Carb cycling and intermittent fasting are dieting techniques used for weight loss, but they are each quite different, and there may be instances where one is better than the other.
What are the differences between carb cycling and intermittent fasting? The main differences between carb cycling and intermittent fasting are that carb cycling focuses heavily on varying your carb intake with no emphasis on when meals are eaten, while intermittent fasting focuses primarily on when meals are eaten, with no emphasis on carb intake.
To choose between carb cycling and intermittent fasting it’s important to understand the pros and cons of each dieting strategy. Additionally, it’s worth exploring when it may make sense to combine these practices to reach your body composition goal rather than choosing one over the other.
In this article, I will discuss:
- What is carb cycling?
- What is Intermittent fasting?
- 4 differences between carb cycling and intermittent fasting
- Which is better for weight loss?
What Is Carb Cycling?
Carb cycling is an approach to dieting that requires you to manipulate your carbohydrate intake with high-carb days and low-carb days. While carb cycling is typically used for fat loss, it can be used for weight maintenance or weight gain as well.
High carb days are implemented on days where activity is higher or when you have a high-intensity workout scheduled (e.g. high-volume leg days). Conversely, low carb days should be applied on the days where you are less active, or have a low-intensity workout scheduled (e.g. rest days or active recovery).
While your carb intake will fluctuate throughout your week, it is recommended to keep your calorie intake consistent. This is typically accomplished by inversely adjusting your fat intake to ensure that your calories remain the same.
This is especially important because your calorie intake is the determining factor for changes in body weight. Your calorie intake alone will determine whether you maintain, gain, or lose weight and your macronutrient intake (protein, carbs, fats) will determine your body composition (fat:muscle ratio).
While your carb and fat intake will fluctuate while you are carb cycling based on your activity level, your protein intake should remain stable to ensure you are maintaining, or even gaining lean muscle mass while on your diet.
Pros & Cons of Carb Cycling
When you are contemplating whether or not carb cycling is the right diet for you, it is important to consider both the pros and the cons of this diet.
The pros of carb cycling are:
- Can improve hunger hormones. Since hunger hormones such as leptin and ghrelin can be adversely affected on a low carb diet causing you to feel more hungry, implementing high carb days can help bring these hormones back into balance after a low carb day to keep you more satisfied.
- Can help with insulin sensitivity and metabolic health. Controlling carb intake can not only improve insulin sensitivity to reduce the risk of diabetes but it can also help to improve how efficiently your body uses incoming energy.
- Can improve athletic performance. When you strategically time your higher carb days around your workouts, it can increase your athletic performance because carbs are your body’s preferred energy source.
- Can be great for fat loss. When combined with a calorie deficit, carb cycling can be a great tool to help you lose fat and improve your body composition.
The cons of carb cycling are:
- Could cause low energy. Since carbs are the body’s preferred source of fuel, low-carb days provide with you less energy that can cause you to feel lethargic.
- Can be difficult to stick to. Changing your carb and fat macros on a daily basis can make this diet particularly difficult to stick to, and leave more room for error.
- Could potentially result in a loss of muscle mass. Since carbs are an important factor for muscle growth, reducing carb intake (while also in a calorie deficit) has the potential to result in a loss of muscle mass; especially if your protein intake is low.
- Could lead to overeating or binging. Since carb cycling involves periods of restricting carbs, followed by periods of overloading on carbs, it could lead to episodes of binge eating, especially for those who have previously struggled with their relationship with food and dieting.
Who is Carb Cycling Good For?
A carb cycling diet is good for those who want the benefits of a low carb diet (leaner physique, improved health markers), while also experiencing the benefits that come with higher carb days (improved athletic performance, increased adherence).
Carb cycling is a great option for anyone that has a goal of weight loss, while also wanting to improve their ratio of fat mass to muscle mass.
However, carb cycling is best suited for those who have more experience with tracking their macros because of the attention to detail that it requires. Therefore, those who are new to dieting and/or tracking shouldn’t attempt carb cycling right off the bat.
Additionally, carb cycling is not recommended for anyone who is already underweight and/or struggles with an obsession with dieting or counting macros.
Have a FeastGood Nutrition Coach help you get results faster than trying to stick it out alone
What Is Intermittent Fasting?
Intermittent fasting is a diet that focuses on time-restricted eating, where there are certain windows of the day where you eat your daily calories and periods where you fast.
Unlike carb cycling, intermittent fasting does not put any emphasis on the types of calories that you are supposed to eat, but only on when you are eating them. This means that you can choose to follow any macro split that you would like, as long as you are eating within a certain window.
Intermittent fasting can also vary depending on how long you want your eating window and fasting window to be. For example, a common fasting window is 16:8, where you fast for 16 hours, and eat for 8 hours in the day.
If you find that 16 hours is too long for you to go without eating and is proving difficult to adhere to, then you can shorten this to 14:6. Typically the minimum amount of time you should fast is about 12 hours.
Keep in mind that a large chunk of this fasting window is while you sleep. Therefore, if you wanted to follow the 16:8 fasting protocol, you could have your last meal of the day at 7 pm, and break your fast at 11 am the next day.
While time-restricted eating (example above) is the most common way to practice intermittent fasting, there are more extreme versions of this diet, such as alternate day fasting (where you would fast every other day), or fasting for a full day 1-2 days a week.
For this article, we are going to be discussing the time-restricted eating type of intermittent fasting, such as the 16:8 or the 14:6 protocol.
Pros & Cons of Intermittent Fasting
Intermittent fasting does have many health benefits; however, there are also some drawbacks to consider before you decide if it’s a good fit for your goals.
The pros of intermittent fasting are:
- Can improve heart health. Time-restricted eating has been shown to improve your heart health by improving insulin sensitivity, blood pressure, and appetite.
- Can be considered easy to stick to. Many find intermittent fasting to be a welcome change if they are used to eating small frequent meals throughout the day. Sticking to the same eating window on a daily basis can allow you to forget about food and focus on other tasks when you are not in your eating window.
- Can support weight loss. Studies have shown that intermittent fasting can be an effective tool for weight loss. However, to ensure this diet’s effectiveness, it requires a caloric deficit (eating fewer calories than your body needs to maintain weight).
- Could potentially reduce the risk of chronic health conditions and cancer. There is data to suggest that intermittent fasting could potentially be used to help manage certain health conditions such as type 2 Diabetes, heart disease, neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s, and even cancer.
The cons of intermittent fasting are:
- Could result in feelings of hunger. If you are just getting used to eating within a certain window, you might struggle with feelings of hunger during fasting periods. Feeling hungry during fasting periods could make it difficult to adhere to this diet.
- Could raise stress levels in the body. For some people, restricting food for an extended period results in an increase in cortisol (the stress hormone in the body). Signs of stress from prolonged restriction are hair loss, anxiety, depression, extreme hunger, and difficulty sleeping.
- Could result in overeating during the eating window. If you get too hungry during your fasting window, then you’re more likely to overeat during your feeding window. If you overeat to the point where you put yourself in a calorie surplus, then you are not going to get the desired effect out of your diet.
- Could encourage eating disorders. Those who have previously suffered from disordered eating might find that intermittent fasting causes them to binge eat.
Who is Intermittent Fasting Good For?
Intermittent fasting is great for anyone who struggles to eat multiple meals during the day, or for anyone who prefers to eat less frequent, larger meals throughout the day. It can also be a tool for anyone looking to lose weight or manage certain health conditions.
However, intermittent fasting should not be practiced by anyone with a previous history of eating disorders or disordered eating, or for anyone who is currently underweight or has trouble putting on weight.
Intermittent fasting is also not encouraged while an individual is either pregnant or breastfeeding since both require a steady stream of calories for fuel throughout the day.
3 Differences Between Carb Cycling and Intermittent Fasting
The 3 main differences between carb cycling and intermittent fasting are:
- Carb cycling focuses on manipulating macro intake, specifically carbs and fat, while Intermittent fasting does not specify how many calories or what types of calories you should eat, and only focuses on when you should eat.
- Intermittent fasting restricts eating to certain hours of the day, while Carb cycling does not specify when you should eat your calories throughout the day.
- Intermittent fasting has been shown to help certain chronic health conditions including cancer, while carb cycling has not been shown to have the same benefits.
While both carb cycling and intermittent fasting can be extremely effective to achieve fat loss, which one is right for you is going to depend on your personal preference, along with your individual goals.
Carb Cycling vs Intermittent Fasting: Which Is Better for Weight Loss?
Both carb cycling and intermittent fasting can result in weight loss as long as they’re paired with a calorie deficit. Therefore, the one that is the most effective depends on which one you can adhere to the best.
You can only lose weight by implementing a calorie deficit because if you’re consuming too many calories then your body won’t have to use its fat stores for fuel and you won’t lose weight.
Therefore, relying solely on carb cycling or intermittent fasting without paying attention to your calorie intake could result in lackluster results.
Since carb cycling involves counting your macros and paying more attention to detail, you might find that it’s easier to maintain a calorie deficit with carb cycling.
Intermittent fasting doesn’t require you to count calories or macros and only focuses on when to eat, so it may be harder to stay in a caloric deficit consistently.
With that said, you could choose to count your macros and calories while intermittent fasting, which would provide you with the best of both worlds.
Frequently Asked Questions:
Does Carb Cycling Work Better Than Intermittent Fasting?
The fat loss diet that works best is the one you can be most consistent with; therefore, if you find the carb cycling diet easier compared to intermittent fasting, then it will work better. However, both dieting techniques can be extremely effective when utilized properly.
Can You Carb Cycle and Intermittent Fast at the Same Time?
Yes, you can carb cycle and intermittent fast at the same time to reach your goals. While it may not be for everyone as it does require more attention to detail, implementing a carb cycle within a specific eating window during the day could improve digestion, increase energy, and increase overall health benefits.
What To Read Next:
- Carb Cycling vs Keto: Which Is Better? (5 Differences)
- Refeed vs Carb Cycling: Differences, Pros, & Cons
- How Long Should You Carb Cycle? And, Can You Do It Forever?
Let’s get you in the best shape of your life. Sounds good?
About The Author
Colby Roy is a holistic health and nutrition coach. She is certified through Precision Nutrition and the Institute of Integrative Nutrition and has a passion for all things nutrition and healing the body. More specifically, Colby likes to work with clients who want to optimize their gut health and energy levels.