What Is Carb Cycling? A Complete Guide
If you are on a keto diet or have ever been curious about starting one for body fat loss or overall wellness, you may have heard of a term called “carb cycling.”
But what exactly is carb cycling, and how can it affect your body composition? For some, carb cycling is the real keto diet, and it’s an approach that can resonate with beginners and pros alike.
Is carb cycling safe? Are there any drawbacks to this ketogenic diet approach? Here is our complete guide on everything you need to know about carb cycling and whether or not it’s right for you. (But when in doubt, always contact a medical professional before starting a new diet!)
Without further ado, let’s dive in.
What Is Carb Cycling?
To start with the basics, the carb cycling approach simply means that an individual goes back and forth between consuming higher-carb foods and lower-carb foods to carefully monitor their calorie intake and carbohydrate intake. Some may fluctuate their carb intake for days, weeks, or months in an effort to build muscle and lose fat.
Carb cycling diets are extremely popular for bodybuilders and endurance athletes. This is because they can potentially gain more muscle mass, lose weight, and optimize energy, storing more carbohydrates for marathons or other intense activities.
It makes sense for folks who try their hand at carb cycling to inadvertently end up calorie cycling, as well. Consuming fewer calories on their “low-carb” days and more calories on their “higher carb” days is an example of this correlation at play!
So, who can benefit from including carb cycling in a keto or low carbohydrate diet? The answer will usually be serious athletes and individuals who tend to be more active while following a ketogenic diet, but truthfully, plenty of us could benefit from carb cycling from time to time.
What Is an Example of a Carb Cycling Schedule?
Let’s take a look at a typical week for a carb cycler: When a workout day approaches (or you’re having a training day with high-intensity exercises), higher carbs will be your friend. For rest days, stick with lower carb intakes and meals that are higher in healthy fats.
Carb cycling within a single day is a thing, too! You’ll recall that carb cycling can be done on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. For single-day carb cycling, center your workout around high-carb foods, with low-carb foods being eaten throughout the rest of the day.
What Does Carb Cycling Do to the Body?
Carb cycling seems like a pretty neat idea, right? Plus, it means we are actively seeing how the body responds to cycling carbohydrates.
If you are looking to lose weight, carb cycling can help combat our mortal enemy: metabolic adaptation. Metabolic adaptation refers to our bodies’ ability to compensate for weight loss by slowing down our metabolism. Less energy is expended when we exercise, and our BMR (basal metabolic rate) drops. This, in turn, makes us burn fewer calories. It’s smart of our bodies to adapt this way when we look at things from an evolutionary standpoint, but it’s not so fun when we’re trying to lose weight!
It wouldn’t make sense to continuously eat less and less just to see weight loss results. It also isn’t sustainable to cut down on your caloric intake in order to lose more weight. Many advocates of carb cycling say that by intermixing high-carb and low-carb foods, you can avoid metabolic adaptation.
Endurance athletes, this one’s for you: Glucose is our bodies’ main energy source, and glycogen is how your body stores that glucose. Unfortunately, bodies can only store a certain amount of glycogen at any given time. When we run out of these reserves during prolonged or strenuous exercise, we end up slowing down. High-carb cycling days can give you more of the fuel your body needs to keep at it!
What Is the Science Behind Carb Cycling?
Here at MiiRO, we love a bit of science with our magic and whimsy. There have been many studies looking at the science of carb cycling. This newer dietary approach puts a different spin on ketogenic or low-carb diets, and we are here for it.
Carb cycling can help regulate the hormones that send our body’s hunger and fullness cues. Leptin is a hormone that contributes to weight management. When you eat less and feel hungry, that is leptin at work.
As you begin a ketogenic diet, your leptin levels quickly begin to drop. Thankfully, since leptin also has a say when it comes to your reproductive and thyroid hormones, carb cycling has the potential to stabilize your hormones. Eating more calories from carbs from time to time will let our brains know that we are fed and help raise leptin levels to regulate our essential hormones. After all, we want our bodies operating as they should!
As with any new diet, care should be taken when you begin. Always consult with your doctor before making radical changes to your eating habits! The goal is to reap the benefits of cycling your carbohydrates in a healthy way.
What Are the Benefits of Carbohydrate Cycling?
We have touched on a few of the ways that cycling carbs can have its advantages, such as improving athletic performance, helping to stabilize hormones, and combating metabolic adaptation. Another benefit to think about when considering carb cycling? Carb cycling can make it a lot easier to adhere to a low-carb or keto diet.
Ketogenic diets are often followed to achieve weight loss. However, some folks may find it tricky to stick with a low-carb diet for a long period of time. Alternating between high-carb and low-carb days, weeks, or months can really help you maintain a keto diet — and the results you’ve worked so hard to see!
There are numerous benefits of carb cycling that can fall in line with your specific goals surrounding fitness and health.
Is Carb Cycling Safe?
The most important thing to remember is that it’s vital to always speak with your healthcare professional before starting a new diet. That being said, there are a few points surrounding carb cycling that you should know.
Severe carb restriction means that your body begins to break down fat for fuel, bringing you into ketosis. This is the goal for keto dieters! If you are just beginning to cycle carbs, follow Atkins or another low-carb diet, or try keto, you may experience a few physical symptoms.
When cutting back on carbs, some people experience:
- Mood Issues
Known to the low-carb community as “carb flu,” these issues normally resolve themselves within a few days. Upping your electrolyte and water intake can help until your body quickly regulates itself. If you notice any severe symptoms or if anything just doesn’t feel right, advocate for yourself and see your doctor to ensure that all is well.
What Are Recommended Carbohydrate Sources for Carb Cycling?
As tempting as it may be to pepper your high-carb days with fast food, you’ll want to slow your roll. Focusing on implementing nutritious, complex carbs will keep your blood sugar levels in check and sustain your energy!
Complex carbohydrates provide your body with fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Because complex carbs are composed of fiber and starch, they digest more slowly than simple carbs. The energy released from complex carbs happens at a slower rate than simple carbs. This leads you to feel fuller for longer periods of time … without reaching for a bag of chips in between meals.
Complex carbs can be found in various food groups. Here are some of the tastiest and most nutritious!
Chickpeas, black beans, peas, lentils, kidney beans, and pinto beans (just to name a few!) are all considered complex carbs. Beans and legumes are rich in micronutrients such as zinc, iron, and potassium. Legumes also are high in protein, which is great news for vegans and vegetarians following a keto diet!
Potatoes have us covered in the starch department, and they also shine in other avenues. Did you know that potatoes have a lot of vitamin C?
When preparing potatoes for your higher carb cycling days, you’ll want to leave the skin on. Potato skins are high in fiber, which we adore.
Yams and sweet potatoes are included here, too. And with over 4,000 different varieties of potatoes, you’ll never be bored.
The heart-healthy nature of whole grains cannot be denied. Adding more whole grains into your diet, in general, can assist in battling type 2 diabetes, obesity, cancer, and heart-related ailments.
Some examples of whole grains you can implement while you are carb cycling are quinoa, oats, millet, brown rice, barley, couscous, amaranth, bulgur … the list goes on! So many different countries have a whole grain of choice that is prevalent in local cuisine. You’ll find teff flour being used to make “injera” in Ethiopian dishes, and the whole grain freekeh is popular in the Mediterranean.
Carb Cycling Meal Tips
Carb cycling requires a little bit of planning ahead to make sure that you are successful. Keep these tips in the forefront of your mind when you start your carb cycling journey!
You’ll want to opt for whole foods, fruits, and veggies that are high in fiber. Getting more fiber into your diet can aid in weight loss, keeping you satiated. Sure, pizza and fries have a decent amount of carbohydrates, but where you source your carbs matters. Since foods like pizza are considered simple carbs, you won’t stay full as long as you would if you elected to go for whole foods with complex carbohydrates.
For carb cycling, you will need to determine how many carbs to eat each day, and this is not necessarily a “one size fits all” approach. Your body weight, activity levels, and age all play a role in how many grams of carbs you should be consuming. Once you calculate that number, figuring out how many carbs you need on low-carb and high-carb days will start to fall into place.
Here is another tip when you are planning meals while carb cycling. You should definitely start using a food journal or app to calculate the number of carbs you are eating. This will take the guesswork out of your diet and help give you a clearer picture of where you stand for both your low-carb and high-carb days.
There are other benefits to meal planning and calorie-counting apps, too! These apps can encourage exercise, help you track progress, and help you achieve healthier eating habits.
When Should You Have High-Carb Days?
For maximum results, save your high-carb loading days for the days where you have the most physical activity. Think gym days, hiking weekends, and walks with friends.
When you exert yourself, your body will thank you for a high carbohydrate day while carb cycling! You won’t disturb the advantages of a ketogenic diet by cycling in high-carb meals to give your body the fuel it needs.
When Should You Have Low-Carb Days?
If you are following a keto or low-carb diet, sticking with getting the majority of your calories from fat and even protein is imperative. Low carb is marked by less than 26% of daily calories eaten derived from carbohydrates.
When all else fails, abide by this rule: choose higher carb-focused meals around your workouts and low-carb meals the rest of the time.
High-Carb Snack Ideas
Popcorn. Popcorn has a low-calorie count and is high in fiber, making it a wonderful higher carbohydrate snack to munch on. Just choose popcorn that is plain and oil-free so that you can season to your heart (and macros)’s content!
Dried Fruit. Dried fruit is a carb and calorie powerhouse. Since the fruit has been dried, it’s easier to consume larger amounts of dried fruit than if you had the same amount of fresh fruit on hand.
Pretzels. Pretzels are an easy way to sneak in some carbs while out on the hiking trails.
Baked Potatoes. Dress ‘em up, dress ‘em down: Baked potatoes are the tastiest snack around! Silly poems aside, baked potatoes are a versatile canvas for a plethora of yummy toppings.
Bananas. Bananas pack a potassium punch, which makes bananas a well-rounded pre-workout snack for your busy high-carb cycling day.
Roasted Chickpeas. You can season and roast these high-protein balls of goodness in the oven. Some of our favorite seasoning combinations are Stevia and cinnamon for a sweet snack, or cumin and oregano for when you’re feelin’ something savory.
Cereal. There are a lot of varieties of cereal on the market made up of high-quality grains that amount to complex carbs. You can even find sprouted wheat cereals, which are easier on your digestive system.
Dairy-Free Yogurt. This is a yummy way to start the morning on a high-carb day. You can find yogurt made with various alternative milks, like almond milk, coconut milk, and oat milk.
Low-Carb Snack Ideas
Almonds. We love almonds. In fact, we love them so much that we made them the star of our favorite white chocolate bar. From all of almonds’ beneficial features to their satiating crunch, these nuts are the perfect companions to your keto diet.
Berries. Berries like strawberries or raspberries are examples of fruit with the lowest carb contents. Whip up some keto, vegan whipped cream, and enjoy berries and cream as a low-carb dessert.
Avocados. Avocados are high in fat and fiber and low in carbohydrates. Squeeze a little bit of lemon juice on half of an avocado and sprinkle some sea salt on top. Bliss!
Chia Pudding. Mix two tablespoons of chia seeds with half a cup of dairy-free milk, add a little bit of vanilla extract, and voila! A super delicious low-carb snack. Chia seeds are touted as a “superfood,” and we can see why.
Kale Chips. Kale graces us with some epic levels of nutrition! Vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin K … you can sing the alphabet with kale’s nutrient offerings. If you own an air fryer, we definitely recommend using one to make kale chips. You’ll discover that your concoctions will be perfectly crispy every time.
Keto Chocolate. White chocolate, peanut butter enrobed chocolate, mylk chocolate … yes, even chocolate can be a daily low-carb treat, thanks to MiiRO!
Bell Peppers. Bell peppers can be served with hummus or a low-carb dip or eaten on their own. Each color of bell pepper has its own flavor and a different balance of micronutrients. Our favorite bell pepper to snack on raw is the red bell pepper.
Edamame. Steamed edamame is so full of protein to keep you full during a low-carb cycling day. Try it with some seaweed, a great source of iodine!
This complete guide to carb cycling covers it all: from high and low-carb snack ideas to the benefits of carb cycling to meal tips and everything in between.
Now that you know everything there is to know about carb cycling, you will be able to make an informed decision about whether including this keto dieter’s secret into your lifestyle is right for you.
What Is Carb Cycling? | The Cleveland Clinic
Dietary Carbohydrate Manipulation | PMC
Metabolic Adaptations to Weight Loss | PMC
Glycogen: What It Is & Function | The Cleveland Clinic
Leptin: What It Is, Function & Levels | The Cleveland Clinic
Ketogenic Diet for Weight Loss | PMC
Complex Carbohydrates| MedlinePlus
Nutritional and Health Benefits of Beans | PMC
Potato Health Benefits | UC Davis
Potato Facts and Figures | International Potato Center
Health Benefits of Dietary Whole Grains | PMC
Popcorn | American Heart Association
Bananas | The Nutrition Source | Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
Almonds | The Nutrition Source | Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
Chia Seeds | The Nutrition Source | Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
Kale | The Nutrition Source | Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health