On the keto diet, you restrict your carb intake while increasing your fat intake to transition your body into a fat-burning state. For many people, this means eating 30 grams of carbs or less per day. Others, however, seem to benefit from eating higher amounts of carbs at specific time intervals. This is known as carb cycling.
While it might sound counterintuitive, some people find that carb cycling works better than consistently and drastically restricting their carb intake.
Weight loss, fat loss, and better sports performance are all reported benefits of carb cycling. Below, you’ll learn how to “cycle” your carbohydrate intake, the science behind it, and whether this specific keto diet approach could support your goals.
What Is Carb Cycling?
The basic principle of carb cycling is to vary your carb intake throughout the week, month, or year. How many carbs you consume during this time will vary depending upon your body composition, activity level, and health goals.
Carb cycling is popular among people following low-carb diets like the ketogenic diet. People can choose to cycle their carbs for many reasons, including:
- Weight or fat loss goals: Many people restrict their carbs in order to lose weight, then reintroduce carbs to encourage muscle growth. Having a higher percentage of muscle mass per pound of body weight can improve metabolism, thus leading to greater weight loss.
- Athletic training goals: For those following a rigorous training program at the gym, alternating between higher-carb days and lower-carb days may support their workouts. Since training requires adequate restoration of muscle glycogen stores, eating high carbohydrates before or after exercise might help with training and recovery.
- Overcoming a plateau: When adhering to a low-carb diet, it’s not uncommon to experience initial weight loss, followed by stalled progress around the six-month mark. Sometimes, by going through a high-carb cycle, people can surprise their metabolism, thereby breaking through their “plateau.”
Is Carb Cycling the Same Thing as the Cyclical Keto Diet?
The cyclical keto diet (CKD) is one form of carb cycling, but cycling your carbs does not necessarily mean you’re following the cyclical keto diet.
The cyclical keto diet follows a standard ketogenic diet (SKD) for five to six days a week. On the remaining days of the week, you’ll consume higher amounts of carbohydrates. A carb cycle, on the other hand, may last weeks or even months.
A carb cycling diet and the cyclical keto diet have similar goals. Some athletes choose to follow the CKD in order to replenish their glycogen stores after heavy training sessions.
In other words, they intentionally eat large amounts of carbohydrates — even if it will kick them out of ketosis — to raise their blood glucose levels during intense training days. This lets them replenish their glycogen levels after exercise, allowing their muscles to recover.
Health Benefits of Carb Cycling
There are limited studies directly related to the effectiveness of carb cycling. However, related studies on training techniques, metabolism, and hormones support the theory behind carb cycling.
Could Support Your Hormones
Eating high amounts of carbs for several days will raise your anabolic hormones testosterone and insulin.
Testosterone is well known for its role in increasing muscle mass by increasing muscle synthesis.
Meanwhile, increased insulin levels will help replenish your glycogen stores, which helps your muscles repair following exercise.
Could Improve Muscle Growth
Many people interested in carb cycling have a rigorous exercise routine. Studies show that athletic performance improves after a “carb-loading” phase.
Other studies show that carbohydrates can help rebuild and repair muscles after exercise, which will then lead to muscle growth.
However, conflicting studies show that carb-loading days are not necessary to build muscle, as long as protein intake is sufficient.
Might Help You Lose Weight
Advocates of a carb cycling plan argue that since carb cycling appears to regulate your hormones, stimulate muscle growth, and help you recover quickly from workouts, you should, therefore, lose weight.
While there is anecdotal evidence of this theory, this has not been proven by science.
How to Implement Carb Cycling
You can cycle your carbs once a week, once a month, or during a specific season. If you’re an athlete, for example, you may choose to eat higher amounts of carbs during competition season.
On the other hand, if you’re a regular weekend warrior who completes two incredibly challenging workouts per week, you may choose to eat a high amount of carbs on those days.
Unlike the cyclical keto diet, where your carb intake will dramatically spike on one or two days per week, carb cycling usually entails gradually raising and lowering your carb intake.
If you implement a high-carb cycle each week, a seven-day span may look something like this:
- Monday: 30 grams of carbs
- Tuesday: 100 grams of carbs
- Wednesday: 150 grams of carbs
- Thursday: 125 grams of carbs
- Friday: 75 grams of carbs
- Saturday: 50 grams of carbs
- Sunday: 50 grams of carbs
On this schedule, the middle of your week (Wednesday) would also be your most intense training day at the gym. This might include a bodybuilding or HIIT workout. Low-carb days (Monday and Saturday) would include easy-to-moderate workouts, such as light cardio, while Sunday would be a rest day from the gym.
A Carb CyclingMeal Plan
If you’re already following the keto diet, implementing a carb cycling meal plan should be fairly straightforward.
Follow a strict keto diet on your low-carb days, stocking up on healthy fats, green leafy veggies, and a moderate amount of protein.
On your high-carb days, your plate might include a serving of brown rice, quinoa, sweet potatoes, or other starch.
Here is what a sample day may look like, depending on where you are in your carb cycle:
High-Carb Day: 162 grams of carbs
- Breakfast: Two scrambled eggs (2g) over a cup of quinoa (38g)
- Lunch: One serving of grapes (41g) two roasted chicken thighs (0g), asparagus (5g)
- Post-workout snack: Smoothie with Perfect Keto Whey Protein Powder (3g), half a banana (37g), and ice cubes
- Dinner: A cup quinoa (28g), stir-fry veggies (8g), and one pork loin (0g)
Low-Carb Day: 23.4 net carbs
- Breakfast: 2 chocolate protein pancakes (0 net carbs)
- Lunch: Keto taco salad (7 net carbs)
- Pre-workout snack: Triple chocolate smoothie (4 net carbs)
- Dinner: 2 servings of sheet pan sausage and peppers (10 net carbs)
- Dessert: Avocado brownie (2.4 net carbs)
Carb Cycling Could Support Your Keto Diet Goals
Carb cycling involves moving between periods where you eat high amounts of carbs and low amounts of carbs. A given “cycle” could last anywhere from one week to one year.
Carb cycling is popular among athletes and those following a low-carbohydrate diet. People motivated to try carb cycling are usually looking to boost athletic performance, improve body composition, or break through a weight loss plateau.
The cyclical keto diet is one form of carb cycling, where keto dieters eat high amounts of carbs for 1-2 days per week. For more information on whether the CKD might be right for you, check out this comprehensive guide on the cyclical keto diet and how to follow it.