Carb cycling 101 – the basics

What is carbohydrate cycling?

If you’ve spent any amount of time online researching how to eat for your best body, you’ve probably come across the term, “carb cycling.” I’ve seen it touted as a cure for obesity, for better results in the gym, and for more explosive workouts.

Does it work? And if so, how? Who is it good for? When is the right time to use it? Do you cycle every carb or just certain ones? So many questions…so let’s dive in.

In theory, it’s quite simple.

The practice of cycling your carbohydrates helps solve one of our most common dilemmas: too much of a good thing.

Wait…carbs are…good? But I thought carbs were pure dietary evil, created in the fires of Mordor, one doughnut to rule them all. Isn’t that how the story goes?

Not exactly. While eating too many carbs too often can lead to serious health issues (more on those later in this series), believe it or not, most carbohydrates are not inherently evil. It’s actually our fault. It is our lack of moderation which has made them into an often-accused dietary offender.

Think of carbohydrates as rocket fuel.

A good quality carb will offer up potentially explosive energy, which is perfect for Crossfit classes, kettlebell swings, Olympic lifts like barbell cleans and snatches, or any other very high-intensity movements.

If you have a properly fueled rocket, assuming all goes well, it should break Earth’s gravity and hit its destination accurately. However, if you’ve overfilled that same rocket and your rocket fuel is spilling all over the launchpad…well, things go boom.

So take that same analogy and apply it to the carbs we’re talking about.

If we eat them in the proper amounts, at the proper times, we’ll get the proper benefits. Overdo it though, and your gas tank will eventually start leaking all over the launchpad.  Yes, too many carbs too often will begin a cascade of hormonal changes in your body (again, more on these in a coming blog). These very changes are what cause us to become DESENSITIZED to the effectiveness of the carbohydrates we’re consuming.

Why is “desensitized” in all caps?

I’m glad you asked! We believe the concept of sensitizing/desensitizing to be a very important matter in obtaining your healthiest body and mind. Why? Because, quite simply, our bodies are amazing adaptation machines.

If your body sees insulin all day long due to your frequent carbohydrate intake, it will eventually become desensitized to that insulin. You may also know this as insulin resistance (aka rocket fuel spillover).

But, if you go to the opposite end of the spectrum and maintain a relatively low intake (a number that will be different for everyone based on genetics, exercise, age, environment, lifestyle, etc) for the majority of your diet, your body will actually utilize those same carbohydrates much more efficiently (LIFTOFF!!).

As an aside, this sensitization/desensitization happens with many other processes in body and brain. Protein intake, testosterone and estrogen, neurotransmitters like dopamine and GABA…these are just a few of the areas where our bodies prefer to run efficiently, not over-abundantly.

*There is even mounting evidence that the much ballyhooed high-protein diet is carcinogenic (cancer-causing) as our body will break down about 50% of the amino acids we eat for glucose in the absence of carbs.

The art of carb cycling

That’s right, we view much of nutrition and training as an art form. Clearly, you have to take the science into account and be sure to familiarize yourself with the latest research. However, let’s say a calorie calculator tells you to eat 1,600 calories per day but you’ve been eating a mean 1,000 calories since the days of The Golden Girls.

Staying at that lower number for so long would cause your metabolic rate to slow down…after all, if there’s not enough fuel to keep the fire burning, it’s probably going to dwindle.

To date, science has yet to catch up to one of our most powerful abilities: our awareness. It is this very awareness that we should develop and become attuned to, as a clear intuition (with a little scientific tracking) can generally lead you to know when it’s time to increase or decrease your carbs. Therefore, carb cycling is not something you should schedule months, or even weeks, in advance.

Listen to your body…it knows

Ok, nitty-gritty time.

You should NOT worry about cycling your carbs if you get sleepy or drowsy after meals. You should NOT worry about it if you crave sweets often (women, the week of your period actually brings with it an increased demand for carbs, so don’t beat yourself up if you cave on your crave). If carbs still play a large role in your current diet, you’d be wise to go about reducing them all across the board. Doing so for a few weeks or up to several months, depending on your current health status, will help to regain some much-needed insulin sensitivity.

If, however, you have been an avid low-carb follower or enjoy eating a ketogenic style diet, then carb cycling may be ideal for you. If you don’t have sweet cravings and can eat a meal without getting drowsy, then I would suggest possibly cycling your carbs. If you push yourself to the limit in your workouts and you want to be your most explosive during them…you guessed it, cycle those carbs.

Once you understand the above, we can talk about your awareness and the art of cycling. If you’ve improved your insulin sensitivity and have decreased those daily blood sugar drops, you’ve potentially put yourself in prime position to make the most of your starches and sugars.

A few key ways to know it’s time to bump up your carbs for a day (or two) are as follows:

  • you feel irritable for no reason
  • you can’t get to sleep at night
  • you fall asleep but wake up like clockwork, occasionally starving
  • you find yourself craving your favorite comfort foods
  • your digestion seems slowed and sluggish

All of the above can be signs that you’re overly depleted in your carb content.

Ok, but HOW?

We generally recommend a few options.

First, for those still looking to lose large amounts of body weight: Cycle a few days (2-4) of low carb intake (which is a relative number we can’t suggest without knowing your dietary history) in a row. Use the above clues as a quick guide so you don’t over/under do it. Next, add in a substantially higher carb day. Finally, return to your lower carb intake stretch and repeat.

A quick bullet point list of this style looks like:

  • 2-4 low carb days in a row
  • 1 high carb day
  • rinse and repeat

As a rough example, although I follow the upcoming strategy, my personal lower carb days have me around 30-60 grams per day coming mostly from veggies. My higher days will then blast past 150 grams or higher, depending on my activity for that particular day and the surrounding days. Keep in mind, for someone my size (6’1″ – 185lbs – 7% body fat) that’s still relatively low. I could afford to go higher but I much prefer how I feel on a low carb diet.

Next, for those who are as lean as they want to be or want to lose the last 4-5 lbs: you’ll actually have more flexibility in your dietary selections. Remember, the leaner you are and the harder you work, the more carbs your body can (generally) handle well. If you fall into the “lean and mean” camp, but you still want to drop another pound or two or want to have 1 or 2 ass-kicking workouts each week, then you may function better with 3 levels of carb intake: low, moderate, and high.

Following the same principle as the first group, we recommend you follow a moderate carb intake for 2-4 days. Keeping your blood sugar stable during these days is ideal, as it will help your energy levels remain constant. You can do so by eating vegetables and high fiber fruits like berries.

Next, you can have your high carb day (again, a relative number) where you’ll want to focus on calorically dense foods like potatoes, rice, or higher sugar fruits. If you have a favorite cheat food, this would be the day to eat it.

Finally, after your high carb day, you can return to a moderate level or go directly into a low carb day if you’re feeling a bit bloated or guilty from your heavenly refeed day. But the basic structure here would be:

  •  2-4 moderate carb days per week
  • 1-2 high carb days per week
  • 1-2 low carb days per week

There are many different methods to make sure you hit the targets. Many different food options. Many different theories on what workouts to do and on which days. Don’t get bogged down in all the details. Remember, at the end of the day, carb cycling (or any cycling for that matter) is about decreasing your desensitization and increasing your sensitivity.

In summary

Carb cycling is about increasing your body’s efficiency and effectiveness, both in dealing with glucose and in increasing your health and performance. When done correctly, it can save you from cravings while giving you the body you dream of. When done incorrectly, it simply means you have a new experience that didn’t work. It does NOT mean you quit. It does NOT mean, “carb cycling wasn’t for me.” It means hiring a professional or looking over your data, from the scale to your food journal to your diary, and finding the handbrakes that are stopping your progress.

And on the topic of increasing efficiency and effectiveness, we constantly aim to do exactly that for you. I and Holly aim to provide you with all of our best material. Our best exercises, best nutritional strategies, best supplement guidance. We want to give away as much as we can, to help as many people reach their best lives as we can.

We put in the time to record and write. We read, learn, and discuss. Our lives are consumed with becoming healthier & happier and living as long as possible while moving and feeling like someone decades younger.

You can help us continue to help you by letting us hear you.

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Let us know your problems. Let us hear your questions. We’ll find the answers!

Be on the lookout in a few days for our next entry in the carb cycling series: “Carbs for weight loss or muscle gain.”


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