The pros and cons of carb cycling

The pros and cons of carb cycling

Carb cycling, or varying your carbohydrate intake (and, in turn, your calories) based on your workouts, is one of the most utilised methods of fat loss among the bodybuilding community.

To employ a method of carb cycling, one would typically consume a greater amount of carbohydrates (typically 2-2.5 grams per pound of bodyweight) on heavy training days (which typically involve legs and/or back), a moderate amount of carbohydrates (typically 0.5-1 grams per pound of bodyweight) on lower intensity training days, and a low number of carbs (0-0.5 grams per pound of bodyweight) on rest days.

An average week in the life of a carb cycler may look like this:

Monday (upper body workout): Low-medium carb day
Tuesday (lower body workout): High carb day
Wednesday (rest day): Low carb day
Thursday (upper body workout): Low-medium carb day
Friday (HIIT workout): Low carb day
Saturday (lower body workout): High carb day
Sunday (rest day): Low carb day

Generally, the high carb days will be spaced pretty evenly apart, with three or four days of lower carb intake in between each, so that the time for the carb-up (or “refeed”) comes when the body has completely depleted its glycogen stores. This ensures that all the extra carbs go towards replenishing those energy stores, rather than being converted and stored as fat.

carbs

Source

Average carbohydrate intake can be as low as 30 grams on low carb days and as high as 300-400 grams or more on high carb days. Some people cut starchy carbs completely on rest days and replace some of the lost calories with more protein and fat, but still usually end up with a large caloric deficit.

As there is so much conflicting nutritional information out there, it can be confusing to know whether or not you should cycle your carbs each day of the week.

Let’s break it down into a simple pros and cons list.

The pros:

  • Carb cycling is a more advanced nutritional strategy that produces great results in terms of body composition. This is because you take in carbs when you need them most, and limit them when you don’t. During the times you do not consume carbs, your body will – in theory – be fuelling itself with its fat stores. In this manner, you should be able to drop body fat while maintaining strength levels.
  • As an advanced nutritional strategy, it’s great for those who have been in a calorie deficit for a long time and have recently plateaued. Carb cycling will almost always reignite stalled fat loss.
  • It maximises the body’s natural demands for energy. Doing a heavy squats session requires a lot more energy than spending the day on the couch.
Carbs make me happy.

Carbs make me happy.

  • Many people respond well psychologically to high carb days. They function as a “light on the horizon”, which makes it easier to get through the low carb days that are an inevitable part of dieting. Conversely, if you keep your carbs the same across all days of the week, it can seem more like you are stuck in a long, miserable diet cycle.
  • You will likely drop a lot of water weight quickly, which will help with your motivation. However, it is important to realise that your weight will fluctuate much more than if you weren’t carb cycling, which can also have a demotivating effect.

The cons:

  • Carb cycling is complicated. First and foremost, you must count macros. While sometimes it is necessary to count macros for short periods, I don’t encourage macro tracking over the long term. I simply don’t think it’s necessary for fat loss and I also think there are better ways to spend your time than being glued to My Fitness Pal.
  • It can promote an unhealthy relationship with food, as you can become obsessively fixated on those high carb days. Most people overthink their diet and fitness enough as is; they don’t need any further encouragement. Promoting a somewhat restrictive diet followed by what is, essentially, a binge is problematic for those with histories of disordered eating.
  • While high carb days will feel like a party in your mouth, low carb days suck. There’s no way around this. I hate the feeling of being restricted to less than 100 grams of carbs a day, never mind 30 grams, so carb cycling is not for me.
The only time I can mentally cope with low carb days is when I'm cutting for a competition.

The only time I can mentally cope with extremely low carb days is when I’m cutting for a competition.

  • Individual differences in appetites and energy systems are not taken into account. For example, some people find that exercise suppresses their appetite and they actually feel hungrier on rest days, when their bodies are recovering. For those people, it makes less sense to eat the bulk of their calories on training days. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they should be eating more on rest days, either, but it suggests their intake should be more consistent day-to-day.
  • Cardio is not considered intense exercise. I personally find that I am always the hungriest on days I do cardio. As I’m burning up more glycogen, I crave more carbs. I would hate to be confined to a “rest day” level of carbs as defined by carb cycling protocols on those days. That said, I could happily survive a big training day with only one main carb meal – and I know that a lot of people equally hate the thought of that.
  • The stark contrast between low and high carb days can do a number on your digestive system. You will likely feel bloated after a high carb day as your body will not be used to the volume of food, and that can take away some of the fun.
  • Finally, it is not very flexible. What if you are invited to a dinner party last minute, but it doesn’t fall on one of your high carb days? Should you sit there avoiding all the delicious food, knowing that if the party was just one day later you could relax and enjoy yourself a little more? My answer to this question is no, but perhaps I’m just not strict enough. I recommend aiming for consistency, with space for one or two off-plan meals per week.

As always, I would encourage you to try carb cycling and monitor how your body responds. Although there are many negatives, many find that the positives outweigh them. Also remember that this is an advanced nutritional strategy. Beginners are better off sticking to an overall calorie deficit that remains consistent each day. There’s no need to make something more complicated than it needs to be. 

Have you ever tried carb cycling?

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