What to Eat if You’re Carb Cycling

Fuel endurance + manage weight
What to Eat if You're Carb Cycling

When it comes to healthy eating habits and maintaining a proper weight, you probably hear a lot about the role of carbohydrates —  “good” carbs versus “bad” ones you should avoid. Now a new carb diet, called “carb cycling” is making news. But experts say it’s not for everyone.

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Carb cycling is a short-term diet that is especially good for endurance athletes who want to lose or maintain weight while optimizing their energy.

“For someone in a weight-sensitive sport, this is sometimes beneficial,” says sports health dietitian Kate Patton, MEd, RD, CSSD, LD. “Carb cycling is not a weight-loss program. And, for the average weekend warrior, it is not the most appropriate method.”

How does carb cycling work?

For marathoners, triathletes and other serious athletes, carb cycling is sometimes an effective way to train, Ms. Patton says.

You can vary your carb-cycling plan depending on your training schedule.

For example, one plan is a 5-day method. You eat a low amount of carbs for three days (averaging about 100-125 grams each day). Then you follow up with two days of eating a higher amount of carbs (175-275 grams) on physically active days.

Others adopt an even simpler plan: On days when you’re doing intense physical workouts, you eat more carbs to optimize energy and minimize fatigue. You then eat fewer carbs on less active days, which may help you maintain or lose weight.

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“When you’re an athlete, your body is more efficient and your metabolism is pretty high” she says. However, she adds a word of caution. “Carb cycling is a new, trendy topic and there is not a ton of research on it.”

One thing is likely, though. If you aren’t engaged in an aggressive exercise program, any weight loss will be temporary. And you might even gain weight on high-carb days, she says.

Which carbs are best for carb cycling?

The same rule of thumb about eating good carbs and avoiding bad ones pertains to carb cycling, Ms. Patton says. Endurance athletes should focus on eating complex, nutritious carbs that help sustain energy and stabilize blood sugar levels.

Good carbohydrates are:

  • High in fiber content
  • Slowly digested
  • Unprocessed (meaning natural ingredients are not removed)

Foods that contain good carbs include:

  • Whole-grain starches
  • Oatmeal
  • Sweet and white potatoes
  • Fruit
  • Legumes-beans, lentils, split peas
  • Vegetables

Bad carbs are:

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  • Found in highly processed food
  • Low in fiber
  • Usually contain white flour and/or sugar

White bread, sugary cereal, cakes and cookies are good examples of foods that contain the kind of carbohydrates you want to avoid.

Counting carbs made easy

Many fitness-tracking devices allow you to track your daily food intake and count calories.

Or you can use one of the many apps available online. Ms. Patton says both My Fitness Pal and Lose It! are helpful.

She doesn’t see anything dangerous about carb cycling in the short-term. However, it’s important to follow an overall nutritious diet so blood pressure, sugar, and cholesterol levels remain in the healthy ranges, she says.

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