Carb Cycling: An Effective Approach to Nutrition and Fitness
Eating healthy and working out go hand in hand, or they should! What you eat can have a direct impact on your training results. A poor diet can undermine your progress and could even mean you make no progress at all. Subsequently, most exercisers follow an eating plan designed to support their workouts, and that matches their training goal. Unfortunately, there are a lot of diets to choose from, and while some are safe, effective, and healthy, many others are not. Sadly, some people cannot tell the difference between the good and the bad and end up following unsuitable or unsustainable plans.
Carb cycling has proven popular with bodybuilders and is gaining traction within the general fitness community. In this article, we discuss why and how to do carb cycling and provide you with a sample 7-day meal plan to try.
What is Carb Cycling?
Food can be divided into three macronutrient groups – protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Your body uses protein for muscle repair and growth, fat for slow-release energy and energy storage, and carbs for instant energy. All three macro groups are important, and diets that contain all three are generally the healthiest and easiest to stick to. However, lower-carb diets can be effective for weight loss, and cutting carbs may increase fat burning. Unfortunately, low-carb diets can be hard to stick to and often lead to hunger and cravings. In addition, cutting carbs can also hurt your workouts, reducing intensity and duration. That’s because carbs are converted to and stored as glycogen, which is your body’s preferred fuel source during intense exercise. Fewer carbs mean less glycogen, and less energy, too.
With carb cycling, you consume more carbs on training days and fewer carbs when you are less active. This ensures you have the fuel you need to power through your workouts but are less likely to store fat on rest days. Carb cycling means you can enjoy many of the benefits of a low-carb diet while still providing your body with the fuel it needs for intense exercise.
Sample carb cycling/training plan:
Monday – intense strength training/high-carb diet
Tuesday – low-intensity cardio/low-carb diet
Wednesday – intense strength training/high-carb diet
Thursday – intense strength training/high-carb diet
Friday – low-intensity cardio/low-carb diet
Saturday – intense strength training/high-carb diet
Sunday – rest/low-carb diet
Carb Cycling Meal Plan Benefits
Not sure if carb cycling is for you? Consider these benefits and then decide!
Less hunger and fewer cravings compared to a standard low-carb diet
Low-carb diets invariably lead to low blood glucose, which can trigger hunger and cravings. While you may be able to ignore these sensations for a couple of days, eventually, they’ll wear away your willpower, and you’ll break your diet. With carb cycling, a carb-rich meal is never more than a day or two away, so you should experience fewer cravings and less hunger, and you won’t need to rely on your willpower as much. This should make a carb cycling meal plan easier to stick to than a standard low-carb diet.
Glycogen replenishment for better workouts
High-carb diets are commonly associated with improved athletic performance (1). As mentioned above, your body converts carbs into glycogen, which is your body’s preferred source of fuel during high-intensity exercise. Intense training depletes your glycogen stores, and lost glycogen must be replaced before you can repeat a similarly demanding workout. Standard low-carb diets do not replenish muscle glycogen, and, as a result, once your stores are depleted, you’ll find it hard to train very hard or for long. Your muscles will basically be running on empty. However, with carb cycling, glycogen-depleting workouts are accompanied by plenty of dietary carbs, ensuring your glycogen stores are restocked regularly. This ensures that you always have the energy you need to work out.
Increased fat burning
Low-carb diets have long been associated with fat burning and weight loss (2). When you cut carbs from your diet, your body has no choice but to start burning fat for fuel. Also, consuming a lot of carbs, especially during periods of sedentarism, can cause fat storage and weight gain. Carb cycling could help you lose fat faster by eliminating the competition for fuel and making fat your primary energy source on your low-carb days.
Following the same diet day after day can soon become boring. Carb cycling is essentially two diets combined (low-carb and high-carb), so you should find it more varied and interesting. Depending on your carb cycling plan, you probably won’t eat the same way for more than two days in a row. This variety can make carb cycling more appealing than a standard low-carb diet, especially for long-term use.
Carb Cycling Meal Plan Drawbacks
While carb cycling is popular and works, there are also a few drawbacks to consider:
Macro tracking can be time-consuming and inconvenient
Needless to say, if you are going to manipulate your carbohydrate intake from one day to the next, you’ll need to count and track your macros. After all, if you don’t know how many grams of carbs, protein, and fat you are consuming, you won’t be able to adjust your intake. While macro tracking is not as challenging or time-consuming as it used to be, you’ll still need to use an app or website to record your food intake. Macro tracking does get easier the longer you do it, but initially, it can be a hassle. Some people also find it stressful. However, macro tracking is part and parcel of the carb-cycling diet.
It can take some of the enjoyment out of eating
Any diet, even a flexible one like carb cycling, can take some of the enjoyment out of eating. Food should be one of life’s pleasures, but carb cycling means you’ll need to be much more aware of what you eat. You may even have to turn down certain foods as they may not fit your diet, e.g., a slice of a colleague’s birthday cake on a designated low-carb day.
In conclusion, carb cycling can be an effective approach to nutrition and fitness. It allows you to reap the benefits of a low-carb diet while still providing your body with the fuel it needs for intense exercise. However, it does require careful macro tracking and may take away some of the enjoyment of eating. Consider these factors before deciding if carb cycling is the right approach for you.