We know it’s good to refuel your body with protein and carbohydrates after a workout. But, it turns out, there’s a method of basing your carb intake off your workout for the day called carb cycling.
When done in moderation, carb cycling can be effective—but it’s important to understand the ins and outs of this dietary strategy before jumping right in.
Here’s what experts have to say.
What is carb cycling?
Much like its name suggests, carb cycling is a dietary approach where you vary your carbohydrate intake. Carb cycling is a planned and deliberate strategy to try to match your carb intake with your amount of physical activity in an attempt to achieve health and fitness goals, says registered dietitian and nutrition coach Georgie Fear.
It’s all based on your physical fitness for a specific day. Typically, you eat more carbs on the days you complete longer or more intense exercise sessions (like workouts in the Aaptiv app). Alternatively, you eat fewer carbs on rest days or after less intense workouts.
Why would you carb cycle?
According to Fear, people carb cycle when they are concerned with their athletic performance, but also want to stick to their weight loss goals.
She explains that since carbs are an important part of our diet—especially when it comes to working out—athletes tend to carb cycle when they “don’t want to experience the side effects of low-carbohydrate dieting on their athletic performance” but also want the fat-loss benefits of a low-carb diet.
Carb cycling is often scheduled around workouts so it can be done on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. If you currently prioritize muscle gain, Fear says to indulge in a carb-heavy diet for a few weeks. If you want to lose fat, focus on a low-carb diet for a month.
“In short, it’s not the best approach for people whose sole goal is performance or muscle gain (as both sports performance and muscle hypertrophy are limited by low carbs), but you may see carb cycling used by people who have mainly aesthetic goals,” she says.
What are the benefits?
If you’re following a low-carb diet, adding in additional carbohydrates on workout days can lead to more energy and stamina during exercise and improved recovery, Fear says.
On the flip side, if you’re eating a large number of carbs, strategically cutting carbs on some days can help with fat loss. Fear says that carb cycling is best for someone who trains hard two-to-four days a week.
Lauren Manganiello, a New York-based registered dietitian and nutrition and fitness coach, agrees. “I like to think of food as fuel,” she says. “When you’re fueling your body according to your workout program and regime, in the short-term, it can help with weight-loss goals and getting over a weight-loss plateau.” But Manganiello cautions that if you tend to eat the same foods while carb cycling, you may be limiting your diet. “[If you carb cycle], you want to focus on a healthy, well-balanced diet with a variety of foods.”
Aaptiv can also help with your weight loss goals with workouts for every fitness level in major categories like running, HIIT, cycling, yoga and more. Check them out today.
Is it safe?
According to Manganiello, when done short-term, carb cycling is OK, but it’s not something you should do forever. “Restricting our bodies for too long or not consuming enough calories or carbohydrates can be detrimental,” she says. “As with any type of diet, you never want to become obsessed with counting (whether it’s calories, macros, etc.), as it can promote a very unhealthy mindset and unhealthy relationship with food.”
Fear agrees. She says that it’s not healthy to eat a low-carb diet for long periods of time, which she defines as more than a few days a week. “On very low-carb diets, a person must avoid fruits. Many vegetables, whole grains, and beans are also off the menu,” Fear says. “Inevitably, extremely low-carb diets are high in fat, which causes insulin resistance, inflammation, and appetite dysregulation.”
Fear also warns that extremely high-carb diets can be unhelpful for weight management. A potentially excessive caloric intake can be counterproductive to your physical goals.
How do I begin carb cycling?
If you want to try carb cycling, the healthiest way to approach it is to think about balance and avoid extremes. Fear suggests that on days where you work out super hard, have an extra serving or two of whole grains. Stick to a moderate carbohydrate diet for your day-to-day. This way, she says, your diet allows for all food and you’re not falling into extreme eating patterns.
Practice carb cycling a few days per week and keep careful track of how it affects your performance. Be sure to maintain a balanced, well-rounded diet the majority of the time. And never cut out too many staples like fruits and vegetables for too long.
If you’re looking to shed some weight, Aaptiv can help you regardless of which diet you choose. View the latest workout classes we’ve just released today!