High and low carb meals with arrows that point from one to another.
Nutrition

This Dietitian-Approved Carb Cycling Meal Plan Can Help You Lose Weight and Gain Muscle

A week’s worth of high- and low-carb meals.

30-Second Takeaway

  • Carb cycling involves alternating between high- and low-carb days in an effort to optimize fat loss and muscle gain. 
  • Some claim carb cycling may improve body composition, increase energy and performance during workouts, and boost metabolic function, but the research is limited.
  • An average high-carb day might include 8 plus grams of carbs per kilogram of bodyweight, a moderate-carb day around 5 g/kg, and a low-carb day 2.5-3 g/kg.

Eating lots of carbs while losing weight and gaining muscle might sound too good to be true. But with carb cycling, it might be possible. 

As the name suggests, carb cycling involves alternating between high- and low-carbohydrate days in an effort to maximize fat loss, muscle gains, and energy. 

Followers claim that by matching carb intake to workout intensity (i.e. more carbs on high-intensity days, and less carbs on low-intensity days), carb cycling boosts workout performance while keeping weight in check. But the science isn’t as clear.


About the Expert

Jena Brown, RD, CSSD, LD, is a registered dietitian nutritionist and board-certified sports dietitian. She offers tailored nutrition coaching for endurance athletes at her private practice, Victorem Performance Nutrition. Brown helps individuals optimize training, performance, and recovery through diet.


What Is Carb Cycling?

With carb cycling, you shift your daily carb intake between high, low, and medium amounts based on your workout schedule. The goal? To support your workouts and weight management without constant restriction.

Diets like keto that limit carbs to extremely low levels can drive short-term weight loss. But they can also zap your energy and reduce muscle glycogen stores. Not good, since these deficits may hinder your ability to power through high-intensity exercise and gain muscle (1, 2). 

Carb cycling takes a different approach. On days where you’re doing a hard workout (think: all-out sprints or a heavy strength session), you fuel with more carbs. On moderate-intensity days like a zone 2 workout, you still fuel with carbs, but less since the intensity is lower. And on lower-intensity days (yoga or walking), you cut back. 

Does Carb Cycling Work?

Despite its popularity, research on carb cycling is limited.  

For improving exercise performance

The research is pretty scarce on carb cycling’s effect on exercise performance.

A 2022 review of 49 studies published in Nutrients found carbohydrate intake had minimal effects on exercise performance, especially for short-term athletic performance and muscle training (3). The review suggests no real advantage to altering carb intake if your regular exercise sessions center around strength workouts of up to 10 sets per muscle group.

However, the same review suggests that eating more carbs may benefit more intense, high-volume training—like hypertrophy training. The reason: Carbs are the only macronutrient the body can use for quick energy (3, 4). 

Eating too few carbs on days when you do high-intensity cardio may dampen endurance performance and recovery. Why? Carbs are broken down into glucose and converted into glycogen, which your muscles store for energy. If there’s not enough glycogen in the muscles, like gas in a tank, it can limit mid-workout energy, muscle repair, and growth (2, 5).

For metabolic health

Research suggests that some higher-carb diets, like plant-based diets that are fiber-rich and low in refined grains, may benefit metabolic health and blood sugar levels, reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes (6). But carb cycling might have the opposite effect. The dramatic ups and downs in calories and carbohydrates may cause weight gain and negatively affect blood sugar control (7).  For this reason, carb cycling is not recommended for people with diabetes, especially for those on oral diabetic medications or insulin.

If carb intake isn’t limited to ketogenic levels (less than 50 grams per day) or there isn’t enough time to shift into a ketogenic state on low-carb days, carb cycling might only lead to fluctuating energy levels. Meaning, this approach might miss out on the potential benefits of metabolic flexibility and weight loss associated with more studied diet regimens—such as 18:6 intermittent fasting or occasional 24-hour fasts (8, 9). 

According to Brown, long-term carb cycling might also cause lean muscle loss and hormone imbalance, the opposite of its goals. 

For weight loss

Despite anecdotal claims, there really isn’t any research to support carb cycling for weight loss.

On the flip side, if the cyclical increase in carbohydrate intake is not meticulously managed and matched with high-intensity exercise, carb cycling can result in a caloric surplus. On high-carb days, it’s easy to overestimate your energy needs or not realize how many calories you consume from carbohydrates, leading to eating more than your body can use. 

This extra energy will be stored as fat.

LOSE WEIGHT

Carb Cycling Macronutrient Breakdown

Research has defined total daily carbohydrate loads as 45 percent or more of your calorie intake on high-carb days, 26 to 44 percent on moderate-carb days, and 10 to 25 percent on low-carb days (10). Your remaining calories should be split between proteins and fats depending on your personal goals. 

However, your exact carb intake should come down to personal factors, rather than percentages. “Carbohydrate needs depend on your body weight and activity level ranging from 2.5 to 12 [grams of carbs per kilogram of] body weight,” says Brown.  

Without factoring in body size, here’s how that might generally adjust according to your workout intensity, says Brown:

The Plate Method for Beginner’s Carb Cycling

For those just starting with carb cycling, Brown recommends using the plate method to track and adjust carb intake easily.

Here’s how she breaks down low-carb and high-carb days, with moderate days falling in between the two:

Choose Carbs Wisely

While carb cycling is often leveraged as a strategy for weight management, overeating or choosing less healthy carb sources can lead to nutrient-poor food choices and unwanted weight gain.

On high-carb days—which should be paired with high-intensity exercise—Brown suggests consuming quick-digesting carbohydrates like sports gels, bananas, fruit juice, or carbohydrate-containing sports drinks, particularly before exercise. “For the rest of the day, your carbohydrates should come from more complex whole foods that are higher in fiber such as whole grain breads and pastas, brown rice, beans, starchy vegetables, and fresh fruit,” Brown adds.

On low-carb days, she recommends focusing on complex carbohydrates, mainly from high-fiber whole foods.

7-Day Carb Cycling Meal Plan

Want to give carb cycling a shot? Here’s an example of how carb cycling shakes out in 7 days of meals and snacks. 

This meal plan is based on a 2,000-calorie diet with no dietary restrictions. The plan also involves two moderate-carb days, two high-carb days, and three low-carb days but you may need to adjust to match your training schedule.

Work with a dietitian for specific advice, or use an online calorie calculator to figure out your general calorie needs.

Day 1: Moderate-Carb Day, Moderate-Intensity Workout, 176 grams of carbs

Estimated Daily Total Nutrients: 1927 calories, 87 grams fat, 176 grams carbs, 32 grams fiber, 119 grams protein

Day 2: High-Carb Day, High-Intensity Workout, 263 grams of carbs

Estimated Daily Total Nutrients: 2155 calories, 95 grams fat, 263 grams carbs, 62 grams fiber, 95 grams protein

Day 3: Low-Carb Day, Low-Intensity Workout, 136 grams of carbs

Estimated Daily Total Nutrients: 2004 calories, 105 grams fat, 136 grams carbs, 44 grams fiber, 148 grams protein

Day 4: High-Carb Day, High-Intensity Workout, 237 grams of carbs

Estimated Daily Total Nutrients: 2027 calories, 80 grams fat, 237 grams carbs, 39 grams fiber, 112 grams protein

Day 5:  Moderate carb, moderate-intensity workout, 178 grams of carbs

Estimated Daily Total Nutrients: 1956 calories, 91 grams fat, 178 grams carbs, 36 grams fiber, 126 grams protein

Day 6: Low-Carb Day, Low-Intensity Workout, 139 grams carbs

Estimated Daily Total Nutrients: 2005 calories, 110 grams fat, 139 grams carbs, 41 grams fiber, 139 grams protein

Day 7: Low-Carb Day, Low-Intensity Workout, 113 grams carbs

Estimated Daily Total Nutrients: 2044 calories, 133 grams fat, 113 grams carbs, 30 grams fiber, 117 grams protein

The Bottom Line

Carb cycling claims to boost weight loss by cutting carbs on low-carb days, but there is not enough science to back this. It might support energy and workout performance by increasing carb intake during high-carb days, providing extra energy for more intense workouts. Limited studies suggest increasing carb intake might be most helpful when paired with high-volume strength, or high-intensity cardio; however, low carb intake on low-intensity days might tank overall recovery. 

References

High and low carb meals with arrows that point from one to another.