. Here is a sample meal plan to give you an idea of what to eat on each carb day:

Low Carb Day

  • Breakfast: Egg (2) omelet with low carb veggies (1 cup)
  • Lunch: Chicken (3 oz) salad with avocado (½) instead of mayo over spinach and lettuce (2 cups)
  • Dinner: Grilled steak (3 oz) with zucchini, broccoli, cauliflower (2 cups)
  • Snack: 10 almonds/protein shake / ½ cup mixed berries

Moderate Carb Day

  • Breakfast: 1 slice whole-wheat toast, 1 tablespoon nut butter, ½ banana
  • Lunch: 1 cup low sodium veggie soup, ½ turkey sandwich with avocado or low-fat mayo, ½ apple
  • Dinner: 1 cup steamed vegetables, 4 oz lean meat, ½ cup beans
  • Snack: 2 cups popcorn/string cheese with 6 crackers / 3 tablespoons hummus with veggies

High Carb Day

  • Breakfast: ½ cup oatmeal, ½ cup nuts and berries for topping
  • Lunch: 6 oz sweet potato, 6 oz fish, ½ cup chickpeas
  • Dinner: 1 cup bean salad, 5 oz chicken breast, 1 cup pasta
  • Snacks: 1 apple with 2 tablespoons nut butter / 1 cup fruit 

Final Thoughts

When it comes to changing your way of eating, carb cycling is one of the more difficult to do. It is a very personalized way of eating. Your body type and goals will determine what works best for you.

Keep in mind, it can take a while to figure out what works best for you. Make sure you keep a journal that details:

  • Your daily macros
  • What foods you ate
  • Your daily workout
  • How you felt at the end of the day
  • What you felt worked and what didn’t

By keeping a log you can go back to, it will make it so much easier to make tweaks and learn what works. Don’t get discouraged if you find that you don’t meet your goals initially.

Food Journal
Logging Your Daily Food

This is why carb cycling isn’t for everyone – it’s time-consuming and takes a lot of reflection to get it right.

Want to learn about other ways of eating we’ve discussed before? Check them out here:

Have you tried the carb cycling diet? What works best for you and what challenges have you faced? Let us know in the comments below!

Disclaimer: None of the individuals and/or companies mentioned necessarily endorse Old School Labs or COSIDLA Inc. products or the contents of this article. Any programs provided for illustration purposes only. Always consult with your personal trainer, nutritionist and physician before changing or starting any new exercise, nutrition, or supplementation program.
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