The Pros and Cons of Carb Cycling

October 13, 2021

Often in our practice, we see clients who are in a caloric deficit for body composition change plateau on their progress.  While operating at a calorie deficit may be effective in the short term, it can be frustrating when calorie deficits do not yield the aspiring body composition results you are looking for.  In these cases, we often look to prevent metabolic adaptation in order to continue on the path to optimizing fat loss and maintaining or gaining lean muscle tissue.  We do this by systematically implementing an approach known as carb cycling


Simply put, carb cycling is an advanced nutrition strategy that involves planned increases and decreases in calories and carbohydrates throughout the week to manipulate weight and body composition over time. While there is limited research to support the benefits of carb cycling, there are many pros and cons associated with it that we have seen both personally and professionally in practice. 


Let’s dive a little bit deeper, shall we?


First and foremost, it is important to recognize that the research does support a calorie deficit to be superior for weight loss, regardless of the macronutrient composition of the diet. However, as you begin to lose weight, your metabolism is forced to adapt and become conservative with energy, thus continued fat loss efforts may be prevented or stalled during the process (this is normal!). 


However, when calories are dropped too low for too long, you may begin to find yourself hangry and irritable (I think we’ve all experienced this at some point in our life). This is because your body is forced to down regulate necessary metabolic functions which results in poor digestion, recovery, and difficulty sleeping, increased hunger and risk of injury, brain fog, fatigue, hormonal adaptations, weight gain and more. 


In efforts to prevent metabolic adaptation during a fat loss phase, carb cycling is an effective nutritional strategy that can be deployed. See below for a summary chart on the pros and cons of carb cycling.

Pros Cons
  • High carb days provide a mental break from dieting 
  • Carb cycling is a complex nutrition strategy that requires tracking calories and macros diligently 
  • Preserves hormonal function (leptin, thyroid, etc.) during a fat loss phase
  • Not enough research to support that carb cycling is more or less effective than other weight loss strategies 
  • High carb days are anabolic and can benefit muscle tissue synthesis and preserve loss of lean mass during fat loss phase
  • Low carb days may lead to decrease in energy levels 
  • Low carb days may improve insulin sensitivity 
  • Low carb days may negatively impact performance
  • Good strategy to implement when weight loss has plateaued 
  • Weight loss may be temporary due to loss in water weight, not fat mass
  • Low carb days help with fat loss while high carb days are anabolic and preserve muscle tissue 
  • Carb cycling is not generally warranted in diabetic populations 
  • Maximal benefits are seen when coupled with a consistent exercise plan (i.e. high carb on leg days etc.) 
  • May not be beneficial if consistent exercise routine is lacking 

As you can see, there are pro’s and con’s to every “diet.” Since carb cycling is a more advanced nutrition strategy, we recommend implementing it after being consistent and compliant with tracking calories and macronutrients on an app like MyFitnessPal for at least 1-2 months beforehand. Carb cycling is an effective way to manipulate body composition by expediting fat loss while preserving lean muscle tissue. 


At Prefusion Health, we are committed to helping you achieve your nutrition-related goals using the data we collect in-house. As a result, we are constantly looking for ways to help you overcome stubborn weight loss plateaus while preserving lean body mass at the same time.


If you’re interested in learning more about our nutrition program at Prefusion Health, click here to schedule a discovery call with one of our in-house Registered Dietitians today! 

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