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

There's been a huge amount of hype lately surrounding the fat loss and muscle building potential of carb cycling diets. So what's all the fuss about and what exactly is Carb cycling?


What is carb cycling?

Carb cycling diets are based around rotating between high carb, moderate carb and low/no carb days. The idea is that eating healthy carbs on specific days keeps your metabolism revved up, and sticking to mostly protein, vegetables and fat on low/no carb days will keep insulin levels low enough to allow you to burn fat whilst maintaining muscle mass.

The low/no carb days, as painful as they may be, are apparently “When the magic happens” although there isn't currently a huge amount of scientific research to support these claims.

Foods included in a carb cycling diet

  • Protein: Beef, chicken, pork, fish, eggs, dairy, tofu

  • Carbs: Whole grains, legumes and fruits

  • Veg: Everything except for potatoes, corn and peas.

  • Fats: Olive oil, dairy, oily fish, nuts


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

That again, will depend entirely on your goals. I would suggest getting your calculator out and setting up a spreadsheet. You're going to need both!

All of the figures below are based on an average healthy adult with an active lifestyle:

x the figures below by your weight in lbs.

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

Lets say you workout 4 times a week and you'd like to lose some excess pounds lurking around your waist. You carb cycle and workout plan will look something like this:

cheat meals

The diet allows for 1 cheat meal per week. While some health professionals recommend taking an entire “cheat day”, I personally wouldn't recommend it as it can derail your progress. Your cheat meal can be taken any day of the week although the best time would be during a high carb day as it allows you to indulge guilt free.


The pros and cons of a carb cycling diet


  • You're not starving yourself of carbohydrates 7 days a week
  • The diet allows for 1-2 high carb days per week.
  • Has been shown to have some very dramatic results in the short term.
  • Can be used for both weight-loss and weight-gain.
  • Allows for one cheat meal per week.


  • You need to struggle through 2-3 no carb days per week and that ain't easy!
  • You have to pay very close attention to your diet. (A food diary is highly recommended).
  • You have lower levels of energy to fuel your workouts and often have to workout on an empty tank.
  • Does not prove any more effective than a steady high protein, low carbohydrate diet in the long run.


Does is work for weight loss?

Short answer: yes

When carb cycling is followed strictly, you should expect to lose between 1-3lbs per week. 

Related: how to lose 50lbs in one year

Does is work for muscle building?

Short Answer: yes and no

If mass 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, hit the carb cycling HARD. It will almost certainly help unveil months of hard work and leave you looking tip tip 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: Absolutely.

No harm will come from giving it a shot. It could be just what you need to blast away those final stubborn lbs of fat lurking around your midsection.

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 article: The notorious carbohydrates - how much is too much?