February 19, 2023

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For years, we were told that cutting carbs completely out of our diet was the best way to lose weight. You’ve probably seen plenty of weight loss plans and programs that minimize or even eliminate carbohydrates. 

The problem is that carbs are great for our bodies! Carbs are our body’s preferred energy source for workouts and getting through our days. Plus, proper carb intake helps to replenish our glycogen and glucose stores and prevent fatigue. Trust me, when it comes to carbs, we want and need them in our diet for optimal functionality and quality of life.

Of course, too many carbs, or too many of the wrong types of carbs can lead to weight gain. However, there’s evidence that links the strategic ingestion of carbs to fat loss. This is where the concept of carb cycling comes into play. 

If you’re on a weight loss journey, you might have heard the term “carb cycling” as a strategy for fat loss. But what is it? How does it work? And how can you use carb cycling for fat loss?

This article is going to answer all of these questions and then some, teaching you how to carb cycle for fat loss, if that’s your goal.

What is Carb Cycling?

Carb cycling is the strategic use of high and low-carb days to help accomplish specific goals, most often, fat loss. Simply put, carb cycling means that you’re staggering the number of carbs you eat so that some days you eat more and other days you eat less. The goal is to optimize your carb intake to experience the benefits of both higher-carb and lower-carb days. 

Carb cycling can be used to speed up fat loss while protecting and maintaining your muscle mass. This is why this eating method has been commonly used in the bodybuilding space for years. However, carb cycling is not reserved for just bodybuilders, every day athletes can utilize this tool to lose weight, maintain muscle mass, protect their hormones, and fuel their workouts. 

The process of carb cycling can help keep your metabolism fueled while you’re in a fat-loss phase (calorie deficit) and might help prevent your body from plateauing as your body will be slower to adapt and adjust due to your strategic carb manipulation. To get the most out of your carb cycling plan, it’s highly recommended that you implement a strategy that’s in accordance with your training plan.

How to Carb Cycle

There isn’t one “right” way to carb cycle - you can take different approaches and receive the benefits. The idea is that you will utilize your higher-carb days as a nutrition tool for replenishing your glycogen stores, fueling your recovery, and supporting your body on your higher-intensity workout days. 

For example, if you choose to carb cycle and want to implement 2 higher carb days into your week, you would do so strategically and in conjunction with your training program. The science behind the concept is that your body will be depleting its carb sources over the course of 2-3 lower-carb days, which can fuel fat loss. Then, you’ll implement a higher carb day before your most intense workouts of the week, which for most of us will be on a heavy lifting day like a lower body workout.

While it may seem like the best plan is to eat higher carbs ON your heavy training day, it’s actually best to position your higher carb day the day BEFORE your heavy training to make sure that your carbs are readily available to you when you train. This tool can help your metabolism to stay fired up during your calorie deficit and prevent burnout, overtraining, and loss of strength in the gym. 

The most common use of carb cycling is in relation to body composition goals. If your goal is to lose fat and build muscle (body recomposition), carb cycling might be a great tool to implement.

Carb Cycling Example Week

Remember, your daily carb intake will be unique to you based on your overall health, your exercise habits, and your physique goals. Here’s a sample of what a carb cycling week might look like:

In this example, the person is utilizing carb cycling for fat loss while ensuring that they are fueling for their 2 heavy (intense) workouts that week. This approach uses 2 high carbs days on the days immediately prior to the heavy workout and then 5 low carb days to help expedite fat loss. **This example is based on a person who is in a short, dedicated fat-loss phase.**

Day 1 High Carb Day:

Low-intensity workout - 175-225g carbs (prepping for a heavy workout tomorrow)

Day 2 Low Carb Day:

Heavy workout - 100-130g carbs

Day 3 Low Carb Day: 

Low-intensity workout - 100-130g carbs

Day 4 High Carb Day:

Low-intensity workout - 175-225g carbs (prepping for a heavy workout tomorrow)

Day 5 Low Carb Day:

Heavy workout - 100-130g carbs

Day 6 Low Carb Day:

Rest day - 100-130g carbs

Day 7 Low Carb Day:

Rest day - 100-130g carbs

Can I Carb Cycle Without Training?

Yes, carb cycling can be used with or without training, although it’s optimal when paired together. For many people, carb cycling allows them to reach their weight loss goals while also enjoying a couple of days per week where they have more calories to work with. This is similar to the concept of calorie cycling, but you will be cycling your carbs specifically, aiming to keep your other macros (fat & protein) steady.

Those who don’t train can also find value in carb cycling. Many people find that placing their higher carb days on the weekends is the best way to keep them on track while also enjoying more of the foods and drinks they love on the weekends. If you tend to eat out more or enjoy alcohol more on the weekends, saving your high-carb days for the weekend might be a smart choice for you, regardless of your training schedule.

Is Carb Cycling Good For Fat Loss?

Yes, carb cycling can be good for fat loss when utilized properly and safely. Theoretically, carb cycling will help you to maintain your physical performance in the gym while simultaneously encouraging your body to burn fat for energy.

However, there’s a giant disclaimer that needs to be addressed here and it’s that the only mechanism that will result in fat loss is a calorie deficit. So, you can cycle your carbs all you want, but if you’re not doing so in a way that leaves you in a calorie deficit (eating less than you are expending), you will not lose weight. Being in a calorie deficit will be the main driver of your weight loss, however, choosing to cycle your carbs within your calorie deficit might help facilitate a more expedited and efficient approach to fat loss.

Additional Benefits

Aside from the potential fat loss benefits, there are some other benefits that carb cycling might be able to provide you with. There are clinically proven benefits to both high and low-carb diets, thereby, including both dietary approaches will theoretically expose you to the benefits of both. Of course, there are some drawbacks to eating high/low carb diets as well, so keep that in mind as you decide if a carb cycling diet is right for you.

When it comes to low-carb diets, studies have shown that this eating style might improve insulin sensitivity, cholesterol levels, metabolic health, and fat burning. These are all positive benefits that one might experience when eating lower carbs.

On the other side of the coin, high-carb diets have been shown to have positive effects on hormones and the reduction of inflammation in the body. Plus, carbs are our body’s preferred fuel source, which means our bodies love using them as energy for our day.

By implementing a diet plan that includes both high and low-carb days, you might experience the best of both worlds.

What Are the Downsides?

The biggest downside to carb cycling is that it’s a rather complex way to eat, and not very beginner-friendly. Furthermore, it’s unclear what the long-term benefits of carb cycling are and whether or not it’s a sustainable option for those looking to develop a healthy eating pattern.

In general, those interested in carb cycling should be looking to it as a short-term plan for weight loss. I recommend carb cycling for anywhere between 4-12 weeks as a way to ramp up and optimize your weight loss efforts in conjunction with your training schedule.

Is Carb Cycling Safe?

When executed properly, yes, carb cycling can be perfectly safe for most populations. Those who take an extreme approach to limit carbs might experience the following:

  • Tiredness
  • Lack of energy
  • Poor gym performance
  • Constipation
  • Bloating
  • Sleeplessness
  • Mood swings

To avoid these symptoms, it’s important that your carb-cycling plan includes adequate carbs on your low-carb days and that you take your high-carb days seriously, refueling your body’s glycogen stores.

Who Should Try Carb Cycling For Fat Loss?

If you’re in a healthy place with your relationship with food, dieting, and your body and you’d like to try calorie cycling as a tool for weight loss, you may find it to be very effective. For those who have a solid training and nutrition plan that’s well-structured and designed with your health, safety, and sustainability in mind, you can give carb cycling a try.

Furthermore, anyone who has an experience with diet and nutrition phases might find that implementing a carb cycling strategy is relatively simple. If you’re accustomed to tracking your calories and/or macros and are well-versed in using a macro tracking app to log your calories, you might find that adding the extra step of carb cycling is minimal disruption to your normal routine.

Who Shouldn’t?

Carb cycling is not for everyone. Those who are pregnant, breastfeeding, managing an eating disorder (past or present), or struggling with hormonal imbalances are not a great fit for a carb-cycling diet. When in doubt, consult with your doctor for more information.

Carb cycling is not a great fit for those who are beginners to tracking macros or calories as this is an advanced approach and can be tedious for those just starting out. If you’re a beginner, I recommend calculating your macros and following those consistently before attempting to do any kind of carb cycling as it can lead to confusion, frustration, and non-adherence to your plan.

How Long Does It Take To Lose Fat While Carb Cycling?

As with any approach to fat loss, the time it will take is highly dependent on many factors, the most important of which is your adherence to your plan. There’s no way to definitively answer this question as it will be highly subjective, however, those who strictly follow a healthy carb cycling plan for a short period of time will generally see results in 2-3 weeks.

Carb Cycling Tips and Tricks From a Nutritionist

Here are some tips and tricks for making your carb cycling experience effective (and safe!)

  • Make sure to have your numbers calculated or at least verified by a professional. If you’re brand new to carb cycling, don’t try to wing it on your own, check with a Registered Dietitian, Certified Nutritionist, Certified Macro Coach, or another nutrition specialist to make sure that you’re following a safe and efficient plan.
  • Plan your high and low carbs days out based on your schedule, whether that be a training schedule or a lifestyle/preference schedule. If you lift weights and/or work out at a high intensity, plan for higher-carb days to fuel those workouts. If you tend to eat/drink more on the weekends and want to save more carbs for those days, plan your higher-carb days for Saturday and Sunday. Do what’s most efficient and sustainable for you.
  • When choosing your carbs, make sure that they’re good sources. High-fiber fruits and vegetables and whole grains are where the majority of your carbs should come from.
  • Avoid filling in your higher-carb days with refined sugars and highly processed foods.
  • Utilize a macro tracking app that allows you to customize your daily calorie goals. MyFitnessPal and MacrosFirst app both offer the option to customize your daily calories based on different goals. Keep in mind that this is a paid feature on both apps, but worth it if you want to make the process of carb cycling simpler.
  • Pay attention to your biofeedback and how you’re feeling while following your plan. If you notice any negative side effects like loss of energy, trouble sleeping, or mood swings, consider adjusting your plan to one that’s healthier for your body. This might mean bumping up your carbs on your low-carb days or adding in more high-carb days to ensure your body is fueled and healthy.

Final Thoughts On Carb Cycling For Fat Loss

Carb cycling is a great tool to use on your fat loss journey when you take a healthy approach to it. For those who are in the right place with their fitness, nutrition, mindset, and body image, accelerating fat loss by implementing strategic carb cycling throughout the week can boost your weight loss efforts while preventing a loss of strength and ability in the gym.

If you’re brand new to the concept of carb cycling, I highly recommend reaching out to a registered dietitian or another health professional to help you set up a safe and sustainable plan.

About the Author
The fit healthy momma team

The Fit Healthy Momma Team tests and reviews wellness related products, providing our unique experience to help shoppers make better choices.

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