Carb Cycling diets – unworthy hype or a true dieting phenomenon?

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There's been a lot of hype recently surrounding the fat loss potential of carb cycling diets. But what's all the fuss about, how does it work and more to the point, what exactly is Carb cycling? Here's what you need to know:
 

What is carb cycling?

Carb cycling is a dietary approach based on rotating between high carb, moderate carb and low/no carb days.

The concept is that by strategically increasing your carbohydrate intake on specific days, you keep your metabolism revved up, and by sticking to mostly protein and fat on low/no carb days, you keep insulin levels low enough to allow you to burn fat whilst maintaining muscle mass.

In short, carb cycling times carbohydrate intake to when it provides the greatest benefit (mainly workout days) and excludes carbs when they aren't required (mostly rest days). 


Foods included in a carb cycling diet

  • Protein: Beef, chicken, pork, fish, eggs, dairy, soy
  • Carbs: Whole grains (rice, pasta, bread etc), legumes, fruits and vegetables
  • Fats: Olive oil, dairy, oily fish, nuts and seeds
     

How much of what and when do you need to eat?

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Exactly how much of what you eat and when will depend entirely on your activity levels and goals. I would suggest getting your calculator out and setting up a spreadsheet. You're going to need both!

The following figures are based on an average healthy adult with an active lifestyle. To calculate your macronutrient requirements, multiply the figures below by your weight in pounds.

High carb days:
Carbs: 1.5 – 2.5g
Protein: 1 – 1.2g
Fat: As little as possible

Moderate carb days:
Carbs: 0.8 – 1.4g
Protein: 1.2 – 1.5g
Fat: 0.15 – 0.25g

No/Low carb days:
Carbs: 0.2 – 0.5g
Protein: 1.2 – 1.5g
Fat: 0.3g – 0.6g
 

Sample carb cycling schedule

Again, it's important to plan your carb cycle in conjunction with your goals and currently activity levels.

As an example, let's say you workout 4 times a week and you'd like to lose 1-2 pounds a week. You carb cycle and workout plan might look something like this:

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What about cheat meals?

Yes, you can and should have a cheat meal. Just make sure to stick to one a week and within reason (don't look to the Rock for inspiration). While some health professionals recommend taking an entire “cheat day”, I personally wouldn't recommend it as it can derail your progress. As carb cycling is very much strategic and most cheat meals are carb heavy, make sure to take your cheat meal on a high carb day. 
 

The pros of carb cycling

  • Unlike some other diets (Atkins, Keto etc), you aren't starving yourself of carbohydrates 7 days a week.
  • The diet allows for 1-2 high carb days per week.
  • It has been shown to have some very dramatic results short-term.
  • When followed strictly can be extremely effective for fat loss.
  • Allows for one cheat meal per week.
     

The cons of carb cycling

  • You need to struggle through 2-3 low/no carb days per week and that ain't easy!
  • You have to be very strategic and pay close attention to your diet. (A food diary is highly recommended).
  • Following low carb days, you may have lower levels of energy to fuel your workouts. 
  • As carb cycling is a relatively new dietary approach, there isn't a huge amount of science to support it's effectiveness. 
     

Q&A

Does is work for weight loss?

Short answer: yes

When carb cycling is followed strictly, you should expect to lose between 1-2lbs per week. 

Related: how to lose 50lbs in one year
 

Does is work for muscle building?

Short Answer: yes and no

If muscle building is what you're after, I recommend going for a high protein, high carb, low fat diet over the course of 6 months. Once spring pokes it's cheeky little head out, try a carb cycling diet to lower body fat. It will almost certainly help unveil months of hard work and leave you looking great just in time for summer.
 

Is it more effective than a low carb, high protein diet?

Short answer: Yes and No

Carb cycling has been proven to be very effective over a short period (3-6 weeks). However, studies show that when compared to a low carb, high protein diet over the course of 8 weeks, it didn't prove to be any more effective.

 

Is it right for me? Well, that depends...

Do you have Monk style will power and the organizational skills a German accountant?

I consider myself to be one very determined and organized individual, but during the course of a recent 4 week carb cycling diet pre beach holiday i was pushed to my very limit. I found it extremely difficult to stick to. NO carb days are horrendous and it's extremely difficult after a high carb day to revert back to a no carb day. I was emotional, confused, hungry and often took out my frustrations by beating my pillow to a pulp. In the diet's defense, it did work and i managed to shift every gram of body fat that i'd built up over the course of an overindulgent winter.
 

Should you try it?

Short answer: That's up to you! 

When it comes to weight loss diets, there are far worse out there than carb cycling. That said, when it comes to losing weight, it's important to find a diet that you can sustain long term. If you try to lose too much weight too soon, while you may experience short term results, as soon as you revert back to your normal eating habits, you'll likely regain any weight lost. 

With all diets, It's very important that you do your research and find a diet best suited to your fitness goals and lifestyle. No one diet suits all and you might find that what works best for somebody else doesn't necessarily work for you.

Related: The Keto diet - Your essential guide