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How to Use Carb Cycling to Keep Your Weight Loss Progressing Forward

female body on fire with tape measure around waist

How is carb cycling different from every other weight loss method? Can you expect to lose more weight by carb cycling? What are the benefits to carb cycling?

These are just a few of the questions you might have when it comes to the idea of carb cycling for weight loss. First, let’s clear something up. Carb cycling probably isn’t going to help you lose anymore weight than any other diet. There are probably 1,000 different diets out there, and nearly every single one of them would give you results if you would just be consistent and stick to them.

But therein lies the problem – your ability to stick to the diet. The majority of diets out there either severely limit your food choices, or make you so miserable on them, that you already have the odds stacked against you before you even get started.

So to answer all those questions:

  • Carb cycling is different because it doesn’t restrict any macronutrient. It can be incorporated into a lifestyle change because the diet has no expiration date.
  • You shouldn’t expect to lose more weight vs other eating protocols. However, carb cycling gives you a greater chance of holding onto your muscle while losing body fat.
  • The benefit of cycling your carbs over other diets is that it has both physiological and psychological benefits. Not only does it keep the fat loss moving, but it satisfies the mind – probably the most important part of any diet.

Why It Works

To understand why carb cycling works, we first need to understand why diets fail. Let’s look at some of those reasons and see why carb cycling is effective at bypassing those potential failures.

  • Not Eating Enough – Most diets create a calorie deficit and then keep it there for the duration of the diet. Carb cycling is different because there are low calorie days thrown in with the occasional high calorie day. This helps to “reset” your body’s metabolism and keep the starvation mechanisms at bay.
  • You’re Dieting Instead of Changing Your Lifestyle – All those 4, 8, and 12 weeks diets have one thing in common – they all end, leaving you just as lost as when you started. Carb cycling solves this problem because it can be formulated into a lifestyle change instead of just a diet.
  • Lack of Nutrients – By eating foods from all 3 primary macronutrients, you give yourself the best chance of getting in all the essential vitamins and minerals necessary to maximize fat loss and muscle building.
  • Diet Foods Taste Bad – The association between dieting and bad tasting food has a lot to do with the restriction of many foods – namely carbohydrates. Not only does carb cycling not exclude carbohydrate intake, but it encourages high carbohydrate days. Who doesn’t love carbs? You can still eat great tasting foods when you diet.
  • Slow Weight Loss – It’s going to be imperative that you stay off the scale when you carb cycle, and use these alternative methods to measure your progress. The reason it’s even more important is because cycling your carbohydrates causes large swings in weight. Because of the large fluctuation in carbohydrate intake throughout the week, and the accompanying water that attaches to each glucose molecule to create glycogen, your weight can swing several pounds in either direction. However, if you have your calorie intake right, you should be consistently losing weight over a period of time.
  • Can’t Control Cravings – Have you ever tried a no-carb diet? Just about everyone has given it a shot by now. Some people have had luck on them, but I personally find it very hard to control food cravings. By having a higher calorie, high carbohydrate day every few days, it helps to restore many of the appetite suppressing and satiety inducing hormones.

Carb Cycling Meal Plan

Alright, alright, so you understand the concept of carb cycling, but how do you actually do it? The idea is very simple – you cycle your carbohydrate intake so that you have low, medium, and high carbohydrate days. There are many ways to do this, and I recommend that you tailor the pattern to your lifestyle. Some examples are:

  • low, low, medium, low, high – repeat
  • low, medium, low, high – repeat
  • low, high, low, high, low – repeat

I think you get the point. You cycle your carbohydrate and calorie intake by simply having low, medium, and high days. So which pattern is the best? I like to follow a couple of basic principles.

  • Use medium and high days on weight training days, and low days on cardio or rest days. This helps replenish glycogen stores when insulin sensitivity is high, and limits carbohydrate intake when physical activity is low.
  • Have a high carbohydrate day on the weekend when it is socially convenient to do so. This way you don’t have to feel like such a social outcast when you’re trying to be healthy around all your “see food diet” friends.

You might be wondering what your typical day and meals are going to look like. I like to keep my protein intake constant whether it’s a low, medium, or high carbohydrate day, and raise my fat intake on low carb days, while decreasing it on high carb ones. The basic guidelines to follow are:

  • Eat between .8- 1 gram of protein per pound of lean body weight.
  • Your low carb days should have 50/50 calories coming from protein and fat. You don’t necessarily need to have no carbohydrates on this day, you just need to keep them low – under 50 grams.
  • Your medium carb days will have 100-200 grams of carbohydrates.
  • Your high carb days will have 400-600 grams of carbohydrates. By doing this, you automatically increase your calories up and above maintenance levels and reset many of your body’s hunger and metabolism hormones. Keep fat low on this day, as your insulin levels are going to be high. Since insulin is a storage hormone, you don’t want to add fat into that environment.

Understand that you will need to experiment with the amount of high-carb days you can have. Some people can only get away with one per week and need to stick to low and medium carbohydrate days the rest of the week. Monitor your fat loss closely and adjust as needed. There is no one size fits all approach to carbohydrate cycling. Carb cycling is more a way of eating than a diet, but once you have it dialed in, the fat loss potential can be amazing.

  • Octavian

    …or you could just eliminate the high carb days so you don’t have to worry about the high insulin and food cravings that will follow low blood sugar…YMMV

  • Coach Calorie

    Hey Octavian, that’s true. However, those high carb days and insulin levels serve a valuable purpose both psychologically and physiologically. High carb days every day could be detrimental, but when cycling carb intake, a high carb day can be beneficial on many fronts. Thanks for the comment.

  • Hakeem

    Hi! I like what you said that Carb cycling probably isn’t going to help you lose anymore weight than any other diet.

  • Octavian

    I can kinda understand what you mean. I do this organically in my diet…I just listen to what my body wants. If I’m craving an apple and sweet potatoes, I’m gonna eat those things. If I’m craving beef and full fat cream, I will eat that. I avoid bread and most processed foods (I have a soft spot for Oberto pork jerky).

  • Coach Calorie

    Good point. Your body will tell you what it needs. It’s just hard at times to differentiate between needs and wants.

  • monteena

    I have been on the carb cycle for about 3 months. I started at 20% bodyfat. I am now at 14%. I am a 49 year old female. I weigh 115 and 5’0″. Now I want to gain muscle. Can I still carb cycle?


    • Coach Calorie

      Absolutely. There are many different ways to approach this, but one way is to simply bump up your calories, but keep the same macronutrient percentages.

  • Noah

    Many, and I mean MANY professional Bodybuilding, Bikini, Physique and Figure competitors carb cycle as they are dieting down for a show. It is a very effective way to cut fat, yet retain muscle since your body never has to turn to lean muscle as a fuel source. Not to mention the stimulation your metabolism gets from constantly guessing what its going to get next. Trainers recommend cheat days for a reason ;)

    • Auleilei

      I am a Physique competitor and I am carb cycling this season.. I have a show coming up in 9 weeks, and my carb cycle consists of the following:
      Sun- NO CARB
      Mon- NO CARB
      Tues- Moderate CARB
      Wed- High carb (this is a leg day)
      Thurs- NO CARB
      Fri- Moderate CARB
      Sat- High carb (2nd leg day)

      This has been working for me, but everyone needs to tailor what works best for them and their body :)…

  • Keith

    I am at about 10-11% body fat and want to get into the single digits. I lift heavy 4 times a week, run 4 miles twice a week, and do tabata training twice a week. Do you think this will help me to drop that last 2-4% body fat?

    • Coach Calorie

      Sure I do, but more important than all that exercise is your diet. You can’t out exercise a bad diet. Make sure you are providing the necessary nutrition to fuel all that intense exercise.

  • Adam

    Thank you for this great article. I’m attempting to gather as much info on this diet to start me off, and your article is my main go-to, bookmarked source :)

    Thanks for the oversimplification for those of us who are still beginners.

  • Cristina

    I started carb cycling Sunday. I am following Chris Powell’s plan, high carbs one day, low carbs the next day, so on. I have followed a low carb diet for years however, my sluggish, migraine, brain fog days occur when I eat carbs on the carb cycling regimen. I have never seen this when I eat carbs on days “I just felt like it” or when on vacation when I had a low carb diet, it must be because I am adding these carbs every 3 hours. I have since started adding less carbs to my high carb days, say, once piece of whole grain bread with my protein instead of the whole sandwich (2 breads). I felt a little better, but yesterday I had no energy on my high carb day and slept from 7PM until 5AM, I never sleep like that. It has the opposite effect on me, my low carb days, I have amazing energy on low carb days–it’s the high carb days I seem to dread, and the whole reason I wanted to do this plan was to enjoy my carbs. Would it be bad to eliminate the high carb meal for dinner on my high carb days? Say I eat high carb breakfast, high carb snack and high carb lunch with low carb dinner, followed by a low carb day? Would this be effective? Any other recommendations you can give? I was so excited about this regimen when I saw it on Dr. Oz and I really want a regimen that is tailored for me, not sure if eliminating the carbs at dinner will still fuel my furnace, considering on the low carb days of Chris Powell’s regimen, high carb breaksfast still occurs. High carb breakfast is everyday. Thanks for any input you can give.

    • Coach Calorie

      Hi Cristina, it sounds like you are insulin insensitive. You’re spiking your insulin with those big carb meals and then having low blood sugar. If you’re going to do high carb days, make sure they are still low-glycemic carbs. Having a bunch of breads can do that to you if you are sensitive to carbs.

    • Karri

      I’m the exact same way on high carb days Christina.. migraines, exhausted and can’t string two sentences together.. low carb days.. I’ve got scads of energy, my head is clear, even my eye sight clears up.. but if I go too long without starch, my mood tanks and I get growly.. insulin resistance is a tough balancing act, eh ? Good luck !

  • Crystal

    When you say carbs do you mean all carbs? I don’t eat bread or grain in general, and my carbs are mostly from fruit, veggies, and the little bit of yogurt I eat.

  • Coach Calorie

    I mean whole foods – whole grains, legumes, lentils, fruits, veggies, etc.

  • Michelle Intschert

    Hey there! I have a question- as a vegan I do get some protein but not nearly enough as I should be, especially for weight loss/ strength training, my diet has a decent amount of carbs and healthy fats, and some protein… With carb cycling, It’s hard for me to have Low carb days work out.. they turn out to be ‘medium’ days, and my “high” days are still in the ‘medium range’ even though I am really trying, and I still don’t meet my protein goals! If I try to alternate ‘medium’ amounts every day, will that still help with cycling? Or not really?

  • Coach Calorie

    Carb cycling might be hard for a vegetarian. The good news is it’s not necessary. Find a different eating style that better fits into your lifestyle.

  • Coach Calorie

    I’m glad you’re making progress! However, that doesn’t disprove anything. No one said you couldn’t lose weight carb cycling, but calories being equal, there should be much of a difference in weight at the end. Body composition is a different story.

  • Nancy Palazzo

    I went low carb for so long that I messed up my thyroid. I’m afraid to go too low, as when I do, my workouts suffer. I run 8 miles, 3x/week, bike 15 miles, 2s/week, and sprint 6 miles, 2x/week. I weight train 5 days a week.

    What days would be best to do low carb, in your opinion? With all the working out that I do, I’m actually gaining weight, losing strength, and looking soft. I am also still fighting a borderline slow thyroid as well as peri-menopause.

    • Coach Calorie

      I’ve found carb cycling to be most effective when the low carb days coincide with days off. Keep in mind too that low carb doesn’t have to be zero carb. It’s all relative to the rest of your intake.