To kick things off today, let's define carb cycling. Carb cycling is the practice of devouring carb-rich foods while vigorously peddling a stationary bike.
Just kidding. The real definition now.
Carb cycling is a low-carb diet that includes periodic carbohydrate feedings.
These carb feedings may help with exercise performance, weight loss, and overall dietary enjoyment. And since carbs are explicitly allowed, there’s no cause to feel guilty about "cheating” on your diet.
This article is an essential guide to carb cycling—what it is, who should try it, benefits, and how to implement a carb cycling plan. Let's get started.
What Is Carb Cycling?
Carb cycling (also called macro cycling) is a low-carb diet in which you increase carbohydrate intake for certain meals, days, or weeks. Examples of carb cycling include:
- Eating 1-2 high-carb days per week, with the remainder of the week low-carb. (See our Cyclical Keto Diet article for specific macro ratios, calorie examples, and more.)
- Eating all your carbs in one meal daily. (50–100 grams is a good starting point.)
- Eating high-carb the last week of every month.
Protein is held constant when carb cycling. Fat and carb macros get flipped on high-carb days or meals.
Athletes often time high-carb days to coincide with high-activity days. If you do CrossFit twice a week, those are your potato days—more on this benefit in the next section.
Some Reasons to Carb Cycle
Should you try carb cycling? See if any of the following apply to you.
If you're very active
On a low-carb or Keto diet, your body relies on fat and stored glucose (glycogen) to fuel endurance efforts. If these efforts are sufficiently vigorous (marathon, martial arts, or Tough Mudder), your glycogen stores may be inadequate, and you could hit a wall.
That's where carb cycling comes in. You refill your glycogen stores, allowing better recovery and performance in subsequent bouts.
If you want to gain muscle
For instance, a high-carb diet led to more significant muscle gains (though not strength gains) in bodybuilders vs. a Keto diet.[*] Why? Because carbs stimulate the growth-promoting hormone insulin.
If you're at a weight loss plateau
Carb cycling may help with weight management by stimulating leptin, a hormone that promotes satiety by binding to receptors in the brain. More leptin means less hunger and easier weight loss.[*]
That's the hypothesis, but we don't have clinical data on macro cycling vs. strict low-carb for losing weight. This tactic is probably only worth trying when other weight loss strategies fail.
If your cholesterol looks high on Keto
Increasing carb intake may bring it down. It's worth an experiment.
If strict low-carb doesn't work for your gut
Getting enough fiber on a low-carb or Keto diet can be challenging. Consequently, the health of your gut and gut microbes can suffer.
Carb cycling unlocks many foods—potatoes, yams, carrots, beets, etc.—that provide fiber to fuel your gut microbiome, helping it produce anti-inflammatory compounds like butyrate.[*]
If you want more dietary flexibility
Some folks take to Keto like lizards to a warm boulder. The rules of the diet don't feel like rules. They could lounge in Keto land forever.
Others, however, miss carbs terribly. And it stresses them out.
Carb cycling decreases that stress by allowing you to:
- Order a 5-star high-carb meal when dining out with friends
- Enjoy pasta, potatoes, rice, and other carb-rich favorites at home
- Wander certain aisles of the supermarket without breaking into a cold sweat
Anyways, minimizing stress is more important than maximizing ketones, so try carb cycling if you feel oppressed by low-carb doctrine.
Carb Cycling FAQ
Let's answer some rapid-fire questions about carb cycling now.
What is the best way to do carb cycling?
The standard practice is to eat high-carb 1–2 days per week, but daily carb cycling (one high-carb meal daily) may be better for habit formation. Play around to see what works for you.
Is carb cycling good for fat loss?
But carb cycling can be more sustainable than strict Keto. The semi-optimal diet you can stick to is better than the optimal diet you can't.
What is an example of carb cycling?
A high-carb dinner, high-carb day, and high-carb week are all examples of carb cycling.
Which carbs should you eat while carb cycling?
If you care about long-term health, stick to nutrient-dense carbs like sweet potatoes, potatoes, carrots, beets, and other fruits and veggies. Processed foods like bagels and pasta may refill your glycogen stores, but they won't do anything else for you.
Is carb cycling safe?
Humans evolved to cycle carbs. Our ancestors couldn't dash to Whole Foods when the tubers ran out—they just cycled off for a while. So yes, it's safe.
What is a carb cycling cheat day?
Don't worry about cheat days when you carb cycle. Just consider high-carb and low-carb days.
If you want an occasional treat on a high-carb day, go for it. Provided you don't make it a habit, you'll be fine.
Your Carb Cycling Plan
If you want to try carb cycling, the first step is to make a plan. Pick 1–2 high-carb days each week, and start thinking about healthy carb sources.
Use the Carb Manager app to set specific carb goals on specific days for accountability and results. (Note: the macro cycling feature is only available to Premium members.) See this guide for more info.
Give it a month and see how you feel. Is your energy improving? How about your mood, sleep, stress, and weight loss efforts?
Use your answers to guide your next move. Good luck.