So I got a question a few weeks ago about carb cycling for fat loss and I decided to address this subject now.
My short answer is this: I believe carb cycling is unnecessary. It doesn’t lead to better fat loss or improved training performance while cutting. I think you’d do much better if you eat the same macros every day while cutting.
Fat loss only comes down to staying in a calorie deficit and training performance depends mainly on getting enough carbs as an average, not on the way you distribute them.
But I know you’ll probably not be satisfied with this short answer… so here comes the long one.
I’m going to talk about four things:
- What is carb cycling and what are a few of it’s forms
- How it compares to a linear carb intake for fat loss
- My experience with carb cycling and why I don’t recommend it
- How I recommend you set up your cutting diet
Let’s get started.
What is carb cycling and what are a few of it’s forms
Carb cycling means alternating high carb days with low-moderate carb days.
For example most protocols involve eating high carbs on your training days and low carbs on your rest days. Other might have you eat 3 low carb days followed by one high carb day.
A notable difference between protocol is that some cycle calories as well as carbs and others, keep calories fixed every day. This is an important difference.
Here is how a few protocols would look like expressed in numbers:
You can see that on the protocols with fixed daily calories, fat and carbs are inversely related – meaning when carbs are high, fats are low and vice-versa. On the protocols that cycle calories as well as carbs, fat intake remains relatively the same.
So this is what carb cycling means. Now the answer is, should you do it? Let’s see.
How carb cycling compares to a linear carb intake for fat loss
You probably heard carb cycling being marketed as a faster way to lose fat or even build muscle while in a deficit. As we said earlier, these claims are not true.
Of course you can lose fat doing carb cycling but it works just as well as a normal linear inteak, not better. Any diet protocol that puts you in a calorie deficit will result in fat loss, regardless of how the macros are set up.
Research clearly showed that as long as the calorie deficit and protein intake are the same, people lose the same amount of fat. Fat loss depends on the energy balance not on the ratios of fat and carb intake.
Here’s the catch though: low-carb diets usually result in more weight loss because of glycogen depletion. As I’m sure you know carbs retain water in our muscles so if you reduce carbs you also reduce the amount of water we hold. If you eat low carbs for a few days, your glycogen stores can be completely depleted and that can make you a few pounds lighter immediately. But it’s important to note that the reduction in weight is not fat. As soon as you start eating more carbs your weight will go back up by a few pounds.
So cycling carbs doesn’t improve fat loss simply because the daily calorie deficit remains the same.
Now what about muscle gain?
The main selling points of carb cycling for muscle gain is that the high-carb day puts your body into an anabolic mode by spiking insulin. The problem with this is that insulin is anabolic only in supra-physiological amounts – meaning with injections. You can’t raise insulin enough to become anabolic only by eating more carbs.
Furthermore, assuming that you are only cycling carbs and not calories as well, on your high carb day you’ll still be in a deficit. An energy deficit reduces protein synthesis so any gain from the carb bomb will probably be negated.
There’s good and bad in everything
There is one aspect about carb cycling that should be beneficial though: replenishing glycogen stores for your training. We know carbs support training performance so if you can pair high carb days with training days, all evidence would suggest that you should have better performance. You must however make sure to eat at least half of those carbs before training – eating them after training wouldn’t have the same effect.
Because of this reason I also think combining carb cycling with calorie cycling may be superior overall to a normal linear intake. You’ll now say: “What the hell man are you now supporting carb cycling?”
No, I think carb cycling in and of itself doesn’t do anything. But if you intelligently set up a calorie cycling diet that includes carb cycling you can probably get better fat loss and better muscle retention or even growth.
For example a high carb day that is also a high calorie day may truly provide a better anabolic environment for muscle growth. Also a low carb day that is also a low calorie day may improve fat oxidation because of reduced glycogen stores. Such a diet is Lyle McDonald’s Ultimate Diet 2.0. It’s probably the most complicated diet ever put together and it combines all sorts of low calorie days, metabolic workouts, high carb high calorie days, strength workouts all in an effort to achieve body recomposition. And all evidence would suggest it truly is superior to a normal diet.
Now, with all that said, I still wouldn’t recommend calorie or carb cycling for fat loss. Why? Because even if they are superior to a linear intake it’s probably only by 5-10%. And also there is a big, big difference between what is optimal from a physiological point of view and what is optimal in the real world.
I will expand on this in the following section:
My experience with carb cycling and why I don’t recommend it
So by this point we concluded that carb cycling without calorie cycling doesn’t do much. But a diet where you cycle both calories and carbs and time it intelligently with your training days may be superior to a linear intake.
So should we start doing that if it seems to be superior?
I believe with all my heart that we shouldn’t.
The biggest problem with carb and calorie cycling is that you pay too big of a price in time and effort for the minute benefits it delivers. If I have to make my diet less enjoyable, give up on social events and put in 50% more time and effort just so I can get 5% better results, I won’t do it. It’s not worth it. have you ever thought about that?
In the real world, complicated optimal diets deliver worse results. Why? Because people don’t actually stick to them.
Let me share my experience.
I used to cycle calories and macros every day in the past and I did for more than 6 months. I did not notice any improved results but I noticed a lot of downsides to it:
- I was obsessed with my diet. If you’re truly going to stick to a carb cycling plan you can say goodbye to eating out. You have to cook all your meals and weigh everything to the gram. Believe me that kind of diet is not enjoyable.
- When you cycle calories you never get used to an eating plan. Because of it you constantly think about food. The low calorie and carb days suck. You have to eat very little and you constantly feel deprived. You start to think of the high calorie days as some sort of reward. Looking at it from the outside it may be considered an eating disorder.
- I used to neglect my training because of it. You see, when you have badass diet you tend to think that will do everything for you. All your focus is on your diet and for that reason you’ll start to underestimate the role of training and progressive overload. Don’t believe me? Ask any obsessed nutrition guy how his training is going. I can guarantee 9 times of 10 he’s not doing jack in terms of strength progress.
- You cheat more often. So although your diet may be 5% superior to a linear intake, if you cheat often that actually makes it less effective than the more sustainable diet. That’s the truth and I’m sure you can relate to it.
This is how something that appears to be superior on paper becomes inferior in the real world.
I bet that someone sticking to a simple diet that he actually enjoys gets better results than someone obsessed with every little detail. It may sound counterintuitive but it’s true.
How I recommend you set up your cutting diet
So after all this talk about calorie and carb cycling I end up not recommending it. How funny right?
Let’s finally move on to the practical stuff and give you the actionable diet that I recommend you follow.
From my experience with my own body and working with a lot of people, the best diet you can follow for fat loss is this:
Calories for Fat Loss:
10-12 calories per lbs | 22-26 calories per kg
* I usually go with 11 cal per lbs or 24 cal per kg
** If you’re significantly overweight use lean body mass instead of total body mass
1g of protein per lbs | 2g of protein per kg
25% of calories from fat
the rest of calories from carbs
Eat this everyday in an Intermittent Fasting setup and you’ll lose fat like clockwork until you’re as lean as you want!
Too simple for you? Ha! I know that feeling. If you think that this is too simple to work, alright, keep doing what you’re doing. You’ll soon discover that simplicity is the key to success.
This is the diet plan I’m using right now. Is it simple? You bet.
Here’s what I do on this plan:
- eat the same macros every day
- enjoy big kick-ass meals as well as desserts every day
- train 3 time a week with low volume
- no cardio except for walking