I’ve wanted to write this post for a long time. Carb cycling is something I do (when not breastfeeding – see below), and I coach my clients to do (very casually). It’s also something I incorporate into meal plans for my custom meal plan clients. Why? Because in my opinion it’s effective, safe, and allows for variety in the diet.
There is a disclaimer here. There are not a lot of studies on carbohydrate cycling which means most of this is a theory, aka bro science. Most bro-science comes from bodybuilders well versed in nutrition. Apparently, they are doing something right! Just saying…
Joking aside, this is what works for me and works for many of my clients, so that’s why I’m sharing it today!
What Is Carb Cycling?
Carb cycling is a method of increasing and decreasing your carbohydrate intake on different days. Some people chose to follow a schedule, and others chose to time the increases/decreases with their workouts.
Keep in mind that often increases and decreases in carbohydrates are also more often than not, paired with increases and decreases in calorie consumption.
What Are The Benefits To Carb Cycling?
Low carbohydrate diets are popular for a reason. Low carbohydrate diets help increase vegetable intake (when you swap vegetables for starch like zucchini noodles for noodles or cauliflower rice for rice), as well as protein intake. The focus on protein and produce helps keep you full while intaking fewer calories, and this promotes weight loss.
However, sustained carbohydrate and calorie deficits can be dangerous for hormone balance (read why your hormones need carbs and why 1200 calories is too low) and ultimately slow or stop weight loss. In addition, low carbohydrate diets can leave you feeling totally wiped out. (I have definitely been guilty of feeling zapped somewhat unintentionally from not having enough carbs in my diet.)
Alternating days of carbohydrate restriction can help you receive the benefits of a low carbohydrate diet without causing a hormonal backlash.
Additionally, timing carbohydrate increases with heavy workout days is thought to optimize muscle repair, growth, and recovery. READ THAT AGAIN. Yes, you can optimize your carbohydrate intake to benefit you, carbs are NOT evil!
How To “Carb Cycle”
Okay, so this is where the internet gets salesy on you. Google carb cycling and you will get a million different theories and a million different plans people can sell you.
My advice? I LIKE TO KEEP IT SIMPLE.
– More carbohydrates on the days you work out and fewer carbs on the days you don’t work out.
– Time your carbohydrates around your workout.
– No matter what the day is, stick to high-quality carbohydrates. (see how to spot a healthy carb)
– No matter what day it is focused on getting enough protein and produce.
I don’t recommend a random set of high and low scheduled days. If you are going to carb cycle, it should be timed around your workouts because that is how you get the most benefit from it. That’s a personal opinion, just me though. I don’t recommend making it stressful or counting every gram that goes into your mouth (unless you love that sort of thing).
Instead, add a little bit of high-quality carb/starch pre and/or post workout on your hardest training days. Leave the starch off the plate on the days you don’t work out. Also, leave the starch off the plate on your active recovery days.
For my custom meal plan clients, I calculate how much starch they need for their workout days depending on their current body fat percentage, gender, and workout routine. Workout days may be anywhere from 30-90 grams higher than non-workout days. That translates into 1- 3 extra half cup servings of high-quality carbohydrate a day.
For myself (when not pregnant/breastfeeding see below), I usually alternate breakfast by having oatmeal on workout days and eggs on non-workout days. For lunch, I’ll either have a salad or on a workout day throw that salad into a wrap or add some brown rice to the salad. KEEP IT SIMPLE.
As a result, I notice (and my client’s also notice) decreased cravings, increased energy levels, better workouts, and body composition change.
Frequently Asked Questions:
What If I Eat A High Carb Day But Then Don’t Workout?
Move on with life, it’s all good. Keep it simple, keep it casual.
Can You Carb Cycle If You Are Vegan or Vegetarian?
Yes! Although, it is a bit different because these diets are naturally higher in carbohydrates than omnivore dietary patterns. When I have Vegan or Vegetarian nutrition clients or custom meal plan clients we discuss their dietary needs directly and put together a plan that works best for them.
Can You Carb Cycle If Pregnant or Breastfeeding?
I don’t recommend it. During these times your intake should be higher than normal and steady to support the grown of a human being. After 6 months, if breastfeeding is well established and there is no concern about your milk supply then I would be more comfortable letting a client carb cycle. However, baseline intake would still be higher than normal.
Can You Carb Cycle If You Don’t Workout?
You can, but I don’t think there would be much point. The bigger issue here would be keeping a lower baseline of carbohydrate intake and calorie cycling to help prevent a continuous calorie deficit which can cause a hormonal backlash and slow the metabolism. I create custom plans that focus on calorie deficits throughout the week, not every single day.
The question of the day: Do you alternate your carbohydrate intake or do you eat the same throughout the week? Do you change what you eat depending on your workout or not really?
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