We’ve had low-carb, we’ve had keto, we’ve had carnivore … and the list goes on of diet regimes you’ve probably heard circling ’round the health sphere.
But the list doesn’t stop there: lately, carb “cycling” has become somewhat of a trend, and not for terrible reasons. Many claim it can help boost the fat loss effects of a low-carb diet, while also keeping you psychologically “sane” during the dieting process.
Carb cycling does have some beneficial research behind it regarding hormones and fat loss, but here I’m going to dive in deeper to find out whether carb cycling is actually beneficial, and if you should try it!
What Is Carb Cycling?
Carb cycling is a strategy that involves fluctuating between high-carb foods and low-carb foods. Typically, this is done by alternating high-carb days with low-carb days in order to “trick” your body into burning more fat.
Carb cycling usually also involves raising calories on high-carb days, and reducing them on low-carb days. A popular split looks like:
• High-carb on workout days
• Low-carb on rest days
However, this isn’t the only split: some people choose to do a once-or-twice a week “carb day” after a week of low-carb dieting.
Why Carb Cycle?
The “why” behind carb cycling comes down to the potential positive benefits on certain hormones that can help with performance and fat loss.
There are several key hormones that are affected when you start dieting, including: leptin, thyroid hormones, and reproductive hormones (testosterone and estrogen).
Leptin in particular plays a pretty big role in fat loss, as it governs hunger and metabolic adaptation. When you are eating at maintenance calories or above (or you have a decent amount of body fat), leptin signals to your body that you are getting “enough” food, and as such, keeps you from feeling hungry and keeps your metabolic fire burning.
However, when you begin to diet (reduce calories) or drastically drop your carb intake, your leptin levels decrease and signal to your body that you are “hungry.” As such, leptin begins to lower your metabolic rate in order to “conserve calories.” This is why you see people plateau in their weight loss efforts, even though they’re dieting hard core.
Even a few days of low-calorie dieting can cause leptin levels to drop, which is why it often gets harder and harder to lose fat the longer you diet; your metabolism continues to dip, so you need to eat less calories over time to continue to lose.
This is where the theory of carb cycling comes in: some research shows that by temporarily increasing calories from carbs will give leptin levels a boost, which signals to your body to increase your metabolism once more. This can also help reduce hunger signals, which may make it easier to stick to a low-carb diet on low-carb days.
In addition (and this is purely anecdotal), some claim that carb cycling is an ideal way to gain muscle mass without gaining fat.
The theory here is that by stimulating insulin (which plays a key role in building muscle) on training days by eating high-carb, then by reducing carbs on non-training days (which helps burn fat) you can cash in on both muscle growth and fat loss simultaneously.
Now, studies don’t currently exist to say whether this is actually the case, so we do have to take it with a grain of salt.
When Is Carb Cycling Beneficial?
As you can see, carb cycling can have a lot of moving parts. And, while it can definitely help you lose fat, I wouldn’t necessarily say that it’s the most sustainable strategy for the average person working out several days a week looking to tone and drop body fat.
If you’re looking to lean out to a very low body fat percentage (which is difficult to sustain indefinitely), then carb cycling can help get your there. And it can also be a good strategy for someone eating low-carb or Keto who feels they’ve plateaued.
In general, carb cycling involves quite a bit of macro counting and preparation, which can make it pretty challenging to maintain unless you’re an athlete or training for a competition (or simply have the time and energy!). Otherwise, strict carb cycling can get intense for an everyday maintenance regime. As always, I recommend sticking to balanced macros for the most sustainable, long-term “diet.”
How To Carb Cycle
If you’re low-carb and want to try carb cycling, keep things simple and try upping your carb intake once or twice a week on your workout days. An easy way to do this is to replace your fat calories with carbs like sweet potato and low-sugar fruits like berries. Give this method a couple weeks and judge your progress and how you feel, as adding in carbs can sometimes also increase your mood if you’ve been low carb for too long.
The Bottom Line
• Carb cycling may boost hormones that support fat loss and satiety
• Carb cycling can help you have more motivation to stick to a low carb diet, since you can have carb “refeeds.”
• Carb cycling can become intense and complicated for everyday life, as it is an advanced technique.