The process of cycling your carb intake while dieting is a technique that can be very effective for those in pursuit of a lean body composition; however, some people shouldn’t attempt carb cycling.
Who Is Carb Cycling Good For? Carb cycling is a great tool for intermediate to advanced dieters because it requires you to be very precise with a macronutrient intake that can fluctuate daily. Carb cycling will not benefit those who perform poorly when carb intake is reduced or those who have a negative relationship with food.
Before you decide if carb cycling is worth it, it’s important to understand the benefits and drawbacks of carb cycling.
In this article, I will discuss:
- The benefits of carb cycling
- The drawbacks of carb cycling
- Who should do carb cycling
- Who should NOT do carb cycling
- Frequently asked questions
Benefits of Carb Cycling
Although there is little scientific data on carb cycling and only anecdotal reports of its effectiveness, there are some proven benefits of strategically manipulating carb intake.
The benefits of manipulating your carb intake are:
- Encourages fat loss (if also paired with a calorie deficit)
- Improves metabolic health and insulin sensitivity
- Helps keep you more satisfied while dieting
- Maintains or increases athletic performance
1. Encourages Fat Loss (if also paired with a calorie deficit)
While the main driving factor behind a successful weight loss phase is a calorie deficit, there is some evidence to indicate that carb cycling can also encourage fat loss.
When you reduce your carb intake, it is an incentive for your body to tap into its fat stores for energy. This is especially true when you are carb cycling while in a calorie deficit (eating fewer calories than your body needs to maintain its weight).
Therefore, if you are an experienced dieter with a fat loss goal, then implementing a carb cycle (high-carb & low-carb days) into your calorie deficit may help you achieve your desired body composition. This is beneficial because rather than just looking skinny, carb cycling can help you look toned.
Carb cycling can help with body composition improvements in those who aren’t dieting because on high-carb days you can maximize your performance in the gym to build muscle, and on low-carb days your body can use its fat storage for energy which can help you look leaner.
2. Improves Metabolic Health and Insulin Sensitivity
As mentioned above, carb cycling can encourage your body to burn fat for energy, which can ultimately improve your metabolic flexibility, which means that your body has an improved ability to adapt to different sources of fuel for energy.
For example, using fat for fuel when fat is more readily available or using carbs for fuel when carbs are readily available.
In addition to this, when we eat high amounts of carbs, this triggers the body to release more insulin into the blood to help lower blood sugar. If blood sugar is constantly elevated due to a high carb diet, this can cause insulin resistance, which can result in less than ideal symptoms such as excess fat storage in the body.
However, implementing low-carb days can help to improve insulin sensitivity, which is not only beneficial for fat loss, but for your overall health.
This is especially helpful for those who struggle with health conditions such as Type 2 Diabetes, or those who are showing signs of Pre- Diabetes who struggle with chronically elevated blood sugar levels .
3. Helps Keep You More Satisfied While Dieting
If you are attempting to diet on a low number of carbs for an extended period, then you could negatively impact your hormones associated with hunger levels (leptin and ghrelin), which help you to regulate your appetite and give your brain the signal that you are feeling full.
When your leptin levels decrease, your hunger and appetite increases, which can result in overeating and less devotion to your diet. This is because leptin is the hormone that signals to your body that it’s satisfied with the amount of food coming in.
Similar to this, when you have dieted for a long time, the hormone ghrelin (also known as the hunger hormone) increases. This can also result in increased hunger and overeating, making it difficult to adhere to your diet.
There is some evidence to show that purposefully increasing carb intake during a period of dieting can improve the levels of hormones like leptin and ghrelin, ultimately decreasing feelings of hunger while dieting and helping you feel more satisfied.
4. Maintains Or Increases Athletic Performance
When you have been in a caloric deficit, it can be common to see strength and performance decrease in the gym, but incorporating high-carb days while you’re dieting can help to reduce these losses in strength and performance.
While some decline in strength may be inevitable, there is some evidence to suggest that targeting your carb intake around your workouts could help to improve athletic performance and energy levels in your gym session.
There is also plenty of evidence that supports the notion of carb consumption around the time of your workout improving factors such as recovery and energy replenishment in the body. Therefore, cycling carb intake strategically around intense workouts could be of great benefit.
For those who aren’t dieting, carb cycling can help to increase strength and performance in the gym by providing a higher carb intake on workout days so that you can perform your best.
Drawbacks of Carb Cycling
Now that we have discussed the benefits that can come with carb cycling, it is important to address the potential disadvantages that can come with it.
Some of the drawbacks of carb cycling are:
- Low-carb days can result in decreased energy and exercise performance
- Constantly fluctuating your macros can make the diet difficult to stick to
- Restricting carbs can potentially result in a loss of muscle mass
- The rigidity of this diet could lead to overeating or binging
1. Low-Carb Days Can Result In Decreased Energy and Exercise Performance
Carbohydrates are your body’s preferred source of energy, so implementing low-carb days into your diet could result in an overall decrease in energy and exercise performance (even with the inclusion of high-carb days).
Ultimately, this will depend on the individual, but if you find that you are someone who experiences severe swings in energy that are correlated to your carb intake, then you might be better off with keeping your macronutrient intake balanced, and your carb intake stable.
2. Constantly Fluctuating Your Macros Can Make The Diet Difficult To Stick To
To keep calorie intake stable, carb and fat macros are constantly fluctuating during a carb cycling phase. This can make the diet difficult to adhere to, and if you can’t adhere then you won’t achieve the best results.
Therefore, if you are someone who finds it difficult to just track your macros consistently, then carb cycling is not the diet for you. Carb cycling should only be incorporated by those who are competent and experienced dieters.
3. Restricting Carbs Can Potentially Result In A Loss Of Muscle Mass
Although one of the main intentions behind carb cycling is to maintain lean muscle mass while reducing fat on the body, there can be some instances where restricting carbs, even intermittently, could result in a loss of muscle mass.
This has more potential to be seen in those who have an ectomorph body type, meaning that those with naturally faster metabolisms and a leaner body type might find fewer benefits with carb cycling.
Additionally, those who aren’t eating enough protein (1 gram of protein per pound of body weight) or strength training while dieting, will have a higher risk of losing muscle mass with carb cycling.
To prevent this from happening, I suggest that you increase your protein intake accordingly and strength train at least 2 to 3 times per week while carb cycling.
4. The Rigidity Of This Diet Could Lead To Overeating Or Binging
If you are someone that has a history of restricting your calories followed by periods of overeating and/or binging, then you are better off sticking to a more balanced macronutrient intake rather than carb cycling.
Although high-carb days are meant to offset the potential difficulties of a low-carb day, if you are someone who has a negative relationship with food, then you might find it difficult to maintain control when your high-carb day arrives.
It is important to remember that if you are someone that currently struggles with your relationship with food, and you have a difficult time controlling yourself around food without overeating or binging, then you should seek out the help of a specialist who can help you gain control and improve your relationship with food.
Who Should Do Carb Cycling?
Carb cycling is a dieting tool that is going to be most optimal for intermediate to advanced dieters or those who have plenty of experience with adhering to a strict nutrition plan. Carb cycling is a diet that is typically used by serious athletes and/or bodybuilders.
Carb cycling is best reserved for individuals who not only have experience counting their macros but also enjoy it. If tracking and manipulating your carbohydrate intake is enjoyable for you, then you are much more likely to have success with the diet.
In addition to this, carb cycling is particularly useful for those individuals who wish to put on lean muscle mass, while limiting fat gain or even promoting fat loss.
Who Should NOT Do Carb Cycling?
While some would excel with carb cycling, there are certain types of people who are better off without carb cycling because it’s strict, time-consuming, and an advanced practice.
Carb cycling is not a diet that should be attempted by someone who has never dieted before or is considered a beginner. If you are just learning how to track your macros and calories, then carb cycling will be a bit too advanced for you.
Additionally, those who have struggled with any type of disordered eating in the past should avoid carb cycling entirely because it can trigger disordered eating tendencies in those who already have a negative relationship with food.
If you are someone who has a negative relationship with food, it does not mean that you cannot reach your body composition goal because adhering to a balanced diet and macronutrient intake can be just as effective as implementing carb cycling.
Frequently Asked Questions:
Is Carb Cycling Good for Fat Loss?
Carb cycling can be an effective tool for fat loss, as long as you are also in a calorie deficit. Having low-carb days in your routine can help your body to utilize fat as fuel, which encourages fat loss. Carb cycling allows you to experience the benefits of a low-carb diet without having to eliminate carbs.
Is Carb Cycling Good for Weight Gain?
Carb cycling can be used in combination with a calorie surplus (eating more calories than your body needs to maintain weight) to encourage weight gain. Carb cycling while in a calorie surplus could encourage lean muscle gain while helping to limit any unnecessary fat gain.
Is Carb Cycling Good for Keto?
Carb cycling is not an effective tool to use if you are also on the keto diet since the keto diet requires you to sustain a very low carb intake for a while to reach a state of ketosis. If you are cycling your carbs, you will likely not be able to experience the benefits that the keto diet has to offer.
Is Carb Cycling Good for Endomorphs?
Since endomorphs typically have a slower metabolism and a harder time losing fat, carb cycling is a great tool to help the body utilize fat for fuel to encourage fat loss. Since endomorphs typically have a lower tolerance to carbs, they should implement more low-carb days than high-carb days throughout the week.
Other Carb Cycling Resources:
- How Much Fat To Eat When Carb Cycling (Does It Matter?)
- Best Time To Eat Carbs When Carb Cycling (4 Rules to Follow)
- How Long Should You Carb Cycle? And, Can You Do It Forever?
- How Many Calories Should You Eat When Carb Cycling?
- Refeed vs Carb Cycling: Differences, Pros, & Con
- Carb Cycling vs Intermittent Fasting: Which Is Better?
About The Author
Colby Roy is a holistic health and nutrition coach. She is certified through Precision 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.