What Is Carb Cycling? (A how to + meal plan)

by | Jan 3, 2019 | Last updated Sep 15, 2022

Carbs are terrible for you!
You need carbs in your life!
You have to eat low-carb to lose weight.
You have to eat more carbs to lose weight.

The amount of contradicting information out there around this energy producing nutrient is jaw-dropping. If you were to ask anyone on the street what they thought about carbohydrates, each person would have a different response.

And those responses probably came from something they read on the internet, heard on a talk show, or read on Instagram from a celebrity endorsing the latest carb-centered trendy diet.

With all of the confusing information out there, it’s hard to know what eating habits are right for you. There is no magical, one-size-fits-all plan out there, whether you’re trying to boost fat loss, build muscle, or change your body composition. If there was, we’d all be doing it! Am I right?

So when it comes to eating plans, like the carb cycling meal plan, it can be difficult to know if this plan would work for you. Just like any other diet program, doing your research first will help you weigh the pros and cons. And that’s what I’m here for – to dive into this new trend of carb cycling and show you what it’s all about, to see if it’s right for you.

What is carb cycling?

Carb cycling alternates the amounts of carbs you consume each day, depending on your activity schedule. This does not only mean foods like breads, pastas and crackers, but also fruits, starchy vegetables and dairy products. Most do not realize fruit and dairy items, like yogurt and cheese, fall under the carb category. When it comes to the carb cycling diet plan, you’re either filling your day with these items, or limiting them.

How does carb cycling work?

On the days you have a large amount of carbs, are the days you are training hard in the gym. When you workout, your body uses carbs for energy, in the form of glycogen. Glycogen is stored in the muscles and liver and is ready to be used during physical activity. When you use up your glycogen stores, you have to replenish them by consuming sources of carbs. That’s why you may have seen how important it is to have carbs as a pre and post workout snack. This allows you to gear up for you workout, as well as restore your levels.

The carb cycle comes in on the days you do not workout as much. Like those rainy Sunday afternoons, when you’re stuck inside and the only movement you have is picking up the remote to tell Netflix “yes, I am ready for the next episode of FRIENDS”. We’ve all been there! These days you limit the amount of carbs you have. When you are not using your carb sources for energy, it can be stored in the body as fat. Which is why this program recommends low carb intake on low intensity days. Keep in mind, it takes a large portion of carbs to turn into fat. Eating a piece of fruit or a cup of brown rice will not instantly turn into fat just because you did not go to the gym that day.

How carb cycling compares to a balanced eating schedule

Like I said, carb sources include things like breads, pastas, fruits, dairy products and starchy vegetables, like potatoes. That’s a big list. Lots of nutrients in those items, but we’ll get to that later. The USDA recommends 50-60% of a person’s calories should come from carbs, everyday. So, if you ate a 2,000 calorie diet, that would be roughly 1,000-1,200 calories. Basically, a large portion of your food should come from these energy producing sources.

High carb days are the days where you’re going harder, faster, stronger than your less intense days. So things like going for a longer run, lifting heavier weights or any sort of interval training. Your low carb days can still consistent of physical activity, just a lighter version. On your lighter days, you start swapping out breads for lettuce wraps, or a side of rice for a side of corn. Any way to cut back your carbohydrate intake by about 3-4 servings.

On the carb cycling diet, your low-carb days look fairly similar to other low-carb diet methods, like the keto diet. You’re upping your intake of healthy fats and non-starchy vegetables while boosting your protein intake. The goal is simply to maintain your caloric intake and macronutrient balance while consuming very few grams of carbohydrates. But while the keto diet and other weight-loss diets limit your carbohydrates indefinitely, the carb-cycling diet only does so intermittently. For people who struggle with a low-carbohydrate diet, this may offer some of the benefits (i.e. a way to lose fat, improve insulin sensitivity, control blood sugar, etc.) without being as psychologically grueling.

Carb cycling meal plan

Here is a breakdown of a high-carb day and a low-carb day to give you a general idea on how you would cycle your carb sources with each meal.

High carb day:

Breakfast: 1 Cup Oatmeal, 1 Cup 1% milk, 1 banana
366 calories, 66g CARB, 15.5g PRO, 5.5g FAT

Lunch: 3 oz. deli turkey on 2 slices of whole wheat bread, 1 slice cheddar cheese, lettuce, 3 slices cucumber, 1 apple, 1 bag baked chips
551 calories, 74.5g CARB, 30.5g PRO, 15.5g FAT

Dinner: ½ Cup whole wheat pasta, ¼ Cup marinara sauce, 4 turkey meatballs, ½ Cup corn
317 calories, 50g CARB, 19.5g PRO, 11g FAT

Snack 1: Greek yogurt with strawberries: 140 calories, 21g CARB, 17g PRO, 0g FAT

Snack 2: 2 Tbsp Peanut Butter on a rice cake: 228 calories, 13g CARB, 9g PRO, 18g FAT

Total: 1,602 calories, 224.5g CARB, 91.5g PRO, 50g FAT

Carb sources take up 56% of the total calories for the day.

Low carb day:

Breakfast: 1 slice whole wheat toast, 1 Tbsp Peanut butter, ½ banana, 1 Cup strawberries (49 calories, 1 Cup 1% milk
369 calories, 51.5g CARB, 17g PRO, 11.5g FAT

Lunch: 3 oz. deli turkey, 3 Cups mixed salad greens, ½ Cup cucumber, 1 hard boiled egg, 2 Tbsp shredded cheddar cheese, 3 Tbsp raspberry vinaigrette
453 calories, 26g CARB, 26g PRO, 47g FAT

Dinner: 3 oz grilled chicken breast, ½ Cup broccoli, 1 Cup cubed sweet potato, 1 Tbsp olive oil
465 calories, 33g CARB, 27g PRO, 25g FAT

Snack 1: 15 baby carrots and 4 Tbsp guacamole: 160 calories, 23g CARB, 4g PRO, 16g FAT

Snack 2: 2 Tbsp Peanut Butter on a rice cake: 228 calories, 13g CARB, 9g PRO, 18g FAT

Total: 1,675 calories, 146.5g CARB, 83g PRO, 117.5g FAT

Carb sources take up 35% of the total calories for the day.

As you can see, the amount of calories coming from carbs changes drastically between the two days. On the high carb days, you are meeting your daily recommendation of carbs. On the low carb days, you are far below that recommended threshold. If you are someone who enjoys working out 4-5 times a week, your body thrives on those carb sources. On your “off” days, you’re body is still recovering from yesterday’s workout, and gearing up for tomorrow’s workout. So, how does it make sense to fluctuate your carbs that much? That’s the magic question behind the carb cycling plan!

Can carb cycling help with weight loss?

People respond differently carbs, just like they respond differently to protein and fat sources as well. Some may find they can lose weight while on a low carb diet or cycling their carbs. But what is not realized is how this up and down eating schedule affects your body from the inside.

Another fact most people don’t know about carbs is they aid in the fat burning process. You heard me right; CARBS. BURN. FAT. I’ll let that sink in for a minute.

OK, back to carbs. When your body is deprived of this food group, you may experience some negative side effects. While it may seem like you’re dropping some body fat, you may actually be losing water. And more importantly, you may be losing lean muscle. Those muscles you just worked out in the gym? Muscle tissue needs carbs, as much as they it needs protein, to keep up its strength and shape. In other words, moderate carb intake can actually help you maintain muscle mass and support muscle growth! Other side effects to a low carb diet are symptoms like headache, bad breath, fatigue, and digestion issues.

Another thing to keep in mind is consuming too few calories from carbs (and running any kind of calorie deficit in general) can actually cause your weight to stall or increase. Depriving your body of its nutritional needs – whether you’re limiting your protein intake, fat intake, or carb intake – can put it into a starvation mode. Without the necessary amount of carbs, your body holds on to what little source it has, leading to maintaining or gaining body weight. It can also deplete your energy levels, making those sweat sessions much more difficult to complete.

Is carb cycling right for you?

Well, that depends. Do you feel your body can handle missing out not only on energy producing foods, but also all the other valuable nutrients those foods contain? Or would you rather be able to live your life and eat what you want, while developing a healthy lifestyle with all food?

Any diet plan that’s based on restrictions risks depriving your of vital nutrients. This is true of the cycling diet, the ketogenic diet, intermittent fasting, and practically any other diet you can think of. Think of all the vitamins and minerals found in fruits. Does that sound like a good idea to limit those? If you ask me, sounds like the nutritional benefits of these foods outweigh any sort of myth about carbs.

This is why sustainable weight loss programs like Noom can make life a lot easier. There is no crazy restriction or day-to-day plan you have to follow. It’s about discovering the reasons behind your choices and creating sustainable, healthy habits. Key word there, sustainable. Can you go the rest of your life, alternating foods groups based on your activity levels? Sounds like a lot more work than it needs to be!