Total Shape is a reader-supported site. Purchases made through links may earn a commission. Learn more.

Carb Cycling - What Is It and How Does it Work?

Isaac Robertson
Published by Isaac Robertson | Co-Founder & Chief Editor
Fact checked by Donald Christman, BHSc FACT CHECKED
Last updated: March 23, 2023

Low-carb diets have been making a lot of buzz in the fitness world for years.

But what about carb cycling?

To get the lowdown on this diet plan and its potential benefits, we spent the last few days researching the science behind it.

Here’s what we’ve found out.

Quick Summary

  • Carb cycling is good because it supports weight loss, promotes muscle recovery, regulates insulin levels, and increases energy levels.
  • The Carb cycling strategy is a weight loss plan that involves alternating between low-carb, and high-carb intake.
  • Individuals should not use carb cycling programs for long-term weight management.

Is Carb Cycling Effective?

woman measuring her stomach

Carb cycling can be an effective method for boosting athletic performance and losing weight, as long as you follow a well-developed plan and use it in short duration phases.

Taking short breaks to cycle carbs gives your body a chance to burn fat instead of carbohydrates and muscle tissues.

However, people who take the carb cycling approach must undergo regular re-evaluation and adjustment to ensure that it’s still providing the intended benefits.

Consulting a physician or nutritionist before cycling your carbs can help you create a customized plan tailored to your individual needs.

But is carb cycling healthy? Although further research is needed, here are some health benefits associated with this diet [1]:

  • Supports weight loss: Low-carb phases may help suppress the appetite, thereby aiding weight loss.
  • Improves muscle recovery: High-carbohydrate days refuel muscle glycogen and provide essential nutrients to the body.
  • Promotes fat loss: Low-carb days may influence the body to use body fat for fuel during exercise.
  • Regulates insulin and other hormones: Low-carb days may help control your blood sugar levels, while high-carb days give you enough insulin to preserve muscle tissue. This can also improve your thyroid hormones, leptin levels, and testosterone.
  • Increases energy: High-carb days give you quick energy for intense workouts.
  • More feasible than other diets: Switching between low-carb days and high-carb refeeds feels less restrictive for most people. It’s also more sustainable than eating a low carbohydrate diet all the time.

Now let’s see what it is really all about.

What Is Carb Cycling?

plate with small clock on it and a person holding knife and fork

Carb cycling is much like the ketogenic diet—only more accessible.

Instead of removing carbs altogether, this weight loss strategy involves alternating between high-carb days and low-carb days.

At a glance, this diet is pretty simple. You eat more carbs on days when you plan on training hard, and you eat fewer carbs during less active days.

According to Toby Amidor, an award-winning nutrition expert, the goal of carb cycling is to “force the body to use fat as fuel instead of carbs in the form of glycogen.”

When you exercise during low-carb days, it can result in an increased ability to burn body fat for fuel once your glycogen stores have emptied.

This rigorous diet is often used by serious athletes and bodybuilding competitors who want to reduce body fat, build more muscle mass, and store more carbs for long-duration exercises such as a marathon.

People who want to kickstart their weight loss journey also take on carb cycling, even though much of the weight they may lose from it would come from water.

How Does Carb Cycling Work?

fresh vegetables, fresh sliced fish, and a person writing on a notebook

A carb cycling plan works by alternating the amount of carbs you consume throughout the week, and it assists in weight loss by putting your body in a calorie deficit on lower-carb days.

There are two common types of carb cycling schedules—large refeeds and moderate refeeds.

Large refeeds follow a low-carb eating plan for a week to two weeks in a row. Then, you pick one day to eat significantly more carbohydrates and increase your activity levels.

These refeeds serve as breaks from low-carb eating.

Going for long periods without carbohydrates forces your body to use stored body fat instead of carbs, thereby helping you lose fat.

On the other hand, moderate refeeds allow you to practice high-carb eating every three to four days during an otherwise low-carb phase.

If you like a more straightforward approach, you can simply alternate low and high-carb days.

Low-Carb Days

woman holding up a salad bowl and a fork

When you eat carbs, and your blood sugar goes up, your pancreas produces more of the hormone insulin, which takes glucose into cells.

There, the glucose is converted into energy, stored for later use, or turned into fat.

As your cells take in blood sugar, your pancreas signals them to release stored glucose.

This process ensures that your body has the right amount of sugar.

The purpose of low-carb days is to promote the use of body fat for energy, thereby improving insulin sensitivity.

By temporarily decreasing your carbohydrate intake, you can help your body become more sensitive to insulin’s function.

High-Carb Days

man in joy holding up a bowl of meal

High-carb days are used to refuel your muscles, enhance your athletic performance, boost your metabolism, and improve appetite-regulating hormones such as leptin and ghrelin.

Leptin lets the brain know that it's full after eating, while ghrelin is the hormone that signals hunger.

It’s important to remember that higher-carb days must be coupled with plenty of exercises or intense training.

Otherwise, it will only make you gain weight.

How Does It Affect Weight Loss?

woman squeezing her fat hips while holding a measuring tape

Cycling your carb intake can help you lose weight and body fat, as long as you use it properly.

Additionally, there’s a significant link between carbohydrate intake and blood insulin levels. When your blood has too much insulin, fat storage is more likely.

This can hinder your weight loss and body composition goals, and one thing that can help break this cycle is carb cycling.

One thing to keep in mind: Healthy eating habits should be at the forefront of any nutrition plan. And that means filling your plate with quality sources of healthy fats, protein, vitamins, minerals, and complex carbohydrates. 

Also, carb cycling shouldn’t be an excuse to binge or overly restrict your eating. You should still pay attention to your food choices and the timing of every meal.

Read More: Burning Fats vs Carbs (According to a Dietician)

How Does It Affect Athletic Performance?

shirtless man showing off his biceps

Bodybuilders and elite athletes love carb cycling. In fact, physique competitors often rely on low or no carb days during the cutting phase of their competition prep.

Manipulating carb intake can change the way muscles appear by promoting temporary water weight loss.

Eating more carbs can also create an energy surplus and optimize muscle growth.

Some athletes depend on carb cycling to promote muscle gain and prevent fat gain while training.

This diet can also regulate protein intake and fat intake.

They also combine periods of high-carb intake with intense training days to get more energy, help the muscles recover, and supply essential nutrients.

How Do You Carb Cycle?

Your plan will depend on several things, including your overall health and workout goals.

Here’s a sample week of moderate re-feeds that you can follow.

Days Type of Exercise Carb Intake
Day 1 High-Intensity Exercise 175 to 275 grams of carbs
Day 2 Light-Intensity Exercise 100 to 125 grams of carbs
Day 3 High-Intensity Exercise 175 to 275 grams of carbs
Day 4 Light-Intensity Exercise 100 to 125 grams of carbs
Day 5 High-Intensity Exercise 175 to 275 grams of carbs

What Are The Side Effects Of Carb Cycling?

woman holding her head in bed trying to sleep

When you lower your carbohydrate intake for a few days, you might experience some of these unpleasant side effects:

  • Mood issues
  • Sleep problems
  • Fatigue
  • Constipation
  • Carb cravings
  • Bloating

These symptoms usually don’t last long, and drinking water or electrolytes can help.

Is It Right For You?

laptop and fresh vegetables, with an asian woman thinking

Cycling between a low-carb diet and a high-carb diet—even for a short period—is extreme, so not everyone is cut out for this strategy.

You shouldn’t try it if you’re:

  • Diabetic or prediabetic
  • Diagnosed with heart disease
  • Dealing with a current or previous eating disorder
  • Suffering from adrenal issues
  • Pregnant or breastfeeding
  • Underweight

Moreover, cycling may not always result in better performance, as its effectiveness will highly depend on the type of sport you participate in. Remember, not everyone has the same nutritional needs.

This diet also requires strict adherence, so it may not be the best way to foster healthy eating habits or work for people who prefer a moderate approach to dieting.

What You Should Eat When Carb Cycling

fresh stack of green peas, and a plate filled with salad

What you eat on this diet will depend on your fitness goals.

If you want to improve your workouts and build muscle, you should eat extra carbs on higher-carb days. But if you intend to lose weight, eating a carb-rich food or two at every meal during higher-carb days would suffice.

On days when you’re eating less of the macro, you should stock up on healthy fats and proteins such as eggs, nuts, avocados, fish, and small portions of red meat or poultry.

Lower-carb veggies such as broccoli, greens, and peppers can also be included.

On a high-carb day, feel free to add grains, pasta, fruit, root vegetables, and bread to your meals.

Here are more tips to help you choose the best carbohydrate to eat when carb cycling:

  • Eat high-fiber fruits and vegetables
  • Stock up on legumes like beans, lentils, and peas
  • Consume plenty of whole grains
  • Opt for low-fat milk, yogurt, cheese, and other dairy products
  • Limit your intake of added sugars, refined grains, and highly processed foods

Key Takeaways

Most people are attracted to this way of eating because it’s a good compromise between low-carb diets and high-carb diets.

But as beneficial as they are, carb cycling programs aren’t recommended for long-term weight management. Instead, they should only be considered after you’ve exhausted other more sustainable nutrition strategies.

So before making sudden changes to your carb intake, check in with a doctor or a licensed nutrition expert familiar with this approach.

If you’ve tried carb cycling before, let us know how it has worked for you in the comments below.


Was this article helpful?

About The Author

You May Also Like

Write a Reply or Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *