What Is Carb Cycling, And Does It Work?

Nicole Nam has a Bachelors of Science in Public Health Nutrition Specialization and a Masters of Science in Kinesiology. She has a personal training certification from the American Council of Exercise, and has trained a variety of clients, including a contestant in this year’s Miss Nevada competition. Follow her on Instagram here.

Carbs raise a lot of confusion in a lot of people when they’re trying to lose weight or get in shape. Carbs are one of those very polarizing macronutrients. They’re the main component for anyone on the plant-based diet, yet they take up little to no space on a keto dieter’s plate. You either love carbs or are forced to hate them. You’ll never meet anyone who is just so-so about carbohydrates, which could explain why it is singlehandedly the hardest dietary component to moderate—we binge on chips and cookies, not deli meats, unless you’re Chad from The Bachelorette.

Before we dive in, let’s be completely clear on WTF carbohydrates are. Carbohydrates are chains of sugar molecules. The length and shape of those chains determine whether the carbohydrate is classified as starch (rice, potatoes, pasta, etc.), fiber, or simple sugars (candy, fruit, soda, etc.). Simple sugars are rapidly digested. Think of them as one of those fast-acting rapid-release medications. It gives you energy right away, which is why Halloween is ground zero for hyperactive kids. Then, like a junkie, you crash. Then you have to re-up. Starches are considered storage form of sugars, because it takes longer to digest. The purpose of carbohydrates is to provide the body with fuel and energy. The carbohydrate storage (called “glycogen stores”) is the first thing the body taps into when it needs more energy. After that, the body then starts to use fat stores for energy. Once fat is depleted, the body starts to burn muscle for energy (WE DON’T WANT THIS).


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So keeping the information above in mind, let’s apply those concepts to carbohydrate cycling. Carb cycling is essentially timing and planning out varying amounts of carb intake based on activity level. It is designed to prevent weight loss plateaus and is a common method bodybuilders use to get themselves into competing shape. It is a short-term method of purposely taking your body into and out of glycogen depletion to burn fat.

Theoretically, this method makes a lot of sense. You’re taking your body to the point of glycogen depletion where the body starts to burn fat, but not to the point where the body starts to burn muscle. When you’re carb cycling, fat and protein intake is kept the same and you only manipulate carbohydrate intake. This means that your caloric intake will also vary depending on if you’re eating low or high carbohydrate that day. For example, you might do five low-carbohydrate days that clock in at around 1,500 calories total and the two other days you do high-carbohydrate (they call this a “re-feed” day) that amount to approximately 2,500 calories. It would be smarter to time the re-feed on days where you do strenuous exercise (or a leg day) because you’re actually putting those extra calories to good use.

Like I said, THEORETICALLY, this method makes sense, and it DOES work, when done correctly. PRACTICALLY? I would not recommend this to anyone unless they have a reason to look super shredded (so…bodybuilders). I’m a trainer, my life revolves around fitness and nutrition and I don’t even do this. The calorie and carb counting, the measuring out every morsel of food, the planning re-feed days  in advance does not sound fun and it makes eating seem like I’m doing taxes rather than letting me enjoy my food. To schedule your re-feed, you have to know what you’re doing next week and I’m the queen of last minute plans.


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*U-turns out of the kitchen*

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Not only that, but you have to track your food religiously so you have to know the quantity of everything you’re eating. If you’re just someone looking to get into shape, there is absolutely no need for you to resort to this advanced (and I mean advanced) level of metabolic manipulation to lose weight and tone up. If anything, the added stress that goes into the planning and food tracking required in carb cycling will likely end up discouraging and frustrating many people altogether. I would rather you stick to the tried and true method of feeding your body the best fuel (a clean diet) and moving more than attempting a method designed for body builders and completely burning out your mind and body in the process.

Images: dietstartstomorrow, menshumor / Instagram

Nicole Nam
Nicole Nam
Nicole Nam is a health and fitness aficionado, with a Bachelor's of Science in Nutrition and a Master's of Science in Kinesiology (Exercise Science). She loves to package information into a format that people can understand, and aims to write in a very entertaining yet informative format. Nicole is also a certified personal trainer living in LA, with her dog-son Yakuza.