Carb Cycling Diet Plan: A Complete Guide on How to Carb Cycle

A carb cycling diet plan, or 'cyclic ketogenic diet', is a low carbohydrate diet with planned periods of moderate or high carbohydrate consumption.

This nutrition strategy has become a hot topic over the last number of years.

This article will show you how to create your own carb cycling diet plan while explaining how it works, along with the benefits and negatives of such a strategy. 

Carb cycling, like many of the modern protocols, goes against the traditional nutrition and dieting advice. Here's why;

Tradition tells us that we can only build muscle or lose fat, and never at the same time. This is because we must maintain a calorie deficit to lose fat and a calorie surplus to build muscle.

Then carb cycling diet plans came along and they were was sold to us as the ultimate method for rapid fat loss while building muscle.

Carb cycling therefore goes against the typical advice of fitness professionals and has therefore gained a lot of attention. 

What is carb cycling

Carb cycling, just like any protocol, can be easily simplified as: -

1. Throughout the week, you rotate high carb, moderate carb and low/no carb days;

2. All days require adequate protein intake; and

3. Your fat intake in inversely related to your carbohydrates intake.

How does carb cycling work

A carb cycling diet plan works by giving your body the fuel it needs to increase your metabolic capacity and work load via carbohydrates and optimize fat loss via a reduced carbohydrate diet.

It is seen as ‘the best of both worlds’.

There are a number of protocols that have been designed to manipulate the general set up of a carb cycling diet plan, but many will use all three types throughout the week. These are generally rotated daily, or cycled, but the most common set up is based on daily activity levels. 

The typical recommendations are: 

1. On days of high activity, you should consume moderate to high amounts of carbohydrates.

2. On days of moderate to no activity you should consume moderate to no amounts of carbohydrates.

A typical weekly breakdown would look like this: - 

Monday: Heavy weight training day > High carb 
Tuesday: Interval training day > Moderate carbs 
Wednesday: Rest day > Low carbs
Thursday: Heavy weight training day > High carbs 
Friday: Interval training day > Moderate carbs 
Saturday: Heavy weight training day > High Carbs 
Sunday: Rest day > Low carb 

Various carb cycling diet plans show differences in the detail, but overall it is nothing more than eating more carbohydrates on some days and eating fewer carbohydrates on other days. 

The heavy focus is placed on carbohydrates manipulation as it is considered to have the most influential effect on body composition and how you look, feel and perform. 

MODERATE TO HIGH CARB DAYS: - 

• Make you feel good and energized;
• Replenish glycogen stores that fuel muscle; and
• Stimulate an insulin response to create an anabolic environment for muscle retention and growth.

LOW TO NO CARB DAYS: - 

• Improve insulin sensitivity, making your body respond better to carbohydrates;
• Promote fat loss by tricking your body into burning fat for fuel; improved fat oxidization via reduced insulin levels; and
• Improve fat burning by reducing overall daily calories into a calorie deficit.

Creating your carb cycling diet plan

Most protocols do not require any macronutrient tracking or the use of calculators for carb cycling, as it is believed that this will naturally take care of itself throughout the basic manipulation of the carbohydrates.

The more advanced carb cycling diet plans will look at tracking calories and monitoring the macronutrient split for each of the different days.

Although these will all vary depending on your reading source, the general set up looks like this:

HIGH CARB DAYS

• Carbohydrates will be set between 2-2.5 grams per pound bodyweight;
• Protein intake will be set at 1 gram per pound bodyweight; and
• Fat will be set at 0-0.15 grams per pound bodyweight.

MODERATE CARB DAYS

• Carbohydrates will be set about 1.5 grams per pound bodyweight;
• Protein intake will be between 1-1.2 grams per pound bodyweight; and
• Fat intake will be set around 0.2 grams per pound bodyweight.

LOW CARB DAYS

• Carbohydrates will be set around 0.5 grams per pound bodyweight;
• Protein intake will usually increase to about 1.5 grams per pound bodyweight; and
• Fat intake will be set around 0.35 grams per pound bodyweight.

NO CARB DAYS

• Carbohydrates will be set to 30 grams or less per day;
• Protein will be around 1.5 grams per pound bodyweight; and
• Fat intake may be increased to 0.5-0.8 grams per pound bodyweight.

Once daily calories and macronutrient targets have been established, it is a case of suggesting ideal foods or meals to help the person reach their recommended numbers.

A carb cycling diet plan works by giving your body the fuel it needs to increase your metabolic capacity and work load via carbohydrates and optimize fat loss via a reduced carbohydrate diet.

A simple high carb day diet plan

Meal 1: Breakfast
2 whole eggs scrambled in coconut oil
Gluten free porridge with honey and fresh berries

Meal 2: Lunch
Homemade turkey burgers with serving of rice
3 rice cakes and a banana

Meal 3: Snack
Small baked potato topped with tuna and side salad

Meal 4: Workout Nutrition
Post workout shake: serving of protein powder blended with fresh berries, rice milk and large ripe banana

Meal 5: Evening Meal
Large chicken breast stuffed with sun-dried tomatoes wrapped in Parma ham, served with white jasmine rice Snack of choice

This would be a weight-training day.

A simple low carb day diet plan

Meal 1: Breakfast
4 whole eggs scrambled in coconut oil with spinach
Serving protein powder with greens powder

Meal 2: Lunch
Homemade turkey burgers with large side salad
Large handful of roasted mixed nuts

Meal 3: Snack
Small sweet potato topped with tuna and cheese

Meal 4: Evening Meal
Large chicken breast wrapped stuffed with olives wrapped in Parma ham, served with roasted seasonal vegetables topped with olive oil

This would be a non weight-training day.

The benefits of a carb cycling diet plan

A carb cycling diet plan is usually one that promotes a high protein diet while rotating carbohydrates and fats based on your activity levels.

It is therefore effective at ‘balancing’ a person’s diet to ensure they consume sufficient amounts of all three macronutrients. We know that by improving a person’s macro and micronutrient profile, we should see positive changes in body composition and health.

Carb cycling protocols, despite being simple, can become quite restrictive – if you eat high carb you must go low fat, if you eat low carbs you should go high fats. The benefit to this is that it is an effective way to ensure people are in a calorie deficit, whether it’s daily, weekly or even monthly, this will result in weight loss.

This is why this protocol is typically suggested for, and used by, those with an intermediate to advanced nutrition knowledge level who are seeking fat loss results.

Another benefit is that people can see results without needing to track calories or daily macronutrient numbers, providing they stick to the basic principles and guidelines. This is an effective ‘loose’ style of dieting that many people find they prefer to follow.

It also serves as a good tool for people to learn more about how certain macronutrients affect them because of the large variations between the high, medium, low and potentially no carbohydrate days. Following this protocol can help people find their ‘ideal’ macronutrient split quite quickly.

Many people will find they look, feel and perform better on one of the days over the others and this usually suggests they are better suited to this macronutrient breakdown. If this is the case, from experience it’s best to ditch the carb cycling diet plan and adapt the preferred macronutrient breakdown daily.

After all, don’t we want our clients to look, feel and perform awesome every single day?

The negatives of a carb cycling diet plan

Enthusiasts of a carb cycling diet plan (usually the ones selling a book) state that it does increase fat burning more than traditional dieting (calorie control) by combining the benefits of high and low carb days to ensure metabolic capacity and accelerated fat loss.

There is a lot of anecdotal evidence to show this protocol can get people very lean quickly, but we must look at the research to understand how this occurs and if it is any better than other approaches.

A key component of carb cycling is that due to its low carb approach, we will see greater fat loss as a result. A study was conducted to test if this would be the case for a ketogenic-based diet vs. a traditional diet. (1)

In this study, 20 overweight adults were randomly assigned to one of two diets:

1. A ketogenic diet (low carbohydrate), which consisted of 60% calories from fat, 35% from protein and only 5% from carbohydrates.
2. A traditional diet which consisted of 30% calories from fat, 30% from protein and 40% from carbohydrates.

At this point it is important to remember the 3 key reasons why we should use carb cycling techniques: -

1. To burn more body fat;
2. To improve insulin sensitivity (nutrient portioning); and
3. Keep metabolic capacity when dieting.

Based on this the findings from the study were: -

1. No significant difference in weight loss between groups;
2. Insulin sensitivity was improved in both groups (it is therefore a caloric deficit that improves this); and
3. Hunger, energy and cravings ratings went up for both groups, suggesting no metabolic benefit to the low carb approach.

It therefore appears that the micro managing details of many carb cycling diet plans will not result in enhanced benefits over traditional calorie controlled diets. (2)(3)

From my own coaching experience this appears to be the case too. I have been able to get myself and clients equally lean without the need to use a carb cycling protocol.

On paper it makes sense, but there is little research to support it and it appears to be making the whole process more complicated than it needs to be.

As already mentioned, carb cycling diet plans can also be even more restrictive than traditional approaches. Having a low or no carb day is difficult and can leave many people with increased cravings, thus leading to reduced dietary compliance.

Remember, the best diet is one that you can stick to.

The low carb days can also prove difficult for those conducting high intensity training 4+ times a week. This pushes training days onto low/no carb days which can reduce performance.

Furthermore, some people find they cannot replenish glycogen levels sufficiently in the short high carb opportunity. A more traditional approach would suit these people.

Conclusion 

A carb cycling diet plan can be a good protocol for those who want an easy and simple set of guidelines to follow when seeking body composition changes.

Also it can quickly help people understand what their body wants in terms of macronutrient breakdown and what they do best on.

Aside from this, little evidence exists to suggest it will change body composition any quicker than traditional methods.

Lastly, taking everything into consideration, it can become quite a difficult protocol to follow.