What is Carb Cycling

by John Staughton (BASc, BFA) last updated -

Carb cycling has recently become one of the most popular strategies for weight loss and muscle maintenance, but before you adopt this diet, there are some things you should know.

What is Carb Cycling?

Carb cycling is a weight loss and muscle-boosting strategy that involves fluctuating the number of carbs that you eat each day. Rather than a basic calorie-restriction diet, by shifting your carbohydrate concentration, you can keep your metabolism running more efficiently, promote healthy muscle growth after a workout, and aid in weight loss efforts, all at the same time. By having 3-5 days of the week with very few carbs, and 2-4 days where you are allowed to eat carbs, you can keep your body working more effectively and reduce your risk of heart disease. [1]

However, this is only meant to be a short-term approach and must be done quite carefully. Depriving your body of too many carbs for too long can have the opposite effect, like weakening muscles and promoting weight gain (when you do eat carbs again). This approach is ideal for bodybuilders, physique athletes, and other high-intensity athletic professionals. [2] [3]

An infographic on 'Carb Addiction Cycle'

Carb cycling is commonly used to lose weight and to maintain physical performance. Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Carb Cycling Meal Plan

Each carb cycling diet will differ, based on your ultimate goals, but generally, on days when you are reducing your carb intake (less than 100 grams of carbs), you will eat things like non-starchy vegetables, eggs, healthy fats, and grass-fed meats. On days when you are consuming carbs (more than 150 grams of carbs), you will be eating starchy vegetables, potatoes, grains, and other high-carb foods. Some versions of this diet also include a general cheat day to eat whatever you want, as a reward for your hard work. [4]

It can be difficult to maintain a carb cycling protocol, but some of the best tips include ensuring that you get your recommended vitamins and minerals each day, as this will help prevent hunger pangs or temptation to break the diet. Also, consult your doctor before trying this diet, to ensure it is the right choice, given your lifestyle and pre-existing health conditions, if any.

Benefits of Carb Cycling

The main benefits of carb cycling include a reduction in hormone fluctuation and lean muscle growth, among others.

Weight Loss

Creating a caloric deficit is how you lose weight, and by cutting out 400-600 calories on each low-carb day, you can significantly aid your weight loss efforts. [5]

Lean Muscle Mass

Carbohydrates are needed for muscle repair and growth, so be sure to have your carb cheat days on those days when you have an intense workout. [6]

Plant-Based Foods

This diet will force you to eat more plant-based foods, which tend to be denser in nutrients than junk and fast foods. Plant-based foods are also high in antioxidants and essential minerals. [7]


By eliminating many of the spikes and plunges in blood sugar, the hormones in the body can be more effectively regulated, reducing your risk of diabetes and metabolic syndrome. [8]

Healthy Habits

This diet can help to curb cravings and set yourself up for healthier eating habits, even after your shift away from your carb cycling regimen.

Carb Cycling vs Keto

While carb cycling and going “keto” (ketogenic diet) are both effective strategies for weight loss, the fluctuating intake of carbohydrates with a carb cycling approach is known to keep the metabolism working more effectively, while also aiding muscle growth. Ketogenic diets are simply more extreme versions, where the majority of carbohydrate calories are replaced with protein. While extremely low-carb ketogenic diets are known to be good for preventing diabetes and aiding weight loss, they can also impair the speed of muscle growth and endurance during workouts.

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About the Author

John Staughton is a traveling writer, editor, publisher and photographer with English and Integrative Biology degrees from the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana (USA). He co-founded the literary journal, Sheriff Nottingham, and now serves as the Content Director for Stain’d Arts, a non-profit based in Denver, Colorado. On a perpetual journey towards the idea of home, he uses words to educate, inspire, uplift and evolve.

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