On the ketogenic diet, you restrict carb intake while increasing fat intake to transition your body into a fat-burning state. For many people, this means eating 30-50 grams of carbs per day. On the other hand, certain individuals may benefit from eating more carbs at specific time intervals. This is known as carb cycling.
While it might sound counterintuitive, carb cycling can actually be more beneficial than keeping carbohydrate intake low for a long period of time.
Weight loss, fat loss, and better sports performance are all reported benefits of carb cycling. Here’s everything you need to know about carb cycling — reasons to do it, how it works, whether this keto approach is right for you, and food options for higher carb days.
Carb cycling is a strategy where you vary your carb intake throughout the week, month, or year. How many carbs you consume vary depending upon your body composition, activity level, and goals.
Carb cycling is popular among people following low-carb diets like keto.
Some reasons to do carb cycling include:
- Weight or fat loss: Many people restrict their carbs to lose weight, then reintroduce them on “refeed” days to encourage muscle growth. Having a higher percentage of muscle mass per pound of body weight can improve metabolism, thus leading to greater weight loss (*).
- Athletic goals: For those following a rigorous training program, alternating between higher-carb and lower-carb days may support workouts. Since training requires adequate restoration of muscle glycogen stores, eating carbs before or after exercise might aid training and recovery (*).
- Overcoming a plateau: When adhering to a low-carb diet, it’s not uncommon to experience initial weight loss, especially “water weight” loss, followed by stalled progress around six months (*). Sometimes a high-carb cycle can help people break through their weight loss plateau.
You can approach carb cycling in different ways. Keep in mind that the idea of carb cycling is to time when you eat carbs based on when it provides you the most benefit, and not eat them at other times.
The first thing to consider when planning to do carb cycling is how you’re hoping to benefit from it and what lifestyle factors need to be weighed in.
For instance, while some people have goals for their body composition or body fat levels, others may be athletes who want to prioritize carb intake around events and rest days.
Furthermore, some people like to plan higher carb intake around their training schedule. Those following the targeted keto diet (TKD) use this strategy.
Some people adjust how many carbs they’re eating on a day-to-day basis, and others may look at the overall pattern of carb intake over a longer period.
Remember: While carb intake changes, overall protein intake generally stays the same, and fat intake depends on carb intake. For instance, if you’re eating high-carb, your fat intake should be, and vice versa.
To give you an idea of what a week of carb cycling can look like, imagine eating low-carb for three of the days, high-carb for two of the days, and eating a moderate amount of carbs on the remaining two days.
Given that carb cycling requires more planning than many other eating patterns, you may be wondering if it’s safe.
As with any changes to your diet or lifestyle, carb cycling can be done safely as long as you prioritize proper nutrition and are eating enough to fuel your body well.
Still, some people may experience side effects when they start. For instance, if you haven’t been used to practicing a low-carb diet, you may feel lethargic or experience intense cravings on low-carb days. However, as you become more accustomed to a carb cycling plan that works for you, potential side effects like these should balance themselves out.
If you’re concerned about whether carb cycling is safe for you, the best approach is to speak to your healthcare professional to make sure it’s appropriate.
Advocates of carb cycling argue that since it appears to regulate hormones, stimulate muscle growth, and help you recover quickly from workouts, you should, therefore, lose weight and excess fat.
Furthermore, the primary reason people lose weight when they change their diet is when they’re in a calorie deficit. When you’re burning more calories than you’re eating, weight loss is generally a result (*).
So, if carb cycling is paired with a calorie deficit, you’re more likely to experience weight and fat loss from doing so.
But while there is anecdotal evidence of this theory, this has not been proven by science.
Weight loss occurs at a different rate for everyone, as there are numerous factors involved. Keep in mind that a gradual and steady weight loss is about 1 to 2 pounds per week (*).
If you’re losing weight while carb cycling, it’s best to make sure it’s at a slow and gradual pace. Quicker weight loss that may occur upfront is often due to loss of extra water. After that, a slower rate of weight loss is going to be more sustainable and is generally healthier for your body.
There are limited studies directly related to the effectiveness of carb cycling. However, related studies on training techniques, metabolism, and hormones support the theory behind carb cycling.
May Support Your Hormones
Meanwhile, increased insulin levels will help replenish your glycogen stores, which helps your muscles repair following exercise (*).
May Improve Muscle Growth
Other studies show that carbohydrates can help rebuild and repair muscles after exercise, which will lead to muscle growth (*).
May Support Your Keto Diet Goals
Carb cycling involves moving between periods where you eat high amounts of carbs and low amounts of carbs. A given “cycle” could last anywhere from one week to one year.
Carb cycling is popular among athletes and those following a low-carbohydrate diet. People motivated to try carb cycling are usually looking to boost athletic performance, improve body composition, or breakthrough a weight loss plateau.
The cyclical keto diet is one form of carb cycling, where keto dieters eat high amounts of carbs for 1-2 days per week. For more information on whether the CKD might be right for you, check out this comprehensive guide on the cyclical keto diet and how to follow it.
There are many ways you can make carb cycling work for your lifestyle. To reach a point of satisfaction and sustainability, carb cycling can take time as you adjust details and patterns.
You can cycle your carbs once a week, once a month, or during a specific season. If you’re an athlete, for example, you may choose to eat higher amounts of carbs during competition season.
On the other hand, if you’re a regular weekend warrior who completes two incredibly challenging workouts per week, you may choose to eat a high amount of carbs on those days.
Unlike the cyclical keto diet, where your carb intake will dramatically spike on one or two days per week, carb cycling usually entails gradually raising and lowering your carb intake.
If you implement a high-carb cycle each week, a seven-day span of carb intake may look something like this:
- Monday: 30 grams
- Tuesday: 100 grams
- Wednesday: 150 grams
- Thursday: 125 grams
- Friday: 75 grams
- Saturday: 50 grams
- Sunday: 50 grams
On this schedule, the middle of your week (Wednesday) would also be your most intense training day at the gym. This might include a bodybuilding or HIIT workout. Low-carb days (Monday and Saturday) would include easy-to-moderate workouts, such as light cardio, while Sunday would be a rest day from the gym.
Keep in mind that these are examples only, as there is no definitive way to do carb cycling.
If you’ve done a keto diet, carb cycling may be a little easier for you to start as you’ll already be aware of what foods are high and low in carbs.
While carb cycling does include some high-carb days, it’s important to make sure you’re filling these with healthy carbs.
It may be tempting to turn these into “cheat” days or an excuse to eat things like traditional pastries, packaged desserts, and other refined carbohydrates, but these don’t offer benefits for your nutrition, wellness, physical activity, or body composition.
Instead, choose healthy carbs that are a good source of fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
Some examples of healthy carb choices include:
- Vegetables: Options like zucchini, leafy greens, potatoes, and corn, aren’t just a good source of healthy carbs but also an array of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that help support your well-being.
- Fruits: A variety of fruits, like berries, citrus, and grapes, are packed with antioxidants, fiber, and micronutrients while contributing a low glycemic load that won’t wreak havoc on your blood sugar levels.
- Whole Grains: Some of the healthiest whole grains include quinoa, brown rice, oats, millet, farro, and amaranth, as well as whole grain pasta. These can be used as a side to many dishes, as well as a thickening ingredient in soups and casseroles, or a foundation to flavorful bowls.
- Legumes: These include beans, peas, and lentils, which are packed with fiber and slowly digested carbs.
Avoid foods with refined carbs like white rice, sodas, most breakfast cereals, and anything made with white flour. These cause spikes in your blood sugar levels and increase your risk of chronic disease (*).
If you’re already following the keto diet, implementing a carb cycling meal plan should be fairly straightforward.
Follow a strict keto diet on your low-carb days, stocking up on healthy fats, green leafy veggies, and a moderate amount of protein.
On your high-carb days, your plate might include a serving of brown rice, quinoa, and sweet potatoes.
Here is what a sample day may look like, depending on where you are in your carb cycle:
High-Carb Day: 162 grams of carbs
- Breakfast: Two scrambled eggs (2g) over a cup of quinoa (38g) (* , *)
- Lunch: One serving of grapes (41g) two roasted chicken thighs (0g), asparagus (5g) (* , *)
- Post-workout snack: Smoothie with Perfect Keto Whey Protein Powder (3g), half a banana (37g), and ice cubes (*)
- Dinner: A cup quinoa (28g), stir-fry veggies (8g), and one pork loin (0g) (* , *)
Low-Carb Day: 23.4 grams of net carbs
- Breakfast: 2 chocolate protein pancakes (0g)
- Lunch: Keto taco salad (7g)
- Pre-workout snack: Triple chocolate smoothie (4g)
- Dinner: 2 servings of sheet pan sausage and peppers (10g)
- Dessert: Avocado brownie (2.4g)
The cyclical keto diet (CKD) is one form of carb cycling, but cycling your carbs does not necessarily mean you’re following the cyclical keto diet.
The cyclical keto diet follows a standard ketogenic diet (SKD) for five to six days a week. On the remaining days of the week, you’ll consume higher amounts of carbohydrates. A carb cycle, on the other hand, may last weeks or even months.
A carb cycling diet and the cyclical keto diet have similar goals. Some athletes choose to follow the CKD in order to replenish their glycogen stores after heavy training sessions.
In other words, they intentionally eat large amounts of carbohydrates — even if it will kick them out of ketosis — to raise their blood glucose levels during intense training days. This allows them replenish their glycogen levels after exercise, allowing their muscles to recover (*).
Carb cycling is a way of eating that increases carb intake at certain times and minimizes carb intake at other times. The idea behind this practice is that more carbs are eaten during times of need, and fewer carbs are eaten when they’re not needed for certain things.
For instance, carb cycling can be used for things like supporting body composition goals, fueling athletic performance, or potentially breaking a weight loss plateau.
The most important thing to remember when carb cycling is that there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to doing so and that it can take some time to find a pattern that works for you. Furthermore, when your carb intake is higher, be sure to choose healthy carbs that offer more nutrition benefits, like fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that support your health and well-being.
Kreider R et al. Effects of ingesting protein with various forms of carbohydrate following resistance-exercise on substrate availability and markers of anabolism, catabolism, and immunity. 2007 November 12