Welcome to the 2020 edition of the Ultimate Guide to Carbohydrate Cycling! In this comprehensive guide I’m going to help you understand everything you need to know to reap the full benefits of carbohydrate cycling.
We’ll go over everything from a primer on what carbohydrate cycling is, to figuring out how to calculate your macro requirements, when it’s beneficial to eat certain types of carbs, and common mistakes to avoid.
So if you’re ready to build that Greek God like physique or are just looking to slim down your waistline then let’s get started!
What Is Carbohydrate Cycling and How It Can Lead To Rapid Fat Loss
Carbohydrate cycling is a method of dieting that involves planned increases and decreases in carbohydrate intake as well as planned increases and decreases in your caloric intake. You repeat this process until you have reached your desired goals.
On your lower carb days you’ll eat a higher amount of fat and on higher carb days you’ll eat a lower amount of fat. Protein remains high and consistent throughout the process.
We’ll cover how to calculate your macronutrients (macros, protein, carbs, and fat) a little later in this article.
What Are The Benefits Of Carbohydrate Cycling
There are many benefits from carbohydrate cycling. Here are some of the benefits you can expect to see
- Lose Fat Fast
- Build Muscle
- Reverse Insulin Resistance
- Lower A1C
- It’s less restrictive so you won’t have to worry about restricting your food choices as much as some other nutrition strategies like keto, paleo, vegan, etc.
- It’s easy to learn and follow but it does take some discipline especially on the lower carb days.
How Does Carbohydrate Cycling Work
Earlier we briefly discussed what carbohydrate cycling is and how the diet is structured. You will cycle between high and low carb days as well as high fat days and low fat days while keeping protein consistent. So how does this help you to build muscle and lose fat?
When you eat carbohydrates, regardless if they’re fast digesting or slow digesting your blood sugar levels will rise. Depending on the type of carbohydrate and how much you consume will determine how much your blood sugar levels will spike.
When your blood sugar levels spike your body’s pancreas will release insulin to bring blood sugar levels back down to normal.
The problem here is that if you’re constantly slamming carbs all day your body’s blood sugar and insulin levels will always be elevated.
When insulin is present in the bloodstream your body goes from fat burning mode to fat storing mode. So even if you’re in a caloric deficit you can find yourself struggling to lose weight due to this scenario. Carbohydrate cycling helps to prevent this from happening.
Another thing of importance to note is that your body will store excess carbohydrates as glycogen in little stores inside of your muscles. So our bodies not only store fat as stored energy but it also stores carbs in the form of glycogen in the muscles.
A problem that can happen when you eat too many carbs is that these glycogen storage containers get full and once they’re full they can no longer store more glycogen. The excess carbs then “spill over” back into the bloodstream and can be stored as fat.
Carbohydrate cycling also helps to solve this problem by helping to empty out these containers on your low carb days.
By eating an ample amount of protein you are giving your muscles the nutrients they need to become big and strong.
Eating Smaller Meals More Frequently
The first thing to note is that when you begin carbohydrate cycling, you are beginning to create consistency in your nutrition. What do I mean by this?
Instead of just eating something random when you’re hungry, you have already planned out your meals for the day. The best way to approach this type of diet is by consuming 5 to 6 smaller meals throughout the day. There are many benefits to structuring your diet like this.
The first benefit is that you are giving your body a consistent stream of nutrients. This keeps our bodies in an anabolic state which is necessary to help burn fat and build muscle.
An analogy I like to use is the IV drip in the hospital. Why don’t they just squeeze the whole bag in one shot instead of having it on a drip? It’s so the nutrients can be continuously delivered over time.
The second benefit to eating smaller meals throughout the day is that it helps to stabilize your blood sugar levels. We want to avoid large spikes in our blood sugar levels. When your blood sugar spikes your body releases insulin to return your blood sugar levels back to normal. The problem here is that when insulin is present in the bloodstream your body goes from fat burning mode to fat storing mode. This can lead to a condition known as insulin resistance which will make losing fat much harder and could ultimately lead to Type 2 Diabetes. More on this later.
The third benefit is that every time you eat, your body needs to do work to break down the food you just ate. This process is known as the thermic effect of food (TEF) or dietary induced thermogenesis (DIT), which is the amount of energy expenditure above the basal metabolic rate due to the cost of processing food for use and storage. So essentially eating smaller meals more often helps to increase your metabolism.
Finally another great benefit to eating smaller meals more often is that it helps to prevent you from snacking on non nutritious foods. It’s a lot easier to stick to your diet and avoid snacking when you know another meal is just around the corner.
What Is Insulin Resistance
Insulin resistance is a condition where your body stops responding to insulin as well as it used to and it takes more and more of it to bring your blood sugar levels back to normal. When you eat an excess amount of carbs your body is constantly producing insulin to keep up with the demand.
Over time this can cause the cells to become desensitized to insulin requiring more of it to work. It also takes longer for it to work. While insulin is present in the bloodstream your body will go from fat burning mode to fat storing mode.
This can make losing weight very difficult and could ultimately lead to Type 2 Diabetes. This is definitely something we want to avoid at all cost. Fortunately insulin resistance is reversible in most cases without the need for drugs. The answer is to lower your carb intake or to cycle your carb intake to give your body a break.
How To Calculate Your Macros
The foods that you eat are made up of protein, carbs, and fat known as macronutrients or more affectionately known as macros. Determining how many of each you should consume daily is a simple process but does require a little math (eek!).
Here I’ll show you how to calculate your own macro needs. There are also calculators available on this website that can do these calculations for you to help take the guesswork out.
One thing to note is that this is just a starting point. This is not the holy grail and the end all be all. You can use these numbers to get started but be prepared to tweak them along the way depending on how well your body is responding.
Step 1 – Calculate Your Daily Caloric Needs For Fat Loss
Step 1a – Calculate Your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR)
First you need to calculate your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR). This is the amount of calories your body needs each day just to survive.
66 + (6.3 x body weight in lbs.) + (12.9 x height in inches) – (6.8 x age in years) = BMR
655 + (4.3 x weight in lbs.) + (4.7 x height in inches) – (4.7 x age in years) = BMR
Example: 37 year od male who is 200lbs and 5 foot 9 inches tall
66 + (6.3 x 200) + (12.9 x 69) – (6.8 x 37)
66 + (1260) + (890) – (252)
Step 1b – Calculate Daily Maintenance Calories
Now that we’ve determined our BMR we need to use a multiplier to factor in our daily activity level.
If you are sedentary (little or no exercise) : BMR x 1.2
If you are lightly active (light exercise/sports 1-3 days/week) : BMR x 1.375
If you are moderately active (moderate exercise/sports 3-5 days/week): BMR x 1.55
If you are very active (hard exercise/sports 6-7 days a week) : BMR x 1.725
If you are extra active (very hard exercise/sports & physical job or 2x training) : BMR x 1.9
For this example I’m going to say our 37 year old male has a moderate activity level so we’ll take his BRM of 1964 calories and multiply it by 1.55 to get our daily maintenance calories.
Daily Maintenance Calories: 1964 X 1.55 = 3044 calories.
Step 1c – Calculate Daily Calories For Fat Loss
When starting out on a weight loss journey it’s best to start with small deficits in the beginning. The goal is to be able to eat as many calories as possible while still losing weight. This way if you plateau you can cut some more. If you start with a large deficit to begin with you’ll be in trouble when you plateau and won’t have anywhere to go from there.
When starting out it’s good to start anywhere from a 250 – 500 calorie deficit. For this example we’ll start nice and slow with a 250 calorie deficit, Do this for a week and see how you progress. If you lose weight, great! It’s working! If you stay the same or even gain a little then drop another 100 calories a week until you start to see the scale moving in the right direction.
Since we’re taking a carbohydrate cycling approach it’s also beneficial to cycle your calories as well. Typically when carbohydrate cycling you would typically structure your higher carb days to be on higher intensity workout days and your lower carb days would be on off days or less intense training days.
So for higher carb days we’ll use a deficit of 250 calories and on lower carb days we’ll use a deficit of 350 calories.
Daily Calories For Fat Loss
High Carb Days: 3044 – 250 = 2794 calories.
Low Carb Days: 3044 – 350 = 2694 calories.
Step 2 – Calculate Your Macros
Now that we’ve determined how many calories we need to eat in a day, we can calculate how much protein, carbs, and fat we need. Before we get started I want to point out the amount of calories in each gram of macronutrient. This will be helpful later.
- Protein: 1g = 4 calories
- Carbs: 1g = 4 calories
- Fat: 1g = 9 calories
As you can see protein and carbs each contain 4 calories per gram and fat is more nutrient dense with 9 calories per gram.
Step 2a – Calculate Protein
Calculating the protein is the easy part. This number remains consistent throughout the process. A good rule of thumb is to eat 1.25g of protein per pound of bodyweight. This is true for both males and females. So for our 200lb male example he will be eating 200g of protein a day.
Calories From Protein: 240g protein x 4 calories per gram = 960 calories.
Step 2b – Calculate Carbs
Calculating the carbs is a little more tricky. Carbs and fats are usually the macros that will need the most amount of tweaking since everybody responds differently to each. People who are sensitive to carbs will require less while people who are not will require a little more. We are also splitting this up into high and low carb days. Below I’ve listed out a good guide for people to get started. Again these numbers can be tweaked but this should be a good starting point.
Ectomorph (People who are naturally skinny)
Low Carb Days: 30%
High Carb Days: 50%
Mesomorph (People who have a natural lean, muscular build)
Low Carb Days: 25%
High Carb Days: 45%
Endomorph (People who gain fat easily)
Low Carb Days: 20%
High Carb Days: 40%
This is what the carbs for our example 200lb male who is an endomorph would look like,
Total Carbs Formula: (Remaining calories x high carb percent) = Calories from carbs / calories per gram of carbs = total carbs in grams
High Carb Days
Remaining Calories after Protein: 1834
Total Carbs: (1834 x 0.4) = 733.6 / 4 = 183g
Low Carb Days
Remaining Calories after Protein: 1734
Total Carbs: (1734 x 0.2) = 346.8 / 4 = 86.7g
Step 2c – Calculate Fat
Calculating the fat is also pretty easy. We just take the remaining calories after calculating the protein and the carbs and we can determine our fat for both the high and low carb days.
Again we’ll be using our 200lb male endomorph as our example.
Total Fat Formula: Remaining Calories / calories per gram of fat = total fat in grams
High Carb Day
Remaining Calories after Protein and Carbs: (1834 – 733.6) = 1100.4 calories
Total Fat = 1100.4 / 9 = 122.2g
Low Carb Day
Remaining Calories after Protein and Carbs: (1734 – 346.8) = 1387.2 calories
Total Fat = 1387.2/ 9 = 154.1g
Example Carbohydrate Cycling Schedule For Fat Loss
Now that we have successfully calculated our macros for our high carb and low carb days it’s time to put together our carbohydrate cycling schedule. The carbohydrate cycling schedule will determine how many days a week will be low carb days and how many days will be high carb days.
There are many different ways to construct a successful schedule. If you are new to carbohydrate cycling and dieting in general, the best way to approach a new diet strategy is to start slow.
For example you could start with alternating high and low carb days. You could do Monday low, Tuesday high, Wed low, etc. This way you get used to what low carb days feel like.
Once you are successfully sticking to this plan of alternating days you can then extend the low carb days to two in a row followed by a high carb day and then repeat.
TIP: The more aggressive you are with stringing consecutive low carb days together the better your results will be.
I’ve personally found that two low carb days followed by a high carb day produces significant enough results that I do not need to string more low carb days together. This is something that’s individual specific and will require trial and error on your part to see what works best for you.
Example Carbohydrate Cycling Schedule for 2 Days Low Carb 1 Day High Carb
Net Carbs vs Total Carbs
I just wanted to briefly touch on the topic of net carbs vs total carbs. Net carbs are the amount of carbs left after you subtract the total amount of fiber from the total amount of carbs. The resulting number is your net carbs.
For example if a food item has 26g total carbs and 11g of fiber then the net carbs would be 15g.
The reason there’s such a big debate over which you should count towards your daily total is that the human body doesn’t “use” the fiber and just passes it along. This would mean that the fiber wouldn’t contain any calories. There is a half truth to this.
Soluble fiber is used by the body but experts say that not all of it is used. So according to them a gram of fiber would only contain 2 calories and not the full 4 a non fiber gram of carbohydrate would contain.
Insoluble fiber on the other hand does not get absorbed by the body so it would contain 0 calories. This is why when you see items like low carb wraps they’re stuffed with high amounts of fiber.
So which should you use? Technically you can use either. Just be consistent with which one you’re going to use towards your daily total.
Not All Carbs Are Created Equal
Another topic I wanted to touch on briefly is that not all carbohydrates are created equal. There are high glycemic carbs and low glycemic carbs. The difference between the two is that high glycemic carbs are rapidly digested and low glycemic are more slowly digested.
The faster digesting carbs like sugar, white rice, white potatoes, etc will cause your blood sugar levels to spike more rapidly than lower glycemic carbs. If you remember from earlier in this article we talked about the insulin response from spiking blood sugar levels and why that’s a bad thing.
The majority of your carb sources should come from lower glycemic carbohydrate sources like oats, sweet potatoes, whole grains, brown rice, etc. This will cause much less of an insulin spike and keep your body from going into fat storing mode for too long.
The lower glycemic carbs will also help to stabilize your blood sugar levels. This will help keep you satiated longer as well as helping to prevent insulin resistance.
The Benefits of Carbohydrate Timing
I know that I literally just said that the majority of your carbs should come from low glycemic foods like oats, sweet potatoes, etc. However there is one time of the day where it’s a great idea to induce an insulin spike.
Enter the post workout window. After intense exercise your muscles are begging for protein to help begin the repair and rebuilding process. This is the perfect time to cause an insulin spike.
Insulin is known as a transport hormone as well as a storage hormone. When insulin spikes it will take the nutrients floating around in the bloodstream and push them into the cells that they belong to.
After an intense workout your muscles get priority for protein and carbs so the insulin will help shuttle protein and carbs into the muscle cells. This is EXACTLY what we want post workout. This is the only time of the day that it makes sense to deliberately spike insulin levels.
An example of a great post workout meal would be 40-50g whey isolate and 30-40g of a fast digesting carb like cyclic dextrin, maltodextrin, or even sugar. If you have a sweet tooth this would actually be the perfect time to have some candy like gummy bears or skittles. Sounds crazy right? It works! #science
TIP: Be careful to avoid eating fat in your post workout meal because it slows digestion and can be stored as fat if present in the bloodstream during an insulin spike.
How Long Does It Take To See Results From Carbohydrate Cycling
If you follow your plan perfectly you should begin to notice results within a week or two. It really depends on what your current level of fitness is. If you’re not used to eating a structured diet split up into smaller meals throughout the day it could take your body a week or two to stabilize. Once your body has stabilized you should begin to notice results weekly. The longer you stick to the plan the better your results will be.
Common Mistakes To Avoid
- Not planning your meals at least one day in advance. I usually do all of my meal prep on Sunday for the week. This way I get it out of the way and I’m set up for success for the week.
- Not prepping your meals in advance. I know that this can get old and boring real fast but if you prepare your meals for a few days, or even for an entire week in advance you’re only setting yourself up for success.
- Not varying your food choices. Some people can be perfectly happy eating chicken and rice everyday (raises hand). Others need variety. If you find yourself getting bored with your food choices try to change it up.
- Skipping meals. The best way to stay on track is to make sure you’re eating your meals as consistently as possible. This helps to prevent cheating and keeps your blood sugar levels stable.
- Not measuring your food. I know that it can be a pain to weigh everything out but it’s especially important in the beginning to make sure you’re eating the right amount of each food. Over time you might be able to get away with eyeballing it but if you want to be successful you should try to weigh your food as often as you can.
- Not tracking your progress. Honestly the best way to track your progress is by taking progress pictures once a week. Sometimes the scale might stay the same while you still made progress. It helps to be able to visually see the changes week to week.
- Losing Motivation. If you’re new to dieting it’s very easy to lose motivation after a few weeks. A few weeks of dieting can feel like an eternity. You feel like you should be seeing incredible results right away. Losing fat and building muscle takes time and discipline. Try to surround yourself with like minded people and like minded content. Read other peoples blog and watch their YouTube channels to look for motivation. Just try to remember that what you are doing is making a better version of yourself. Investing in yourself is one of the best things you can do Don’t give up!
Carbohydrate Cycling Calculator and Related Tools
Below is a list of useful tools you can use to help you create your own carbohydrate cycling meal plans.
I can’t tell you how rewarding it is to make progress in and outside of the gym. Seeing your body change week to week is an amazing thing to watch. If you follow the information in this guide you will be well on your way to achieving your fitness goals. If you have any questions please either comment below or use the contact form to drop me a line. Good luck on your fitness journey and remember there’s no better time to start than today! Cheers.