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Let me introduce you to a powerful fat-loss tool often neglected across the fitness spectrum: Carb Cycling.

What Is Carb Cycling

Carb cycling is a method of dieting that involves planned increases and decreases in carbohydrate intake throughout the week, and for it to work, you need to set and track your calories correctly and follow a carb-cycling meal plan (which I will explain later in this article.)

Carb cycling involves three primary types of days, each with distinct carbohydrate intake levels:

  • High-carb days typically entail consuming 4.4 to 5.5 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight or 50+% of calories from carbs. They are usually your highest-calorie days.
  • Low-carb days: The recommended carbohydrate intake is about 1 gram per kilogram of body weight or 20+% of calories from carbs. They rank as your second-highest calorie days.
  • No-carb days entail consuming less than 50 grams of carbohydrates or less than 10% of calories from carbs. They are usually your lowest-calorie days.

However, not all carb cycling protocols involve no-carb days; I don’t recommend this approach for most active individuals.

The concept may seem intricate, as far as dietary strategies go, and it demands meticulous meal planning and unwavering adherence, which many people find physically and mentally challenging.

The Carbohydrate Dilemma

Carbs often receive conflicting opinions due to their dual effects on our bodies.

On the one hand, they support muscle growth by fueling workouts and creating an anabolic environment. On the other hand, they can lead to fat storage by spiking insulin levels, which prompts glucose storage as body fat.

We require carbs to accelerate muscle and strength gains but fear the consequences of an expanding waistline.

Enter carb cycling, promising to deliver the muscle-building benefits of carbs while minimizing the drawbacks of fat gain, achieved through higher-calorie high-carb days, which serve several purposes:

  • They replenish glycogen stores and boost training intensity.
  • It favourably impacts various hormones related to muscle protein synthesis and metabolism.
  • It temporarily elevates insulin levels to preserve muscle tissue and promote muscle growth.

Conversely, lower-calorie, low- and no-carb days can maximize fat burning.

Carb cycling is attractive to those following a ketogenic diet, with carb intake typically limited to less than 50 grams daily. Incorporating high-carb days into the routine can make the experience more enjoyable.

In theory, carb cycling should enable us to build muscle with minimal fat gain or, even better, build muscle while simultaneously losing fat – a seemingly miraculous prospect. However, upon closer examination, this promise appears more like a mirage.

How Does Carb Cycling Work

Any dietary plan maintaining a calorie deficit over an extended period will lead to weight loss, regardless of the specific foods consumed or the meal structure.

Simply put, you will lose weight if you consistently consume fewer calories than you burn.

However, carb cycling is not merely promoted as “just another way” to lose weight; it is often touted as the ultimate weight loss method. The “secret” of fitness elites and the “best way to drop pounds fast.”

Where things get complicated

We need to differentiate between weight loss and fat loss.

When you follow a weight loss diet, not only fat is lost, but also water, glycogen (stored carbohydrates), and, in some cases, muscle mass.

Dietary factors and other variables influence water and glycogen level fluctuations, so they are not the main focus. The goal is to target fat loss while preserving muscle mass, as this improves overall body composition.

Now, let’s tie this back to carb cycling.

At its core, carb cycling is a carbohydrate-restricted diet. While it may accelerate weight loss, it doesn’t necessarily lead to more significant fat loss.

For instance, if a traditional “40/40/20” bodybuilding diet recommends consuming, let’s say, 1,500 grams of carbohydrates per week, a carb cycling diet might limit intake to half that amount or even less.

In the short term, low-carb diets might show faster weight loss than traditional diets (although not always), but they don’t necessarily result in superior fat loss.

Yes, that’s right. Low-carb diets are not inherently better for fat loss than higher-carb diets, at least for most healthy individuals. Though low-carb advocates often cite some studies as proof of their approach’s superiority for fat loss, a closer look reveals a different story.

A key issue with many of these studies lies in protein intake. Low-carb diets in these studies typically involve higher protein intake than their higher-carb counterparts. Essentially, we end up comparing a high-protein, low-carb diet against a low-protein, higher-carb diet, and the former tends to result in more weight and fat loss consistently.

One might question whether the lower fat loss in the high-carb group is due to lower carb or higher protein intake. Several studies have addressed this question, and the research shows that when protein intake is high and matched between low- and high-carb diets, there’s no significant difference in weight loss.

To illustrate, a study conducted at Arizona State University divided 20 overweight participants into two groups: Group one followed a ketogenic diet with around 30 grams of carbs daily. Group two followed a higher-carb diet with about 160 grams of carbs daily. Both groups consumed the same amount of calories (1,500 per day) from the same foods, engaged in the same amount of exercise, and lived under similar conditions. The scientists designed the meal plans to ensure both groups received the same protein.

The study concluded that with protein intake matched between the two groups, there was no significant difference in muscle or fat loss after six weeks.

Ironically, the high-carb group showed a slight trend towards slightly more fat loss, and the ketogenic diet group reported feeling worse, having lower energy levels, and being less motivated to move around.

In summary, both groups lost the same amount of weight because they consumed the same number of calories, and both groups lost the same amount of fat because they consumed the same amount of protein. Protein plays a significant role in preserving muscle mass and supporting fat loss, regardless of whether you follow a low-carb or high-carb approach.

Is Carb Cycling Good for Building Muscle?

Absolutely, as long as you consume enough food and engage in effective workouts, you can build muscle.

However, carb cycling doesn’t offer any unique advantages for muscle building. It is less conducive to building muscle than traditional dieting because of its limitations on carbohydrate intake.

Consuming ample carbohydrates is essential for several reasons when your goal is muscle growth. Firstly, carbohydrates are stored in the muscles and liver as glycogen, crucial in improving workout performance. Higher carb diets help maintain elevated glycogen levels, allowing for better strength and energy during workouts, leading to progressive muscle overload and, ultimately, muscle growth. Secondly, carbs impact insulin, which possesses powerful anti-catabolic properties. Insulin slows down the breakdown of muscle proteins, creating an environment more favourable for muscle growth.

Multiple studies have demonstrated that high-carb diets are superior to low-carb diets for promoting muscle and strength gains. For instance, a study by Ball State University revealed that low muscle glycogen levels resulting from low-carb dieting impair post-workout cell signalling related to muscle growth.

Another study from the University of North Carolina found that following a low-carb diet increased resting cortisol levels (a catabolic hormone) and decreased free testosterone levels (an anabolic hormone), which is unfavourable for muscle building.

Similarly, a study by the University of Rhode Island showed that individuals on a low-carb diet experienced more exercise-induced muscle damage, slower recovery, and lower muscle protein synthesis compared to those on a high-carb diet, even though the “low-carbs” were still consuming a significant amount of carbs daily.

Moreover, research from McMaster University comparing high- and low-carb dieting on subjects doing daily leg workouts found that individuals on a low-carb diet had higher muscle protein breakdown, lower muscle protein synthesis, and built less muscle than those on a high-carb diet.

For optimal muscle and strength gains, I generally recommend a high-carb diet. Consequently, carb cycling may not be the most effective muscle-building approach.

However, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider carb cycling if it aligns with your preferences. Suppose you enjoy consuming more fat than carbs while lean bulking, carb cycling might suit you.

How to Make a Carb Cycling Meal Plan

Now that we have a realistic perspective on carb cycling and have adjusted our expectations let’s delve into how to implement it. I recommend starting with a basic carb cycling plan that involves rotating between two levels of carb intake:

  1. High-carb day
  2. Low-carb day

While some carb cycling protocols include a day with fewer than 50 grams of carbs (a no-carb day), I advise against this approach as it can make compliance significantly harder with minimal practical benefits.

To set up a carb cycling diet for fat loss, follow these guidelines

  • Aim for five low-carb days and two high-carb days in a week.
  • You can place your high-carb days on any day and move them around from week to week. However, scheduling them on or before your most challenging workout days is beneficial.

How the weekly plan could look

  • Monday: High-carb day
  • Tuesday: Low-carb day
  • Wednesday: Low-carb day
  • Thursday: Low-carb day
  • Friday: Low-carb day
  • Saturday: Low-carb day
  • Sunday: High-carb day

And repeat the cycle.

Remember that even with carb cycling, you must plan and track your calorie and macronutrient intake to ensure desired results.

Start by determining your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE). If you’re unsure how to calculate calorie deficits and TDEE, refer to a guide on this topic.

Once you have your TDEE, set up your calorie deficits for both low-carb and high-carb days:

  • On low-carb days, aim for a 25% calorie deficit.
  • On high-carb days, aim for a 10% calorie deficit.

For example, if your TDEE is around 3,000 calories, your low-carb day’s calorie intake would be approximately 2,250, and your high-carb day’s information would be around 2,700.

Now, distribute your macronutrients based on the following guidelines:

  • Keep your protein intake at 1.6-2.2g per kilogram in body weight
    (or 40% of total calories if you are a man with over 20% body fat or a woman with over 30% body fat).
  • On high-carb days, get 50% of your calories from carbohydrates.
  • On low-carb days, get 20% of your calories from carbohydrates.
  • The remaining calories should come from fats.

For example, a high-carb day’s meal plan might look like this:

  • 195 grams of protein
  • 330 grams of carbs
  • 65 grams of fat
  • (For a total of about 2,700 calories.)

A low-carb day’s meal plan might look like this:

  • 195 grams of protein
  • 105 grams of carbs
  • 115 grams of fat
  • (For a total of about 2,300 calories.)

Once you have calculated your numbers, create a meal plan for high- and low-carb days and stick to the program, alternating between them according to the weekly rotation above.

Carb cycling for fat loss can be straightforward with careful planning and consistency.

Set Up a Carb Cycling Diet to Build Muscle or Maintain Muscle

If you plan to use carb cycling for bulking or maintaining your current body composition, a few adjustments to your calorie and macro intake are required.

I suggest a 4:3 ratio of high-carb days to low-carb days, meaning four high-carb and three low-carb days in a week.

The low-carb days will help reduce water retention, giving you a leaner appearance, while the additional high-carb day supports your training and muscle gain or retention. On low-carb days, you can also consume more fat and protein.

Your low- and high-carb days don’t necessarily need to be consecutive. Some people prefer following three low-carb days with four high-carb days, while others stagger them based on their performance in the gym, such as having two high-carb days, one low-carb day, two high-carb days, and two low-carb days.

If your workout sessions occur in the evening, you should schedule most of your high-carb days on days you lift weights and most of your low-carb days on non-training days (though some training days may still coincide with low-carb days).

Suppose you work out in the morning or afternoon, as I do. In that case, it’s best to have high-carb days preceding your training days as much as possible, allowing time for your muscle glycogen levels to rise, positively impacting your performance.

When calculating your calories, follow these guidelines:

  • If lean bulking, set your daily intake to 110% of your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE). For more information on proper lean bulking, refer to this article.
  • If you maintain your current body composition, set your daily intake to 100% of your TDEE.

Now, for the macros:

  • Your protein intake should always remain at 1.6-2.2g per kilogram of body weight.
  • Aim to get 50% of your calories from carbohydrates on high-carb days.
  • Aim to get 25% of your calories from carbohydrates on low-carb days.
  • The remaining calories should come from fat.

For example, let’s consider a high-carb day for maintenance:

  • 195 grams of protein
  • 375 grams of carbs
  • 80 grams of fat
  • (Totals approximately 3,000 calories.)

And a low-carb day:

  • 195 grams of protein
  • 185 grams of carbs
  • 165 grams of fat
  • (Also totalling around 3,000 calories.)

Once you calculate your numbers, create a meal plan and adhere to it consistently. With proper planning and adherence, carb cycling for bulking or maintenance can be a practical approach.

High-Carb Foods for a Carb Cycling

If you’ve been following a low-carb or keto diet and are unsure about incorporating a high-carb diet, I completely understand your concerns. Transitioning to a cyclical diet where your meal plan and macros change throughout the week can be challenging, especially when figuring out what foods to eat daily to meet your carbohydrate goals.

To make it easier for you, I’d like to share some of my favourite high-carb foods that I often include when setting up a high-carb menu for myself or my clients:


  • Sweet potatoes
  • White potatoes
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Garbanzo beans
  • Beets
  • Corn
  • Lima beans
  • Parsnips
  • Peas
  • Pumpkin


  • Bananas
  • Grapes
  • Apples
  • Mangos (dried or fresh)
  • Blueberries
  • Strawberries
  • Melons (all kinds)
  • Plums
  • Pears
  • Oranges
  • Grapefruit
  • Pineapples
  • Cherries
  • Kiwis
  • Apricots (dried or fresh)
  • Raisins
  • Peaches


  • Oats
  • Brown rice
  • White rice
  • Barley
  • Quinoa
  • Bulgur
  • Whole grain bread
  • Pasta

And, of course, I also like to save some treats for my high-carb days, such as ice cream, chocolate, jam, and pancakes.

By incorporating these high-carb foods into your meal plan on your designated high-carb days, you can quickly meet your carbohydrate requirements and make your carb cycling journey more enjoyable and satisfying.


Carb cycling is a dieting approach that involves planned variations in carbohydrate intake throughout the week and possible adjustments in overall calorie intake.

In most carb cycling protocols, high-carb days are included where a significant portion of daily calories comes from carbohydrates. In contrast, low-carb days are implemented with reduced carb intake and increased protein and fat consumption.

The concept behind carb cycling revolves around the belief that carbs have positive and negative impacts on body composition. On the one hand, they are beneficial for muscle growth as they fuel workouts and create an anabolic environment. On the other hand, they are associated with fat storage due to insulin spikes and glucose storage.

However, this premise is not entirely accurate. 

The primary factors influencing weight and fat loss during cutting are the number of calories consumed and protein intake, not the manipulation of insulin levels through carb cycling or low-carb dieting. Interestingly, protein intake can stimulate insulin release as much or even more than carbs.

Regarding muscle growth, a high-carb diet generally yields better results for gaining muscle and strength compared to a low-carb diet, and carb cycling doesn’t provide any specific advantages in building muscle.

Despite this, if you find that carb cycling helps you adhere to your diet plan better by allowing more flexibility in consuming protein and fat on specific days, there’s nothing wrong with using this approach during cutting or lean bulking.

A recommended low-carb to high-carb day ratio is 5:2 for fat loss with carb cycling, meaning five low-carb days and two high-carb days within a week.

Setting your calories and macros for cutting with carb cycling

  • Aim for a 25% calorie deficit on low-carb days and a 10% on high-carb days.
  • Maintain your protein intake at 1 gram per pound of body weight (or 40% of total calories if you’re over 20% body fat as a man or 30% as a woman).
  • Aim to get 50% of your calories from high-carb days from carbohydrates.
  • Aim to get 20% of your calories on low-carb days from carbohydrates.
  • The remaining calories should come from fat.

For gaining muscle and strength with carb cycling while maintaining or increasing your body weight, a recommended high-carb to low-carb day ratio is 4:3, meaning four high-carb days and three low-carb days per week.

Setting your calories and macros for lean bulking or maintaining with carb cycling

  • If you lean bulking, set your daily intake to 110% of your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE).
  • If you maintain, set your daily intake to 100% of your TDEE.
  • Keep your protein intake at 1.6-2.2g per kilogram in body weight.
  • Aim to get 50% of your calories from high-carb days from carbohydrates.
  • Aim to get 25% of your calories on low-carb days from carbohydrates.
  • The remaining calories should come from fat.

Once your numbers are figured out, create meal plans for low- and high-carb days and consistently follow them. By adhering to your plan, you can expect to see positive changes in your body composition.

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