You know a no-carb diet isn’t up your alley, but you don’t exactly want to fill up on a pre-race pasta feast every night either. No matter your health and fitness aspirations, carb cycling might be a good middle ground. Although its roots are in the world of bodybuilding, trainers are turning to the nutrition strategy to help clients achieve their goals — whether they’re trying to slim down or build muscle — or both.
“Eating healthy carbs on certain days keeps your metabolism revved up, and sticking to mostly protein and vegetables on days in between keeps insulin low enough that you can burn fat without losing muscle,” explains Shelby Starnes, a competitive bodybuilder and carb cycling expert. “It’s a routine that anyone can modify for their individual goals.” If you’re intrigued but don’t know how to start, read on for tips about how to put together a weekly carb cycling menu.
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Find the Right Formula
The classic carb cycling schedule alternates between high- and low-carb days, six times a week, saving the seventh day for reward meals. Depending on your health and fitness objectives, however, you might want to alter your setup for the week. For instance, to lose weight, you might aim for five low-carb days interspersed with two high-carb days, suggests Starnes. On the other hand, if gaining weight and adding muscle is your goal, think about including four or even five high-carb days. “Just make sure not to put all your high-carb days back-to-back,” Starnes says. “You should space them evenly throughout the week.” No matter your plan, be prepared to closely monitor your progress and consider adjusting your schedule to see what brings the best results for you.
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Choose Your Fuel
So should you just munch on meat during your low-carb days and pig out on pasta the rest of the week? Not exactly. Jessica Crandall, R.D.N, and Vital RD owner, recommends getting the majority of your calories on high-carb days from complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains, legumes and fruits (or a high-quality protein shake if you’re in a pinch). “They’ll keep you energized throughout the day while still promoting weight loss,” she says. To power through low-carb days, try to get your protein from chicken, fish, lean beef, eggs or tofu and complement it with non-starchy veggies — basically anything besides potatoes, corn and peas is fair game. As a general rule, says Starnes, do the majority of your shopping around the perimeter of the grocery store. You’ll load up on fresh staples and sidestep preservative-packed processed foods.
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Snack on Track
Many trainers suggest taking a “cheat day” and allowing yourself to eat what you like, but make sure that approach isn’t setting you back. “To sustain a diet, a weekly reward day is not the best option,” says Crandall. “If you’re in the mindset to indulge after depriving yourself, you could end up eating 5,000 calories in one day when you only need 1,400 — and that will derail any progress you’ve made.” But don’t be discouraged; there is a little wiggle room for treats in a carb cycling plan. “If having an occasional bagel or bowl of sugary cereal helps you comply with your meal plan, work that into a high-carb day,” says Starnes. “Just scale back the other meals a bit that day.”
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Make a Carb Cycling Meal Plan
Once you’ve stocked your fridge and pantry with healthy grains, proteins and produce, coming up with a daily menu is key for achieving the best results. As a general rule, though it will vary from person to person, Crandall says that women should take in around 1,200 calories and men around 1,500 on low-carb days, with slightly more on high-carb days. Starnes recommends calculating the correct portions of each macronutrient by getting a certain number of grams per pound of body weight.
For both low- and high-carb days, be sure to eat breakfast as soon as possible when you wake up, then consume the rest of your calories across another four to six small meals throughout the day, advises Starnes. Here’s how you might schedule your meals:
Carb Cycling: Low-Carb Day Meal Plan
A typical low-carb day:
7 a.m: two scrambled eggs with 1/2 red bell pepper
10 a.m: protein shake with berries
1 p.m: 3 ounces grilled chicken with 1 cup asparagus
4 p.m: 1/3 cup oatmeal with 10 almonds
7 p.m: 3 ounces steak with 2 cups steamed broccoli and cauliflower
Carb Cycling: High-Carb Day Meal Plan
A typical high-carb day:
7 a.m: 1/2 cup oatmeal with walnuts and berries
10 a.m: apple with 2 tablespoons peanut or almond butter
1 p.m: half turkey sandwich on whole-wheat bread
4 p.m: 1 cup three-bean salad with 1 cup quinoa
7 p.m: 3 ounces grilled chicken with 1 cup whole-wheat pasta and pesto
Keep in mind that you can to still enjoy your favorite foods — just in moderation. “The goal is to slowly change your eating habits to include a variety of healthy foods,” says Crandall. That’s the kind of formula you can stick to for continued success.
The calculators within this article use the equations below for a rough estimation of your daily needs.
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2–3 grams of carbs (x your body weight)
1–1.25 grams of protein (x your body weight)
As little fat as possible
0.5–1.5 grams of carbs (x your bodyweight)
1.25–1.5 grams of protein (x your bodyweight)
0.15–0.35 grams of fat (x your bodyweight)
About 1 gram of carbs (x your bodyweight)
0.75 grams of protein (x your bodyweight)
As little fat as possible
0.2–0.5 grams of carbs (x your bodyweight)
About 1 gram of protein (x your bodyweight)
0.1–0.2 grams of fat (x your bodyweight)
Originally published March 2014. Updated June 2017, and July 2021.
Meal Plan images via Daily Burn. Cover image via Shutterstock