Is carb cycling healthy?

We’re going to let you in on a little secret. Most popular healthy diets that are touted for weight loss—from Paleo to Mediterranean and vegetarian—share many of the same basic principles. All involve eating whole foods (as opposed to packaged and processed) and filling your plate with quality sources of protein, healthy fats, complex carbohydrates, and vitamin-, mineral-, and fiber-rich vegetables.

However, each proposes a slightly different path that leads to fulfilling those principles. In this column, we’ll be breaking them down for you one by one so you can figure out which (if any) is right for you. We’ll explain the facts and then provide quick, actionable tips on how to follow the diet as part of a Nutritious Life.

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Diets Decoded: Carb Cycling

  • The One-Liner

    Think of carb cycling as keto’s more approachable cousin. Instead of abandoning carbs altogether (which let’s be real, can be really hard for most people) this adapted way of eating involves cycling between periods of low-carb and high-carb intake.

    RELATED: Diets Decoded: The Ketogenic Diet

    The diet started years ago in the bodybuilding and fitness communities as a way to burn fat and build muscle more efficiently. But now, an increasing number of athletes and trainers have been following it to induce occasional ketosis, while still feeling properly fueled for heavy days at the gym or endurance activities. Others have been touting its potential weight-loss benefits.

    Most people who follow the diet cycle their carbs throughout the week, alternating between two to three days of eating little to no carbohydrates and two to three high-carb days (on the days when workouts are most intense), with a day of moderate carb intake in between.

  • What You Eat

    The guidelines for the diet aren’t super specific. In fact, what you eat is pretty tailored to your individual needs. So if your hope is to improve your workouts and build muscle, you may require extra carbs on your “high-carb” days. But if you’re eating this way to lose weight, your carb-heavy days may simply include incorporating a carbohydrate-rich food or two at every meal. Generally, we recommend sticking to getting around 45 percent of your daily calories from carbs, so on these days, you should aim to get around that amount, or slightly higher.

    Overall, on days when you’re eating less of the macro, your plate should be filled with healthy fats and proteins; eggs, fish, nuts, small portions of red meat, poultry, avocados, and certain dairy products are all a-OK. And lower-carb veggies like broccoli, peppers, greens, and Brussels sprouts are not to be forgotten.

    RELATED: 9 Simple and Surprising Ketogenic Diet Recipes

    On high-carb days, you’ll likely be eating less fat and protein to accommodate for the additional calories you’ll be getting from carbohydrates. Though you want to make sure you’re eating across all food groups, on these days, you’re free to add grains, pasta, fruit, root vegetables, and bread back onto the menu. One thing to keep in mind: High-carb days aren’t an excuse to eat whatever you want. If you’re following the diet for weight loss or fitness purposes, filling these days with sweet treats and starchy foods isn’t going to do you any favors. Instead, focus on stacking your plate with unprocessed, unrefined carbohydrates. And then feel free to add in the occasional conscious indulgence.

  • What You Don’t Eat

    On the low-carb days of the cycle, you’ll likely want to follow the keto strategy of getting two to four percent of your calories from carbs. This, unfortunately, means that all the carb-heavy foods on the above list are no-gos.

    When you are eating carbohydrates, as we said before, they should be coming from as natural sources as possible, which means avoiding refined sugars and processed snacks, among other things.

  • Pros and Cons

    For people who love carbs (almost everyone?!) and feel like they need to be eating them to fuel their workouts, carb cycling can feel like a good compromise.

    Supporters of the diet say it can help to optimize metabolism and muscle growth while boosting fat loss. Your body uses carbohydrates as its primary fuel for exercise, and there’s science to show that when you’re powered by glucose (broken down from carbs) rather than fat, you’ll have more endurance and perform better. Carbohydrate intake after your workout is also important for refueling muscles and preventing breakdown. On the other hand, high-fat and extremely low-carb diets, like keto, have shown some promising results in terms of promoting weight loss and lowering blood sugar—in the short-term (and more research is needed).

    The problem is that though there are plenty of studies on low-carb diets and high-carb diets individually, science hasn’t quite caught up to carb cycling’s fusion of the two. There is one oft-cited study published in the British Journal of Nutrition in 2013 that found that overweight women who ate a low-carbohydrate diet (less than 40 grams per day) for two days a week over the course of three months lost more weight and improved insulin sensitivity when compared to those who simply cut calories overall. But it was a very small sample size, and one small study does not equal firm evidence.

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    One potential downside: While the lack of formal specifications may work for some who find other diets too rigid, it may present a problem for others who need structure and consistency. It can be hard to figure out exactly how many carbohydrates your body needs on the high-carb days versus the low-carb days, and your first few weeks following the diet could involve trial and error.

  • The Bottom Line

    Until there’s more research to prove the effectiveness of the diet, we can’t definitively say whether or not it works. It’s also tricky to follow and could lead to inconsistency in your eating habits (AKA you might end up feeling like the diet’s all over the place unless you have someone helping you planning your cycles). But if you have a good reason for giving it a try, there’s no real harm in it. The diet emphasizes variety (something we love here at Nutritious Life!), incorporating plenty of good fats, proteins, and on certain days, carbs. Working with a dietitian can help you figure out the best way to plan out your cycle and then hopefully you can work towards tuning into your body’s signals––knowing when it needs that extra fuel and when it doesn’t.

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