Should You Take a Ride on the Carb Cycling Rollercoaster?

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By: , – Becky Hand, R.D.
  :  99 comments   :  29,918 Views

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
    99
    Absolutely great - 1/1/2018   4:33:53 PM
  • 98
    Interesting but I think I will stay on my SparkPeople path. - 12/25/2017   2:16:04 PM
  • 97
    It is only when I eliminate or reduce significantly my carb intake that I can lose weight. - 12/22/2017   4:03:43 PM
  • 96
    I choose my carbs carefully. - 12/22/2017   4:25:14 AM
  • 95
    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. - 12/21/2017   10:27:15 AM
  • 94
    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! - 12/21/2017   8:53:51 AM
  • RO2BENT
    93
    I’d love to try this but I already spend a lot of time on planning and meal prep - 12/21/2017   7:40:55 AM
  • 92
    Unprocessed foods! Unprocessed carbs. Thinnest cultures in the world are active and eat plenty of carbs every day. - 12/21/2017   7:08:59 AM
  • NEPTUNE1939
    91
    great - 12/21/2017   6:28:08 AM
  • 90
    Learned a lot from this article. - 12/21/2017   5:06:04 AM
  • 89
    So glad this has been posted! I have heard of Carb Cycling but had no idea what is was. - 12/14/2017   10:48:07 PM
  • 88
    Carb cycling...interesting. Never heard of doing this. - 11/30/2017   2:55:54 AM
  • 87
    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 - 11/29/2017   8:22:20 PM
  • 86
    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! - 11/29/2017   10:38:12 AM
  • 85
    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. - 11/29/2017   10:19:49 AM
  • 84
    I try to keep my carbs low. - 11/29/2017   10:08:55 AM
  • 83
    I can have 6 carb exchanges a day, and use my 4 bonus selections as carb if I want. And I enjoy every bite! - 11/29/2017   9:42:02 AM
  • 82
    Thanks - 11/29/2017   9:23:35 AM
  • 81
    This works if you dont have a job, family or life.... - 11/29/2017   9:11:11 AM
  • 80
    I dont get the best results this way. - 11/29/2017   4:41:53 AM
  • 79
    Not for me! - 11/29/2017   3:52:32 AM
  • 78
    I do not think carb cycling is for me! - 11/28/2017   10:27:52 PM
  • 77
    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. - 11/28/2017   7:11:20 PM
  • 76
    New need-to-know information. - 11/28/2017   7:09:54 PM
  • 75
    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. - 11/28/2017   6:55:54 PM
  • 74
    Oops. I had popcorn today. Muchas carbs. 😕 - 11/28/2017   6:52:59 PM
  • 73
    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. - 11/28/2017   6:51:20 PM
  • RAPUNZEL53
    72
    Thanks. - 11/28/2017   5:43:02 PM
  • 71
    I don't think this works for most people. Everything in moderation works better for me. - 11/28/2017   4:50:08 PM
  • 70
    I'm so sick of this fad. - 11/28/2017   4:30:13 PM
  • 69
    I am always will be a eat fewer calories than you expend kind of gal. It's easy and it works! - 11/28/2017   2:08:26 PM
  • 68
    So, carb cycling: good. Cutting carbs regularily: totally unacceptable and a terrible idea. Got it. Thanks for such bun biased - 11/28/2017   1:46:44 PM
  • 67
    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. - 11/28/2017   12:50:10 PM
  • 66
    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. - 11/28/2017   11:35:27 AM
  • 65
    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. - 11/28/2017   11:13:35 AM
  • 64
    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
    - 11/28/2017   9:31:02 AM
  • 63
    Is this the latest "shiny new toy" that everyone will go after? - 11/28/2017   9:17:39 AM
  • 62
    thanks - 11/28/2017   9:05:31 AM
  • 61
    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. - 11/28/2017   8:43:43 AM
  • 60
    Great bottom line! - 11/28/2017   8:14:41 AM
  • 59
    I'm diabetic so I don't think I would do it. Interesting article though. - 11/28/2017   8:00:12 AM
  • RO2BENT
    58
    Sounds like a lot of work for only a little benefit - 11/28/2017   7:55:08 AM
  • 57
    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! - 11/28/2017   7:48:32 AM
  • 56
    I have a complex carb, whole food plants diet for heart health. I eat a lot of carbs and am the better for it. - 11/28/2017   7:48:03 AM
  • 55
    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. - 11/28/2017   7:09:11 AM
  • DMEYER4
    54
    thanks - 11/28/2017   7:06:51 AM
  • AZMOMXTWO
    53
    intresting - 11/28/2017   6:55:58 AM
  • 52
    I did not know this, Thank you. - 11/28/2017   6:49:17 AM
  • NEPTUNE1939
    51
    great - 11/28/2017   6:47:23 AM
  • 50
    Interesting but it sounds quite complicated to me. - 11/28/2017   6:26:52 AM

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