If you’ve been around the nutrition and strength training worlds for any period of time, it’s highly likely you’ve come across carb cycling.
In some circles, carb cycling is regarded as the holy grail of dietary approaches to fat loss, with coaches putting every single client on some kind of carb cycling plan, no matter their goals or starting point. Then you have others who disregard it entirely, and say it has no benefit over a linear diet whatsoever.
In this article, we’ll find out the truth.
What is Carb Cycling?
Put simply, carb cycling involves consuming different amount of carbs on different days of the week.
So with a linear diet, you might be eating 200 grams of carbs per day, every day, or 1,400 per week. With a carb cycling plan, you’d still eat 1,400 over the week, but you’d have more on some days and less on others.
Most people choose to have between 1 and 3 higher days, and between 4 and 6 lower days.
For example, those 1,400 grams could be spread across the week as -
Monday - 120g
Tuesday - 120g
Wednesday - 120g
Thursday - 400g
Friday - 120g
Saturday - 120g
Sunday - 400g
That would be following a 5 days high, 2 days low approach. These numbers/ ratios aren’t set in stone, and neither are the days, but that gives you an idea of what a week might look like.
You could go lower than 120g and increase the high days even more. You could be more moderate and have 150g on your low days, and less aggressive on your high days. Or you could go for 4 low, 3 high, or 6 low, 1 high.
There’s no ‘best’ way to do it.
Physiologically, the big benefit comes in the form of what carb cycling can do for your levels of the hormone, leptin.
Leptin controls hunger, and plays a role in metabolism and bodyweight. When leptin levels are high, you tend to feel less hungry, but as you diet, leptin levels begin to drop, and you can experience greater hunger, cravings and lethargy. (1,2.)
Short-term periods of overfeeding have shown to be effective in combating this drop, with carbohydrate overfeeding typically having the biggest effect. (3,4.)
While your total weekly calorie and carb intake may not vary between a linear diet and a cyclical diet, incorporating low days likely won’t make your leptin levels drop much more than they would otherwise, yet the high days gives leptin a chance to return back to baseline and reduce hunger. This can last for 24-48 hours, meaning if you’re having a high day every 3 days or so, you might only experience days of greater hunger once or twice a week.
Cyclical diets have also been shown to keep results steady, without reducing REE (Resting Energy Expenditure) or the number of calories you burn each day. (5.)
Additionally, from a psychological standpoint, factoring in high days may be beneficial.
We know that the longer a diet goes on for, the harder it is to stick to, and the greater the chance of binging. Knowing you have a high-carb day (or two or three,) to look forward to every week can often keep motivation going. Many people report feeling more motivated when on a carb cycling plan, as, despite having to have a lower carbohydrate and calorie intake some days, the thought of those high-carb days keeps them on track.
Let’s not forget the benefits on performance, either.
Though many high-fat advocates suggest there’s no need to consume carbs to help performance, reviews of the current literature seem to suggest otherwise. (6.) If you’re training hard, and hoping to increase performance or strength while maintaining muscle mass on a diet, high-carb days can be particularly useful, especially when they coincide with your tougher sessions.
What About the Low Days?
Cutting carbs is an easy way to cut calories, without sacrificing anything ‘essential.’
Clearly, carbs aren’t bad, and play an important role for everybody, but your body can make its own carbohydrate by breaking down protein and/or fat if it needs to. The same can’t be said for the other two macronutrients, and we have to consume these in order for our bodies to function properly.
Lower-carb days may also help improve insulin, which can have benefits for body composition, fat distribution and glucose tolerance, (7) as well as improving fat oxidation (8) and cholesterol. (9.)
Anecdotally, you’ll often hear reports of people actually saying they feel less hungry when they have a low carb intake rather than a moderate one.
The low days however, are more just essential components in order to be able to have high days without overshooting your weekly calorie allowance.
The Bottom Line:
You don’t have to carb cycle. The biggest component of losing body fat is staying in a calorie deficit, and so you need to find the easiest way for you to do that, whether linearly or in a cyclical fashion.
That said, cycling your carbs could have benefit.
This will mainly be from a psychological standpoint, as having higher-carb days certainly makes it easier to go out and socialise. If you know you’ve only got 150 grams of carbs to get you through a whole day, and that day includes eating and drinking with friends in the evening, you’re probably going to struggle.
If you lowered your daily intake to 100 on 5 days of the week though, you’ve got another 250 calories to play with on the other 2, making it much easier to adhere to.
Athletes may also find that carb cycling is a more effective way of losing weight and fat while maintaining performance, as they can schedule higher-carb days around training.
It’s certainly worth experimenting with carb cycling, and seeing how you get on with it.
If you find it reduces hunger, makes adherence easier and improves your performance, fantastic. If not, switch back to linear dieting and you won’t have lost anything.
You have the power to do all of this right inside your MyPhysique dashboard. Simply click on the Nutrition panel on the left hand side, select the days you'd like to eat more or less on, and play around with the sliding scale in the Carb Cycling part of the section.
You'll continue to hit your weekly calories and macros, but in the way that you actually want to.