What is carb cycling? Can it help you lose weight or gain muscle?
Carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients integral to human health and cellular functioning. Carbohydrate cycling is based on the concept that carbohydrates consumed intermittently can make you more metabolically efficient.
Typically it would involve consuming a low, moderate and high carb diets on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. Fat would typically be the reverse ratio i.e. high carb low fat, whilst protein remains constant.
It’s used as a tool to lose weight, particularly common in physique athletes who remove carbohydrates to lose body fat and intermittently include them in the diet to replenish depleted glycogen stores and to help keep energy levels high enough to lift weights.
There are very limited studies on the benefits for carb cycling, but the theories around it are based on common scientific understanding. For example, we know that low carb diets promote fat loss, as per an article by Sondike et al (2003); and we know that higher carb diets are great for exercise performance, as per a 1995 Sports Nutrition study.
So the theory is that if you cycle carbs based on your activity level you can manipulate your metabolism. But the limited research makes it difficult to prove. A weight loss intervention trial published in the Society of Sports Nutrition compared carb cycling to a constant higher carb diet and found no significant differences in weight loss between the groups.
Ultimately, if you want to lose weight, carb cycling may help you reduce your intake of calories without having the significant energy dips common in a constant low carb diet. But there is not enough research on carb cycling to confirm whether it has any superior outcomes for weight loss or muscle gain compared to normal carbohydrate consumption.