Carb cycling: Are you doing it correctly?

Carbs are essential for both exercise performance and recovery, but alternating carb intake at regular intervals can benefit you even more. Carb cycling is a dietary strategy in which you vary carb intake on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. It is generally used to drop fat, sustain physical performance while on diet or overcome one’s weight loss plateau.

The purpose of carb cycling is to stint carbohydrate consumption to help provide optimum advantage and eliminate them when they're not required. It is an advanced diet approach requiring careful adjustments and programming. The science behind this approach is primarily based on the biological mechanisms behind carbohydrate manipulation.

The low-carb days are reported to switch the body over to a predominantly fat-based energy system, which may improve metabolic flexibility and the body’s ability to burn fat as fuel in the long-term. In theory, this approach will maximize the benefits carbohydrates provide.

Because of its complex nature, carb cycling is easy to get wrong. Here are the 3 biggest mistakes people make when carb cycling:

Mistake 1: Ignoring Fat and Protein

Despite what the name implies, carb cycling is about more than just carbs. Sometimes, people reduce their carb intake on low-activity days but eat more fat and protein. The results in you getting the same number of calories overall. By not decreasing your calorie intake on low-carb days, you won’t observe significant fat loss in the long run. When your carb intake changes, your total calorie intake should change too.

This mistake can be fixed by knowing your maintenance calories - the number of calories that keeps you at your current weight. On low-activity days, get 10% to 20% less of your calories from carbs without increasing your fat or protein intake. So, on high-carb days, you should increase your carbs and your calories, keeping protein and fat the same. On low-carb days, decrease your calories while keeping your protein and fat the same.

Mistake 2: Binging During Refeed Days

High-activity days cannot be an excuse to binge on food. ‘Cheat days’ can cause you to overshoot your calorie goals as it may not always be possible to know exactly how many calories your food contains.

How much you should be eating on your refeed days depends on various factors which means that a bit of trial and error will be required to figure out how much one is required to be eat on the bigger training times. Your need to factor in your metabolism, genetics, how much fat-free mass you are carrying, how lean you are, how intense your workouts and cardio sessions are, how long you’ve been low carb and other variables.

Widely varying your carb intake can hurt recovery levels and overeating can cause you to feel bloated. What’s worse, you can gain fat on you refeed days if you do not handle them properly. You want to organize your cheat meals in such a way that it lets you enjoy your favorite dishes at regular, healthy intervals. There must not ever constantly be more than a 33% variance in the total quantity of calories you consume from one day to the other.

Mistake 3: Eating the Wrong Kind of Carbs

Though foods are not ‘good’ or ‘bad’, certain foods should make up the majority of your carbohydrate intake your high carb days, due to their nutritional factors. You want to focus your intake around nutrient-dense unrefined foods such as potatoes, rice and legumes. These are the kind of foods that will help you in the long run. Indulgences are fine once in a while, but you should aim for whole foods, like potatoes and oats on high-carb days and eggs and nuts on low-carb days.

Now that you know the biggest carb cycling mistakes to avoid, you can get the best results from this diet strategy.

(The writer is adviser of integrative lifestyle and nutrition at

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