Carb Cycling: Is It For You?

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Carb cycling is a term for alternating the amount of carbohydrates you eat according to a planned pattern.

Why would you do this?  In order to maintain performance while continuing to lose fat. It’s as simple (and difficult) as that.

Carb cycling is tough to do right because it involves a lot of careful weighing, measuring, and calculations. It also requires  a higher degree of deprivation than most of us feel good about.

So unless you’re a high-level athlete preparing for competition, it’s probably not a strategy you’ll want to try.

That said, carb cycling can work well for specific people.

Carb Cycling Means Calorie Cycling

There are many different patterns for carb cycling. What’s common to all is that you keep your protein and fat intake relatively constant while manipulating your carbohydrate intake.  

Because of this, carb cycling also typically involves calorie cycling.

Carbohydrates contain about four calories per gram. So adjusting your carb intake while keeping fat and protein more or less the same can make a big difference in the number of calories you eat.

Days when you increase carbohydrates, and calories, are often called as “re-feed” days.

Refeeding for Mental and Physical Health

A re-feed is a planned increase in calorie intake that lasts for 8 – 12 hours and usually consists of a large increase in carbohydrates.

Re-feeds usually occur when an athlete is dieting (to cut weight for competition, for example).

Trainers schedule them to provide a brief day of psychological relief as well as a number of physiological benefits.

What does re-feeding look like? Here’s one example:

  • 5 days a week—strict diet of 1500 kcal with around 100g of carbohydrates.

  • 2 days a week—2500 kcal with around 600g carbohydrates.

Note: This example assumes keeping fat and protein the same. Although that's not necessarily required. If you wanted to keep calories the same on low and high carbohydrate days, you'd simply increase your carbohydrates while decreasing fats.

Also note: The same principles of good nutrition apply equally to “everyday” eating and carb cycling phases. In other words, you need to eat regular meals consisting of enough protein and fiber, lots of vegetables, healthy fats, and so on.  

Is Carb Cycling for You?

If the very thought of this is enough to make you run for the remote, carb cycling is probably not a strategy you’ll want to try.

In fact, unless you’ve already exhausted more conservative methods of weight control, fat loss, and muscle-building, you shouldn’t even consider it. Instead, start with simpler methods that are far more likely to work for you. Portion control alone can make a big difference.

If you do decide to give it a try, keep these guidelines in mind:

  1. Base your approach on your basal calorie needs and activity levels.

  2. Pick your re-feed days in advance.

  3. Eat carbs first thing in the morning and around exercise for best results.

  4. Stay on track until it’s time for your re-feed.

  5. Pay attention to outcomes. Different body types profit from different approaches. Look at the evidence of photos and body composition tests.

  6. Exercise on your re-feed days.

And remember, carb cycling is always a short term strategy. Trying to do this long-term can backfire and might even lead to fat gains. Not what you had in mind.


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