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Myth Monday: Lose Fat by Carb Cycling


The concept of carbohydrate restriction for weight loss is nothing new, and as we have discussed many times, it is an ineffective way to lose body fat. A variation of this concept is “carb cycling” (alternating high and low carb periods). Variation aside, the outcome is very much the same; this too is an ineffective way to lose body fat.

The Proposed Protocol

Proponents of carb cycling typically suggest three types of “days”:

  1. High carb days (about 50-60% of calories from carbs),
  2. Moderate carb days (30-45% of calories from carbs), and
  3. Low/no carb days (<30% of calories coming from carbs).

Generally these days will cycle one after the other, or after two consecutive days. When the carbs adjust down, protein adjusts up and vice-versa. Typically fat stays pretty much the same in this diet scheme.

The rationale behind this type of protocol versus a standard low/no carb diet is that it’s more sustainable, results in higher energy levels, and can even result in greater fat loss than regular low carb dieting (I guess that last one’s good because regular low carb dieting doesn’t cause much fat loss!)

The Reality

This is no more scientifically proven than Bigfoot, and in fact there might be more scientific inquiry into Bigfoot. Just as with low carb dieting, there is nothing magical about a carbohydrate. It is one of the four essential macronutrients and as we have known since pre-historic times, you need a significant amount of carbohydrate to survive (> 50% of your total calories).

Low carb dieting consistently has been shown to result in cognitive impairment, loss of muscle mass, mood swings, orthopedic injuries, and most important, minimal actual fat loss. Dressing low carb dieting up into different types of “days” doesn’t change the outcome; it merely makes things more complicated.

Carb cycling was popularized by bodybuilders looking to get to a ridiculously low percentage of body fat (< 3%, for example). For this population, it might be a necessary tool to get that lean; however, 99.99% of the people who try carb cycling are NOT bodybuilders. The person who’s looking to lose any normal amount of weight and stumbles across carb cycling on the Internet, should not be trying it.

The Bottom-Line

I can’t emphasize enough: (1) low carb dieting isn’t effective or healthy, (2) carb cycling, no matter what the Internet says, has not been validated as an effective means of body fat reduction in the general population, and (3) this type of protocol (even if it did work) is super-complicated. To carb cycle effectively, you literally have to plan, portion, weigh, measure, package ALL of the food you eat. Yes, that’s right ALL, not some, but ALL. You’d probably spend most of your Sunday in meal prep and most of your week trying to figure out which Tupperware container had 2oz of whole pasta versus 6oz.

Carb cycling has just dressed up low carb dieting in a more complex protocol. As usual, more complex doesn’t equal better. If you’re looking to lose body fat, you need to restrict your overall calorie intake for a long period of time (10-15 weeks). This will result in a calorie deficit that will lead to body fat loss. So instead of low carb days, let’s make this a low calorie week and actually do something that’s productive!

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