What is the Carb Cycling Diet?
Over the years, carbohydrates have gotten a negative reputation. While no macronutrient (carbs, fats, proteins) is categorically bad, the carb cycling diet involves a meal plan that fluctuating between high-carb and low-carb eating periods based on your activity level. In short, the goal is to time carbohydrate intake for when it presents the greatest benefit while excluding carbs at times your body doesn’t need them.
The most common style of carb cycling is to eat more carbohydrates on active days and fewer on inactive days. That said, some people even fluctuate between high and low carb periods throughout a single day.
A typical schedule might look something like this:
- Workout days: high carbohydrate intake
- Non-workout days: low carbohydrate intake
This style of eating is often used to speed up fat loss; however, it can also help maintain physical performance while dieting and even help overcome plateaus.
What Should You Eat When You’re Carb Cycling?
The intention behind carb cycling is to vary between eating low-carb foods and high-carb foods. As such, what you eat will vary depending on the day or time of day. Your intake of proteins and fats should roughly stay the same.
As a rule of thumb, stick to fruits, veggies, lean meats, and whole grains. On days of higher carb intake, simply eat a larger quantity of healthy, whole-grain carbohydrates.
Examples of “good” healthy carbohydrates:
- Whole grains: Brown rice, whole oats, quinoa
- Vegetables: Stick to fresh, unprocessed vegetables with a good variety of colors.
- Fresh fruits: Similar to vegetables, focus on fresh, unprocessed fruits.
- Beans and legumes: Perfect for slow-digesting carbs that are full of fiber and nutrients.
What Shouldn’t You Eat When Carb Cycling?
This diet is simply a nutrition strategy that varies between high-carb and low-carb eating periods. That said, high-carb days are not an excuse for binge eating junk foods and other sweets. When carb cycling, avoid your typical “unhealthy” foods and consider a meal plan to help keep you on track.
Foods to avoid:
- Added sugars: Candy, cookies, cakes, soda, sugary cereals, and foods
- Processed foods: refined carbs, packaged snacks, processed meats, potato chips, fast food
Carb cycling has been proven to provide a myriad of benefits. However, this nutrition strategy does have some challenges you should be aware of.
- Requires counting macros: This eating style requires you to vary between periods of high-carb and low-carb eating. As such, you have to be both willing and able to track your macronutrients — carbs, fats, and proteins.
- High difficulty level: Carb cycling is an advanced nutrition strategy that requires tracking macros or portions and a large amount of nutrition and meal planning around your lifestyle.
- It takes time to be comfortable: If you aren’t used to certain periods of lowered carb intake, you might struggle initially to follow a carb cycling diet.
What are the Primary Benefits of Carb Cycling?
Carb cycling attempts to match the body’s need for calories to the number of carbohydrates you actually consume. On days you workout, your body needs more fuel, thus making it a high-carb day. With this logic in mind, carb cycling can provide a variety of benefits.
- Weight loss: If you maintain a calorie deficit while with this style of eating, you will lose weight.
- Athletic performance and physique: Carb cycling is popular among professional athletes and bodybuilders. Some athletes use this strategy to optimize muscle gain or appearance on stage; however, it requires strict adherence to timing and diet.
- Enhances fat burning: Low carb days help shift the body into utilizing fat for fuel during exercise.
- Improved muscle recovery: High carb days supply nutrients to the body by refueling muscle glycogen.
- Mental health: Cycling between high and low carb days may feel much less restrictive than only eating low carb all the time.
Can you Cycle Carbs as a Vegetarian?
Carb cycling focuses on switching between the number of carbs you eat daily. As such, a vegetarian could easily carb cycle by focusing on eating more vegetarian high-carb options on days of high activity and reducing high-carb intake on days of low activity.
Carb cycling has become popular over recent years. It’s helpful with weight loss, and many people love it. That said, there are a few things you should know before getting started.
- Don’t forget proteins and fats: While this way of eating focuses on varying your carbohydrate intake, you have to continue to consume a healthy amount of protein and healthy fats.
- Eat your fiber: On days of low carbohydrate intake, don’t forget to eat foods high in fiber like fruits and vegetables. Low carb isn’t an excuse to avoid veggies.
Before starting any new nutrition strategy, consult with your doctor to see if it’s right for you.
While carb cycling isn’t heavily researched, it has been well documented by people who have had success using a meal plan and nutrition strategy.