variety of baked breads

Carb Cycling: Does It Work?

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You’re likely up to speed on how important calorie control is when it comes to increasing fat loss, but carb cycling is essentially the next step for accelerating that process. It’s understandable that many people just assume that the best way to lose fat is to eliminate carbs from their diet altogether.

However, going “no-carb” isn’t necessary, nor would it be optimal, for fast fat loss. Bear in mind that reducing the amount of carbohydrate in your diet isn’t the same thing as reducing your calories; unknown to many low-carb dieters, they mainly drop weight so rapidly because they are cutting calories at the same time, losing both muscle and water weight.

So yes, cutting carbs will help, but it’s not the solution to fat loss. This guide will explain exactly what carb cycling is, how it works physiologically, and how to create your very own carb-cycling regimen to cut off that unwanted body-fat, fast!

What Is Carb Cycling Exactly?

assortment of different breads

Carb cycling is, quite simply, a dietary protocol that regulates your daily carbohydrate intake throughout the week. The general terminology for how many carbs to consume on certain days is as follows:

  • No-Carb Day
    • The word “no” in this case means you aim to take in no starch or other direct carb sources. It is acceptable and likely that you will still ingest some carbohydrates from vegetables and certain fat sources, but the amount will be rather trivial. For example, taking in less than 5% of your total calorie intake from carbs is completely acceptable.
  • Low-Carb Day
    • A beginning point for low-carb days is to aim for 25% of your total calorie intake in the form of carbohydrates. More insulin sensitive individuals may be able to consume upwards of 35% on these days and still lose significant body fat.
  • High-Carb Day
    • On these days, you basically get to splurge a bit and eat a generous amount of carbs. Start by aiming for 40% of your total calorie intake from carbohydrates on these days, and eating slightly more calories overall.

Depending on how well your body handles carbohydrates, you may have to adjust the actual amount of carbs you take in on low and high-carb days. Listen to your body and monitor your progress so you can fine-tune as you go along.

The Science of Carb Cycling: Why It Works

Cycling your carb intake is simply a vehicle for regulating hormonal production in your body, and thus metabolic rate. The most significant hormonal changes that come from sustained energy deprivation is the reductions of thyroid hormones and the hormone leptin.

Your metabolic rate is affected by these hormonal alterations for two reasons. First, leptin’s main role is modulating how many calories you burn every day, as well as influencing how many calories you eat. Second, thyroid hormones interact with nearly every cell in your body to regulate metabolic rate. Hence, when thyroid levels drop, your metabolic rate will too.

This is where carbs work their magic since they have specifically been shown to impart a strong stimulatory effect on metabolism, leptin production, and thyroid activity (even in the short-term). Hopefully, now you can see why never eating carbs can actually be counterproductive for losing fat.

cable curls at the gym

What happens to your body when you cut calories

The human body is smart, and it knows exactly how much energy it needs, so there is a bit of a conundrum we are all faced with: fat loss requires us to burn more calories than we consume, but if you do that for a long period of time the body adapts by reducing metabolic rate.

Reducing metabolic rate is an essential biological mechanism; intuitively, it wouldn’t make much sense for your body to burn more energy when provisions are limited. 

Contrary to popular opinion, if you are looking to shred body fat, you want to have an inefficient metabolism. An inefficient metabolism will require more energy than an efficient one. Still confused how that makes sense?

Metabolism efficiency explained

A good way to think of this is as your metabolism being a vehicle and food is your fuel source; you want a less efficient vehicle as it will need more gas to travel the same distance as a more efficient vehicle. So in metaphorical terms, if you’re going to eat more (e.g. maximize the amount of gas you need to get from A to B), you better decrease your metabolic efficiency…or start shopping for a Hummer.  

Ultimately, the less efficient your metabolism is, the more you can eat throughout the process of shedding off unwanted body fat. Thus, the best solution to avoid reductions in metabolic rate is to increase energy intake, particularly from carbohydrates, for a brief period to help increase your metabolism and fat-burning hormone levels. This is precisely why this guide incorporates a high-carb day each week.

carb cycling on a notebook

Determine Your Daily Caloric and Macronutrient Needs

Whichever weight category you fall into, those will be the number of calories and macronutrients you will aim for on the given days.

Weight (lbs)Calorie GoalNo-Carb Day MacrosLow-Carb Day Macros
100-120 lbs1,500 170/20/85150/94/58
121-140 lbs1,700 193/23/96170/107/66
141-160 lbs1,900 216/26/107190/120/74
161-180 lbs2,100239/29/118210/133/82
181-200 lbs2,300262/32/129230/146/90
201-220 lbs2,400273/34/135240/153/94
221-240 lbs2,500285/35/140250/160/98
241-260 lbs2,600297/36/146260/166/102
261+ lbs2,700309/38/157270/172/106

***Macros given as grams of Protein/Carbohydrate/Fat

High-Carb Day Calorie and Macronutrient Breakdown:

Weight (lbs)Calorie GoalHigh-Carb Day Macros
100-120 lbs2,000 150/250/56
121-140 lbs2,200 165/275/60
141-160 lbs2,400 170/300/64
161-180 lbs2,600185/325/68
181-200 lbs2,800200/350/72
201-220 lbs2,900208/368/74
221-240 lbs3,000216/381/76
241-260 lbs3,100224/394/78
261+ lbs3,200232/407/80

***Macros given as grams of Protein/Carbohydrate/Fat

The Diet Rotation

  • No-Carb Days: 3 per week
  • Low-Carb Days: 3 per week
  • High-Carb/Refeed Days: 1 per week

Diet rotation (Starting on Monday)

MondayTuesdayWednesdayThursdayFridaySaturdaySunday
Low-CarbLow-CarbNo-CarbNo-CarbNo-CarbHigh-CarbLow-Carb  

Keep track of everything you put in your mouth. Make sure you’re weighing out your portions and reading food labels, so you have the proper serving size measurements. There are many apps available nowadays, such as MyFitnessPal, that easily allows you to log your food intake.

You should aim to eat 4-6 meals per day! Simply spread out your calorie and macronutrient intake accordingly. Don’t worry if you indulge just a little bit here and there, the most important thing is to be meeting your calorie and macronutrient intake at the end of the day!

Lastly, don’t freak out if you happen to be just a bit off from your calorie and macronutrient goals at the end of the day. If your goal is to eat 1600 calories, but you end up eating around 1650 calories, don’t sweat it. Just make up the difference the next day by eating a little less. Nobody is perfect, and it is simply doing you more harm than good by worrying over such a small matter.

Exercise Considerations

Hopefully, you didn’t make it this far and think that exercise wasn’t part of the plan. As awesome as it would be to cut fat while sitting on the couch all day, that’s just not going to happen (at least not in a sustainable fashion). But don’t worry, you don’t have to train like a bodybuilder or anything just to cut off body-fat.

Even just a few high-intensity workouts per week will do wonders for enhancing the fat loss process. In fact, studies show that as little as 10-15 minutes of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) 3 times per week is more effective for fat loss than doing one hour of low-intensity cardio 5 times per week.

high intensity interval training

Not sure how to perform HIIT? No problem. Below is a simple outline of how you can perform a quick, effective HIIT workout with or without access to a gym:

  1. Warm up with 5-10 minutes of light jogging
  2. Sprint as fast as possible for 15-20 seconds
  3. Walk for 45-60 seconds until you are fully recovered
  4. Repeat steps 2 and 3 for between 5-10 intervals (aim to improve your capacity over time)
  5. Cool down with 5 minutes of stretching

You can and should also incorporate at least three sessions of resistance training each week if possible. If you’re not familiar with how to set up a weight training program, be sure to check out our many training guides.

A great example workout schedule would look like this:

MondayTuesdayWednesdayThursdayFridaySaturdaySunday
20 Minutes HIITWeight TrainingWeight Training20 Minutes HIITWeight Training20 Minutes HIITRest Day

Bringing It All Together

Using the information in this guide and putting it to use will surely help you shed unwanted body fat. Remember, stick to the diet and be consistent with your exercise routine. You shouldn’t feel “deprived” at any point thanks to the carb cycling and high-carb days.

Do you have experience using carb cycling? We would love to hear your experiences in the comments!

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Elliot Reimers

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