Is Carb Cycling Healthy? How to Start

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We have all heard of the many benefits that a low carbohydrate or ketogenic diet provides. Research shows restricting our carbs can help balance blood sugar, control insulin levels, and increase weight loss — but is it healthy and sustainable long term?

What Is Carb Cycling?

Essentially, carb cycling provides the best of a low carb lifestyle with the perk of periodically indulging in the yummy stuff — carbs!

When carb cycling, protein and fat intake remain essentially the same, but the amount of carbohydrates (such as bread, pasta, potatoes, fruit, etc.) fluctuates over time.

Many people choose to limit carbs in this way when they want to lose weight while preserving lean muscle mass.

Generally, the timing of the carbohydrate fluctuation is based on workout and activity levels — meaning more carbs on more active days. This is typically done to provide the many benefits of carbohydrates (yes, carbs have benefits too!) without causing blood sugar imbalances or excessive weight gain.

Benefits of a Carb Cycling Diet (High Carbs vs. Low Carbs)

New research emerges every second. One second a high carb, low fat is the ideal diet. The next high fat, low carb is the only healthy way to live. It’s impossible to keep up!

Here is the breakdown explaining the benefits of each option:

Benefits of a Carbohydrate-rich Diet

Although they’re often demonized, our bodies need carbs to:

Keep in mind, the source of carbohydrates matters! Processed, simple carbohydrates tend to cause more inflammation in the body preventing health benefits. Read this post to learn more about the difference between simple and complex carbs.

Benefits of a Low Carb Diet

On the flip side, let’s consider the benefits of a low carb diet:

  • Decreases in insulin levels preventing fat storage
  • Balances blood sugar and prevents a blood sugar roller coaster
  • Regulates appetite
  • Speeds weight loss
  • May help to balance sex hormones if due to imbalanced blood sugar
  • Improves mental clarity
  • Reduces oxidative stress

Sounds pretty good as well!

Striking a Balance

So, if there are benefits to both a high carb and a low carb diet, how do we get the best of both worlds? You guessed it, carb cycling! Alternating carbohydrate loads throughout the week allows the body to have its (gluten-free) cake and actually eat it too.

Carb cycling is simple enough to fit into any busy lifestyle. It provides the flexibility needed when planning meals. It makes it easier to build muscle strength and improve energy levels. It also means no more diets that eliminate a full food group making it impossible to maintain long term.

Risks of Long-Term Low Carb Diets

You may be wondering — so why is it so easy to lose weight on a low carb or ketogenic diet? The reason that weight loss is so fast and easy on a low carb diet boils down to body chemistry. Low carbohydrate diets cause a decrease in insulin production. Sodium follows insulin. When insulin declines, sodium levels fall, causing our bodies to release a good amount of water. Hence, quick weight loss (but also carb flu!).

Eventually, the water loss will stop and weight will plateau until fat begins to break down but at a much slower pace.

In the long term, low carb diets can take a toll on the body in other ways.

First, studies have shown that eating low carb for extended periods of time, especially at a caloric deficit, will cause multiple hormone levels relating to metabolism and reproduction to decline. For example, active T3, a thyroid hormone that plays a major role in energy production, fat-burning, and muscle gain, will decline when not enough cellular energy is available over time.

Also, a low carb diet can affect our leptin, the hormone that helps the brain regulate appetite. A decrease in leptin means a decrease in hormone production signaling — not great for us moms and moms to be!

How to Carb Cycle

If you’re convinced that carbs have a place in your life, it’s time to make a plan. Like most things in health, this plan won’t look the same for everyone! Carbohydrate intake varies depending on the individual’s genetics, lifestyle, and activity level.

First, I would suggest tracking your nutrient intake for a few weeks using a logging app or journal. This will give you a baseline for your average amount of calories and percentage of carbohydrates consumed each day.

From there, you will create a plan based on your goals.

Carb Cycling Plan for Weight Loss

If weight loss and optimizing overall health is the main goal, follow these macronutrient percentages. The percentages are based on daily caloric intake:

Low Carb Days

  • Protein: 45%
  • Carbs: 20%
  • Fat: 35%

High Carb Days

  • Protein: 30%
  • Carbs: 60%
  • Fat: 10%

Feel free to change the percentages slightly if needed. For example, on high carb days you may want to have 40% of your total calorie load from protein, 50% from carbs, and 10% from fat. However, experts do not recommend more than a 5-10% transfer between each.

This is roughly what I followed for my own weight loss plan, with higher protein ratios based on my genetic testing and individual health factors.

Carb Cycling Plan for Increased Muscle Mass & Strength

If your goals are to increase muscle mass and strength gains, an increase in calories on high carb days is recommended.

Here is an example:

Low Carb Days

  • Protein: 45%
  • Carbs: 20%
  • Fat: 35%

High Carb Days

  • Protein: 35%
  • Carbs: 65%
  • Fat: 10%

As always, be sure to check with your doctor for the best plan for you, especially if you are breastfeeding, pregnant, or menopausal.

How to Do a Carb Cycling Diet

There are multiple ways to make carb cycling fit our lifestyles–especially as a busy mom!

Here are a few examples of carb cycling methods:

Weekly Carb Cycling Plan

Option 1: Three higher carb days followed by two lower carb days

  • Monday: Higher Carb Day
  • Tuesday: Higher Carb Day
  • Wednesday: Higher Carb Day
  • Thursday: Lower Carb Day
  • Friday: Lower Carb Day
  • Saturday: Higher Carb Day
  • Sunday: Higher Carb Day

Option 2: Two higher carb days, three moderate carb days, four lower carb days

  • Monday: Higher Carb Day
  • Tuesday: Higher Carb Day
  • Wednesday: Moderate Carb Day
  • Thursday: Moderate Carb Day
  • Friday: Lower Carb Day
  • Saturday: Lower Carb Day
  • Sunday: Lower Carb Day

Option 3: One higher carb day, one lower carb day, one higher carb day, two lower carb days

  • Monday: Higher Carb Day
  • Tuesday: Lower Carb Day
  • Wednesday: Higher Carb Day
  • Thursday: Lower Carb Day
  • Friday: Lower Carb Day
  • Saturday: Higher Carb Day
  • Sunday: Lower Carb Day

Long Term Carb Cycling Plan

Option 1:

  • Days 1-11: Lower Carb Days (30-60g)
  • Days 12-14: Higher Carb Day (150-400g)

Option 2:

  • Weeks 1-4: Lower Carb Days (30-60g)
  • Week 5: Higher Carb Days (150-400g)

What Does a High Carb Day Look Like?

A good high carb day consists of meals with a fairly equal ratio of protein and complex carb intake (if not slightly higher in carbs) and a good dose of fat primarily following a workout.

Breakfast: Eggs, berries, gluten-free oatmeal, sweet potato hash

Lunch: Ground turkey cooked in coconut oil with brown rice, hummus, and starchy vegetables

Dinner: Spaghetti squash pasta with chicken and olive oil

Other sources of healthy carbs:

  • Sweet potato and other root vegetables
  • Squash
  • Rice
  • Quinoa
  • Legumes (beans)
  • Chickpeas (hummus)
  • Oats
  • Fruit and plantains
  • Vegetables

What Does a Low Carb Day Look Like?

The lower carb days should have a focus on healthy fat and protein intake. Here is an example of a low carb day meal plan.

Breakfast: Coconut Flour Pancakes: Top with butter or an almond butter spread! Delicious! Serve with a tasty protein shake.

Lunch: Chicken salad wrapped in lettuce with red onion, celery, mayo

Dinner: Grass-fed beef burger topped with guacamole and broccoli cooked in coconut oil, grass-fed butter, or ghee

Bottom Line: Keep It Simple and Mix It Up!

Experiment with what feels best for your body (and work with your doctor!) I make sure to keep a health journal when carb cycling to keep track of the outcomes.

As always, what matters the most is following the healthiest diet for you as an individual and focusing on whole foods sources. I also am convinced it’s more important to get variety in your diet than to eat the “perfect” diet consistently for the rest of your life.

All food groups can have their place in a healthy diet (low carb, high carb, carb cycling, etc.) as long as it is all rooted in real food!

This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Jennifer Walker, an internal medicine physician. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor or work with a doctor at SteadyMD.

How about you? Have you tried a carb cycling diet?

Sources:

  1. Ahima, R. S. (2008). Revisiting leptin’s role in obesity and weight loss. The Journal of Clinical Investigation, 118(7), 2380–2383.
  2. Hofmekler, Ori. Maximum muscle and minimum fat: the secret science behind physical transformation. Berkeley, Calif.: North Atlantic Books, 2008. Print.
  3. Johnston, Carol S, Sherrie L Tjonn, Pamela D Swan, Andrea White, Heather Hutchins, and Barry Sears. Ketogenic low-carbohydrate diets have no metabolic advantage over nonketogenic low-carbohydrate diets. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition83.5 (2006): 1055-1061.
  4. Westland et al. Low carbohydrate nutrition and metabolism. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 86, Issue 2, 1 August 2007, Pages 276–284.
  5. Brands, M. W., & Manhiani, M. M. (2012). Sodium-retaining effect of insulin in diabetes. American Journal of Physiology – Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology, 303(11), R1101–R1109.