Should You Take a Ride on the Carb Cycling Rollercoaster?

By , Becky Hand, R.D.
It feels as though there is no escaping carbohydrates when it comes to talking about healthy eating. The latest carbohydrate-focused diet to take center stage combines very low carbohydrate days along with days packed with carb-containing foods. Known as "carb cycling," the premise of this eating plan comes from the world of bodybuilders and professional athletes looking to quickly increase muscle mass—though that hasn't stopped the average person looking for a weight-loss solution to jump on the bandwagon as of late. But does this eating plan really "optimize" carbs to boost weight loss?
 

What is Carb Cycling?
 

While carb cycling involves alternating between high carbohydrate intake days and low carbohydrate intake days at its core, there are many versions of the plan. Some people adjust their carb intake day-to-day, usually based on their exercise and competition schedule, while others do longer cycling periods by week or month. Some plans use the high-low carb routine for six straight days with a reward or cheat day on the seventh.
 
Search the internet and you may come across claims of plateau-busting, metabolism-boosting and fat-burning benefits when using a carb-cycling plan, but in fact, only one small, short-term study regarding carb cycling and weight loss exists at this moment in time. Published in 2013 in the "British Journal of Nutrition," this three-month study resulted in improved insulin sensitivity and a slightly greater weight loss (about 2.75 pounds) in overweight women who consumed fewer carbohydrates (less than 40 grams) two days a week, compared to the control group who used a more traditional weight loss diet. Both groups ate the same number of total calories weekly. While promising, more research is needed for recommendation guidelines.
 

Carb Cycling by the Numbers
 

Without solid research evidence on carb cycling, it is possible to find many versions of the eating plan and proponents use differing guidelines. The chart below shows just one example of a day-to-day carb-cycling plan based on days with and without exercise. Exact calorie and carb amounts would be determined by one's gender, weight, muscle mass, activity level, exercise plan and ultimate goals.
 
As you can see by the numbers, a carb-cycling plan results in weight loss when you maintain a calorie deficit, which is no weight-loss secret. Food choices, carb sources and portion sizing are still keys to ultimately finding success. When selecting your carb servings, it is important to opt for smart-carbs that are also nutrient-rich, while carbohydrates that contain little or no nutritional value, such as refined-grain products or over-processed foods.
 
  Female Male
Very Low-Carb Day
Non-Exercise or
Light Activity Day
 
Calories

Carbohydrates
(up to 25% of calories)
  • Grams
  • Servings
 


1200




40 -75
2 ½ - 5
  
 
 
1500
 


 
50 - 95
3 ½ - 6 ½
High-Carb Day
Exercise or
Vigorous Activity Day
 
Calories

Carbohydrates
(45-65% of calories)
  • Grams
  • Servings
 
 
 
1500
 
 


170 - 245
11 ½ – 16 ½
 
 
 
1800
 


 
200 - 295
13 ½ - 19 ½
 
For some who struggle with eating plans that cut out whole food groups, the carb-cycling plan can be liberating and easier to maintain than other very restricting or very low-carbohydrate eating plans. Others find the cycling approach to be too complicated and time-consuming.
 
While a carb-cycling plan is safe for most people, do not start using a carb-cycling plan before checking with your primary care provider or registered dietitian. This is especially important if you have a medical history of diabetes, heart disease, metabolic syndrome, hypoglycemia, disordered eating or binge eating. Do not use this type of eating plan if you are pregnant or breastfeeding. Avoid carb-cycling plans that require or force the purchase of added supplements, shakes or beverages. 
 
The bottom line is this: Diets that cut calories usually results in weight loss and so will carb cycling. If you find that controlling carb intake is an area of struggle in your weight-loss plan, carb cycling may offer the increased flexibility you desire, but with added structure and accountability you need to make a real change. If you decide to take a ride on this rollercoaster, be sure to reach for quality carbs on both your feast and famine days. 

Have you tried carb cycling? What have you found to be most challenging or most rewarding thing about the eating plan?

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Comments

BONDMANUS2002 1/1/2018
Absolutely great Report
MIYAMO 12/25/2017
Interesting but I think I will stay on my SparkPeople path. Report
JIACOLO 12/22/2017
It is only when I eliminate or reduce significantly my carb intake that I can lose weight. Report
PLCHAPPELL 12/22/2017
I choose my carbs carefully. Report
AALLEY2 12/21/2017
Although I haven't tried this method, I notice when I eat a lot of bad carbs the next day I don't crave as many. Report
ALBERTA119 12/21/2017
I have always felt better and I can tell where I need more carbs when I exercise harder or longer one day compared to a non exercise day. This makes sense to me! Report
RO2BENT 12/21/2017
I’d love to try this but I already spend a lot of time on planning and meal prep Report
ZIPITUP 12/21/2017
Unprocessed foods! Unprocessed carbs. Thinnest cultures in the world are active and eat plenty of carbs every day. Report
NEPTUNE1939 12/21/2017
great Report
JANIEWWJD 12/21/2017
Learned a lot from this article. Report
SHELLLEY2 12/14/2017
So glad this has been posted! I have heard of Carb Cycling but had no idea what is was. Report
STUBBY_DOUGLAS 11/30/2017
Carb cycling...interesting. Never heard of doing this. Report
THOMS1 11/29/2017
Good article Becky, My Brother-in-law and Sister-in-law do 50 carbs two days a week and I tried it for two weeks and couldn't even think straight. So as interesting as it is no thanks. I do better trying to keep my carbs no higher than 195 and some days that is a struggle. It's work but, it works for me. Thanks Becky Report
SUSIEMT 11/29/2017
This was a very interesting article and I really appreciate the concerns you gave. I just hope people follow your concerns because they are so spot on! A couple years ago my sister and I tried having two low carb days a week. What we found was that for us we got real stupid! I mean like we had no brain power at all. That is when we realized that yes carbs feed your brains! Then last year I re-read an article you wrote concerning carbs but what I never really understood until I re-read your article was the chart. I studied it and decided I needed to lower my daily carb intake to 130-195. As long as I follow that and keep my nutrients in align I can maintain my 177 lb. weight loss with no problem. Woo Hoo you Becky Hand for being a GREAT Registered Dietician!!! Thank you! Report
1CRAZYDOG 11/29/2017
Have type 2 diabetes and have to watch my carbs closely. No simple carbs, and my complex carbs come from fruits and veggies. Carb cycling is good if your metabolism isn't impaired, and it does seem to work. Report
SKIMBRO 11/29/2017
I try to keep my carbs low. Report
NELLJONES 11/29/2017
I can have 6 carb exchanges a day, and use my 4 bonus selections as carb if I want. And I enjoy every bite! Report
BIKE4HEALTH 11/29/2017
Thanks Report
ETHELMERZ 11/29/2017
This works if you don’t have a job, family or life.... Report
PLCHAPPELL 11/29/2017
I dont get the best results this way. Report
RD03875 11/29/2017
Not for me! Report
XNANNY 11/28/2017
I do not think carb cycling is for me! Report
WOUBBIE 11/28/2017
Mark Sisson over at Mark's Daily Apple has a discussion of this that looks at some of the science and it mostly says "meh".

Most people's definitions of carb levels are more like this:

0-10g per day = ZC Zero Carb
10-20g = VLC Very Low Carb
20-50g = LC Low Carb
50-100g = MC Moderate Carb

Anything over 100g per day is HC High Carb. You need to be VERY active to do well on that. Report
MSROZZIE 11/28/2017
New need-to-know information. Report
PWILLOW1 11/28/2017
My doctor just advised me to eliminate carbs completely if I want to lose weight. Sorry I am not about to do that. I believe you can eat from all food groups in moderation. Portion control, nutritional choices and lots of healthy exercise is my motto. Report
DIZZYBRITCHES 11/28/2017
Oops. I had popcorn today. Muchas carbs. 😕 Report
DIZZYBRITCHES 11/28/2017
Hey, Becky! I visited SP today and by the trending topics, I thought everyone had gone keto! Nah, counting cals works for me, though I try to eat better calories so no starchy stuff except sweet taters now and then. Report
RAPUNZEL53 11/28/2017
Thanks. Report
AALLEY2 11/28/2017
I don't think this works for most people. Everything in moderation works better for me. Report
LILLIPUTIANNA 11/28/2017
I'm so sick of this fad. Report
ADRIENALINE 11/28/2017
I am always will be a eat fewer calories than you expend kind of gal. It's easy and it works! Report
PIPPAMOUSE 11/28/2017
So, carb cycling: good. Cutting carbs regularily: totally unacceptable and a terrible idea. Got it. Thanks for such bun biased Report
LEMONYLACE 11/28/2017
I've seen this a lot over the last few months. While it might help some people, I've been seeing from a people that promote keto as a sort of hook for people that just can't give up potatoes and bread, to make things "less weird". They're making it look gimmicky. Report
TERRI1458 11/28/2017
Never heard of this before but I have done it this week without even knowing it. My blood sugar numbers went down 30 points this week. I am going for whole food, unprocessed, low fat. I heard it was a healthy way of eating. Report
GOLDENRODFARM 11/28/2017
Sounds like this making it too hard, by the time my day gets too intense it is probably too late to adjust, you never know on a farm when a routine day is going to change int an intense dat. Report
TUBLADY 11/28/2017
Thanks but NO thanks. This is just another Fad.
I prefer to stick with my low, average 100 carbs a day , limit starch carbs , eat , balanced meals and lose or maintain my weight.
I spent years trying to maintain a 130 lbs with yo yo, diets, every new diet I would give it a try. . In the end it doesn't work.
Weight loss is a multi million dollar business. But really the secret is portion control and eat less, exercise and adjust as time goes by.
I have lost using my way and will continue fo all my days to come work to maintain,
Diets end, fads end, but healthy eating can last forever.
Spark on.
Tisha
Report
GETULLY 11/28/2017
Is this the latest "shiny new toy" that everyone will go after? Report
FISHGUT3 11/28/2017
thanks Report
APRINCESS60 11/28/2017
I tried the ketogenic diet for a year. The carb restriction was too intense for me and even led to some colonic health issues. I would never recommend carb restriction to that degree to anyone I love. I like the tracking portion control with smart carb choices concept. Report
PATRICIA-CR 11/28/2017
Great bottom line! Report
TVAUGHN57 11/28/2017
I'm diabetic so I don't think I would do it. Interesting article though. Report
RO2BENT 11/28/2017
Sounds like a lot of work for only a little benefit Report
GENIE-B 11/28/2017
Hm, this is interesting. I think I cycle carbs naturally, i.e. tend to eat high one day and lower the next, but not to the these low points. It's worth reading more. Thanks for the blog! Report
QUIETWARRIOR 11/28/2017
I have a complex carb, whole food plants diet for heart health. I eat a lot of carbs and am the better for it. Report
HAWKTHREE 11/28/2017
It should be called a low calorie diet. 1200 calories are difficult to achieve for me. I thought I ate low carb, I guess I'll have to change the name to VLC for Very Low Carb. Report
DMEYER4 11/28/2017
thanks Report
AZMOMXTWO 11/28/2017
intresting Report
SPARKYFLOWER 11/28/2017
I did not know this, Thank you. Report
NEPTUNE1939 11/28/2017
great Report
HMBROWN1 11/28/2017
Interesting but it sounds quite complicated to me. Report