Carbohydrates seemingly are in a never-ending battle for survival. Some diets merely restrict them, while others ban them entirely.
Yet, carbohydrates give us energy, help replenish glycogen, spare muscle protein from breakdown, and they taste damn good.
Carb cycling is a dietary approach that has emerged in recent years as a method to let dieters “have their cake and eat it too” as it fluctuates between periods of carbohydrate restriction and higher carbohydrate intake.
Ahead, we've got five of our favorite high and low carb cycling recipes to help you navigate your way through this next-level approach to fat loss.
Before we get to the recipes, let's first discuss what carb cycling is.
What is Carb Cycling?
Carb cycling is an advanced nutritional strategy typically used by individuals to break a fat loss plateau or get down to competition-levels of leanness.
Carb cycling is a specialized form of calorie cycling where you alternate between days of high carbohydrate intake with low and/or moderate carb days.
Some individuals choose to vary their carbohydrate intake daily, while others cycle the number of carbohydrates they eat weekly or monthly.
In regard to protein and fat macros, they remain relatively constant.
In other words, you consume the same amount of protein and fat regardless if it’s a high carb, moderate carb, or low carb day.
Be aware that carb cycling is meant only to be used for short periods (e.g., the final weeks of a competition prep). Due to the tedious nature of carb cycling (which we'll get into later), it is not recommended as a long-term strategy for dieters.
The takeaway here is that carb cycling is a nutritional strategy that allows an individual to maximize the benefits of carbs when they're needed (i.e., leg day) and minimize them when they're not (rest days and lower intensity workouts).
It may also help metabolism from slowing down during prolonged periods of reduced calories since you’re periodically consuming a higher-than-normal amount of calories.
For the average fitness enthusiast looking to drop 10-15 pounds of fat, carb cycling isn't needed or recommended, but for those looking to achieve elite levels of conditioning, it may be a valuable tool to use.
How Does Carb Cycling Work?
Carb cycling aims to take advantage of the benefits of carbohydrates -- energy production, glycogen replenishment -- on the days your body needs them, and significantly reduce their intake on the days when you're less active.
The purported benefit of this is that on your lower activity days, your body will turn to its energy stores (body fat) and use that to make up for the calories you're not consuming from carbohydrates.
This may help promote greater metabolic flexibility as you’re alternating between which fuel sources your body runs primarily on depending on if it’s a high carb day (glucose) or a low carb day (fat). <1,2>
Furthermore, alternate days of higher carb intake may help to resensitize leptin and ghrelin production for those undertaking extended phases of low-calorie dieting. <3,4>
In case you weren't aware, the longer you are in a calorie deficit, the lower leptin (the satiety hormone) production gets, and the higher ghrelin (the hunger hormone) levels become, which is why you tend always to feel hungry when you diet for long periods.
Lastly, carb cycling may help with insulin sensitivity <7> since you're only consuming a high amount of carbs in the hours after intense exercise. FYI, resistance-training (or exercise of any kind) improves insulin sensitivity. <5,6> A single bout of intense physical activity has been noted to improve insulin sensitivity for up to 16 hours post-exercise. <6>
While the logic of carb cycling is reasonably sound, there's a distinct lack of research on the topic, particularly regarding the modern approach of daily undulation of carb intake. What this means is that we don't know if carb cycling is any better or worse than a reduced-calorie diet where you consume the same amounts of carbohydrates each day.
After all, human physiology isn’t so sensitive that one day of high or low carb intake will dramatically affect your weight of weight loss or gain. A more “global” approach to weight loss needs to be taken.
By that, we mean, you should focus on maintaining your calorie deficit over the long term and not get so mired down in the minutiae of the day to day. If carb cycling helps you stick to your deficit and makes dieting feel easier than have at it.
However, if you find it too tedious, then follow a reduced-calorie diet that keeps your macronutrient intake relatively the same each day.
One last thing to note is that carb cycling is not the same thing as low-carb or ketogenic diets. As such, it is unlikely that you will enter into full-blown nutritional ketosis since you're never fully depleted of muscle glycogen.
Finding Your Fuel and Choosing Your Meal Plan
The traditional method of carb cycling involves alternating daily between high carb intakes and low carb intakes.
For example, a typical week could look like this:
- Monday -- Low Carb
- Tuesday -- High Carb
- Wednesday -- Low Carb
- Thursday -- High Carb
- Friday -- Low Carb
- Saturday -- High Carb
- Sunday -- Low Carb
Note that if you followed this schedule, you'd have two back-to-back days of low carb eating.
While this approach may work for some individuals, a better way to layout, your carb cycling meal plan would be to place your high carb days on your hardest training days, such as leg day or back day.
Placing your higher carb days on your hardest training days or the days following your hardest training days will help with performance in your workouts, muscle recovery from those intense workouts, and glycogen replenishment.
Another way to go about structuring your carb cycling diet is to go low carb during the week and place your two higher carb days on the weekend. This works well for individuals who tend to “loosen the reins” a bit on the weekend and enjoy some more indulgent types of food and drink.
Be aware, though, that low carb dieting the whole week may lead to bouts of low energy, brain fog, and/or reduced performance and recovery from training, but such is the way when dieting for fat loss.
Regardless of which carb cycling meal plan you select; you need to track your nutrition each day to make sure you're sticking to your prescribed macronutrient needs and maintaining the requisite energy deficit required to facilitate fat loss.
Along those lines, you should also have your high carb days planned. Remember, this is an advanced nutritional strategy to tackle stubborn fat loss. Taking a laissez-faire approach to when you have your high carb days and how many calories you consume on those days is a surefire way to erase the energy deficit you've spent the whole week developing.
Finally, don't be afraid to adjust things along the way. As you lose weight, your metabolism will naturally lower for several reasons (you're moving less mass around, and you're moving less in general).
If you find that carb cycling is more prohibitive as opposed to helpful to your dieting or stress levels, don’t be afraid to switch things up.
After all, adherence trumps all when it comes to dieting for fat loss.
Can Carb Cycling Help Build Muscle?
So long as you are in a net positive energy balance (i.e., energy in > energy out), you will gain weight and (if you're training hard) muscle.
The rationale behind carb cycling for muscle growth is that reducing your carb intake on your lower energy expenditure days will help prevent excess fat gain during your bulk as well as preserve insulin sensitivity.
However, there is next to no research demonstrating that cycling your carbohydrate intake during the week leads to less fat gain or more muscle growth when bulking. Ultimately, the amount of fat gain that happens during a bulking phase, in addition to muscle gain, hinges on how large a calorie surplus you take.
The more calories you eat above, which is needed to fuel the creation of new muscle tissue, the more fat you'll gain, and the faster you will gain it.
If carb cycling helps you maintain a more moderate calorie surplus, then give it a shot, but generally speaking, it's best to adhere to a consistent (moderate) surplus each day. After all, muscle recovery and growth extends for hours and days following your workout, which means those extra calories you're consuming on the days following your intense workouts are still being used to repair the damage done from the previous days of training.
Top 5 Carb Cycling Recipes
Now that we’ve covered the basics of carb cycling, it’s time to get into the most important part of this article -- carb cycling recipes.
But, before we get there, a common question we receive is what type of carbohydrates I should eat when carb cycling?
The majority of your carbohydrate intake, regardless of high, low, or moderate carb days, should consist primarily of whole food, nutrient-dense choices like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
The only difference between high and low days is the quantity of those foods that you eat.
Now, this doesn't mean that some "unclean" foods can't find their way into your carb cycling meal plan. They shouldn't be the majority of what you eat on those days.
With that said, we’ve got 10 carb cycling recipes in store for you -- 5 for your low carb days and 5 for your high carb days.
5 Low Carb Cycling Recipes
Scrambled Eggs & Veggies
- 2-3 eggs
- 2-3 servings vegetables (squash, spinach, tomatoes, peppers, etc.)
- Butter, Olive Oil, or Coconut Oil for cooking
- Set a skillet over medium heat and add 1-2 teaspoons of oil to the pan
- Once the oil is heated, add vegetables and stir-fry until the desired level of doneness (usually 3-5 minutes depending on how thick/thin you cut your veggies)
- Add beaten eggs into the pan and scramble
Low-Carb Chicken Parmesan
- ½ cup tomato sauce
- ¼ tsp dried basil
- ¼ tsp dried oregano
- ⅛ tsp (large pinch) red pepper flakes
- Pinch of salt and black pepper
- 4-oz boneless, skinless chicken breast
- 1 slice provolone or mozzarella cheese
- Cooked spaghetti squash
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees
- Mix tomato sauce and seasonings in a bowl
- Grease a small baking dish with nonstick cooking spray
- Pour tomato sauce mixture into baking dish
- Place chicken breast in the baking dish and season with salt and pepper
- Bake for 25-30 minutes
- When done, remove baking dish and add cheese on top of the cooked chicken breast
- Return to oven for 3-5 minutes to melt the cheese
- Serve over cooked spaghetti squash
Low-Carb Breakfast Smoothie
- 1 scoop Steel Whey protein powder
- 1 tablespoon peanut butter
- 1 tablespoon cocoa powder
- ½ frozen banana
- 1 handful spinach
- 1 cup milk of choice
- ½-1 cup ice
- Place all ingredients in a blender and blend until thick and creamy
Steak Burrito Bowl
- 4-6oz sirloin steak
- 1 bell pepper sliced
- ½ onion thinly sliced
- 1-2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1-2 servings rice cauliflower (can be homemade if preferred)
- ¼ salsa
- 1-ounce shredded cheddar cheese
- ½ avocado
- Preheat a skillet over medium-high heat
- Spray pan with nonstick cooking spray or add 1 tsp oil to pan
- When wisps of smoke start to show, add steak and cook 3-5 minutes per side depending on how cooked/rare you like your steak
- Remove steak from pan and set aside on a plate
- Add bell pepper, onion, and garlic to pan and cook 5 minutes, stirring often
- Add rice cauliflower to pan along with veggies and heat mixture through
- Transfer the cooked mixture to a large bowl and top with salsa, cheese, avocado and sliced steak
- 8oz cottage cheese
- 1 scoop vanilla protein powder
- 2 egg whites
- 1 tablespoon stevia
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- Preheat oven to 325 degrees
- Blend remaining ingredients together in a food processor until mixture is smooth
- Pour mixture into a greased circular baking dish
- Bake for 25 minutes
- Remove and let cool
- Transfer dish to the refrigerator and let cool for 8 hours minimum, preferably overnight
5 High-Carb Carb Cycling Recipes
Pumpkin Pie Protein Oatmeal
- ½-1 cup rolled oats
- 1 serving canned pumpkin (not canned pumpkin pie filling)
- ½-1-ounce walnuts, chopped
- 1 scoop vanilla whey protein powder
- Dash of cinnamon or, even better, pumpkin pie spice
- Cook oatmeal in the microwave according to the package directions
- When oatmeal is finished cooking, add in the canned pumpkin and serving of Vanilla Steel Whey
- Stir to combine
- Top with chopped walnuts and spices
- Special note: to really send this over the top, feel free to top with canned whipped cream (this is your high-carb day after all!)
- 1 cup rolled oats
- 1 banana
- 2 eggs
- 1/2 cup egg whites
- 4 teaspoons baking powder
- pinch of salt
- Dash of cinnamon
- 2 scoops protein powder
- 2 tablespoons flaxseed
- Mix all ingredients in a blender and blend on high until you have a smooth batter.
- Heat a nonstick pan or griddle over medium-high heat.
- Using a ¼-cup measuring cup, ladle batter onto the griddle, leaving a couple of inches in between each pancake.
- Cook 2-3 minutes on the first side and flip when you start to see bubbles forming on the top of the uncooked side
- Cook on the second side for 1-2 minutes
- Top with butter, syrup, peanut butter or fresh berries and whipped cream
Slow Cooker Beef Barley Soup
- 2 pounds lean stew meat
- 2 tablespoons oil
- 10 cups beef stock or water
- 2 onions
- 3 stalks celery
- 3-4 carrots
- 5-6 cloves garlic
- 1 cup barley, rinsed
- Salt and pepper
- Heat a skillet over medium-high heat with two tablespoons oil
- When oil begins to shimmer, add meat to pan and brown for 1-2 minutes per side then rotate
- When all sides are browned transfer to slow cooker
- Rough chop the vegetables and add to the slow cooker
- Finely mince garlic cloves and add to slow cooker
- Top with 10 cups beef stock (or water)
- Cook on low for 6 hours
- Add in 1 cup barley and cook for one more hour on low
High-Carb Chicken Parmesan
Follow the cooking directions for the chicken and sauce above.
Instead of placing the chicken and sauce mixture over a bed of spaghetti squash, serve over 2oz cooked pasta.
Mashed Sweet Potatoes (Serves 4)
- 1-½ pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1” chunks
- 2 tablespoons butter, softened
- ¼ cup milk
- ½ tsp salt
- ½ tsp pepper
- Place diced sweet potatoes in a large stockpot and cover with water by at least 2 inches
- Bring to a boil over high heat
- When mixture begins to boil, reduce heat and simmer for 18-20 minutes until tender
- Remove pot from heat and strain potatoes
- Return potatoes to pot and add in remaining ingredients
- Mash to desired consistency and eat
- For a sweeter spin, add in 2-4 tablespoons maple syrup (or zero-calorie alternative)
To round out the meal, add in whatever type of grilled protein you prefer and a side of grilled asparagus.
- Kunces, L., Volk, B., Freidenreich, D., Saenz, C., Fernandez, M. L., Maresh, C., Volek, J. (2014). Effect of a very low carbohydrate diet followed by incremental increases in carbohydrate on respiratory exchange ratio (LB444). The FASEB Journal, 28(1_supplement), LB444. https://doi.org/10.1096/fasebj.28.1_supplement.lb444
- Volek, J. S., Noakes, T., & Phinney, S. D. (2015). Rethinking fat as a fuel for endurance exercise. European Journal of Sport Science, 15(1), 13–20. https://doi.org/10.1080/17461391.2014.959564
- Dirlewanger, M., di Vetta, V., Guenat, E., Battilana, P., Seematter, G., Schneiter, P., … Tappy, L. (2000). Effects of short-term carbohydrate or fat overfeeding on energy expenditure and plasma leptin concentrations in healthy female subjects. International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders : Journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity, 24(11), 1413–1418.
- Poehlman, E. T., Tremblay, A., Fontaine, E., Despres, J. P., Nadeau, A., Dussault, J., & Bouchard, C. (1986). Genotype dependency of the thermic effect of a meal and associated hormonal changes following short-term overfeeding. Metabolism: Clinical and Experimental, 35(1), 30–36.
- Bird SR, Hawley JA. Update on the effects of physical activity on insulin sensitivity in humans. BMJ Open Sport Exerc Med. 2017;2(1):e000143. Published 2017 Mar 1. doi:10.1136/bmjsem-2016-000143
- Borghouts, L. B., & Keizer, H. A. (2000). Exercise and insulin sensitivity: a review. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 21(1), 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1055/s-2000-8847
- Boden, G., Sargrad, K., Homko, C., Mozzoli, M., & Stein, T. P. (2005). Effect of a low-carbohydrate diet on appetite, blood glucose levels, and insulin resistance in obese patients with type 2 diabetes. Annals of Internal Medicine, 142(6), 403–411.