Carb cycling and intermittent fasting are two different dietary strategies that can help you successfully lose weight, build muscle, and control blood sugar. While each has different methods of helping you get results, they also happen to work together for many people.
However, each dietary strategy can be somewhat complex on its own. Understanding the advantages and disadvantages of each dieting approach is crucial before choosing between carb cycling and intermittent fasting.
It is also another aspect to consider the possibility of combining these strategies to achieve your body composition objective rather than picking one over the other. So you’ll not only get increased efficiency but also fully optimize your fat loss potential.
What Is The Difference Between Carb Cycling And Intermittent Fasting?
The primary differentiation between carb cycling and intermittent fasting is that carb cycling strongly emphasizes altering your carb intake and pays little attention to when meals are consumed. In contrast, intermittent fasting places a stronger emphasis on meal scheduling.
What Is Carb Cycling?
Following a weekly schedule of alternate low-carb days, moderate-carb days, and high-carb days is known as carb cycling. The ketogenic diet and other low-carb diets have different schedules from carbohydrate cycling.
Some people who practice carb cycling have previously followed a low-carb diet and utilize this additional method to speed up fat burning. Others modify their existing routine to include low-carb days because a diversified diet can aid in overcoming weight loss plateaus.
A carb cycling strategy seeks to match your body’s needed carb intake to how much glucose it needs to produce and use energy most effectively, rather than the goal of entering and sustaining a state of ketosis.
Carb cycling dietary routine might resemble this:
Monday, Tuesday, and Friday: Moderate Carb Days
Wednesday and Saturday: High-Carb Days
Thursday and Sunday: Low-Carb Days
High-performance athletes who want to gain muscle mass often use carb cycling, planning high-carb days around challenging exercises. Then, they employ low-carb days to lose fat without preventing muscle growth.
Since they can be quickly converted into energy and are stored as glycogen in the liver and muscles, carbohydrates serve as our primary energy source during exercise. Although lifting weights can still result in significant glycogen depletion, intense endurance training will rely on carbs for sustenance to a larger extent than resistance training. The muscle’s glycogen content can be changed to affect distinct training adaptations before, during, or after exercise – comes carb cycling1,2.
Carb cycling has been demonstrated to improve adaptations to endurance exercise. Carb cycling possibly gained popularity in endurance training3,4.
According to a study, muscle glycogen stores can serve as a signaling mechanism to encourage training adaptations and a source of fuel for exercise5,6.
Resistance training may benefit specifically from the ability of muscle glycogen to alter transcription factors that may influence protein synthesis4.
Even though a large portion of the weight you could lose would be water, carb cycling is becoming increasingly popular with people who wish to jump-start weight loss.
What Are The Benefits Of Carb Cycling?
Intermittent energy and carbohydrate restriction may enhance insulin sensitivity and weight, according to a 2013 study7.
In the study, two days a week of intermittent energy and carbohydrate restriction was applied to the participants, who were divided into two groups. While restricting their overall intake of carbohydrates and energy, researchers let one group consume as much protein and fat as they pleased.
Similar numbers of participants in the group who were permitted to eat as much protein and fat as they pleased lost 5% or more of their body weight.
The study also discovered that after four months of following the diet, participants continued to experience a decrease in insulin resistance, a reduction in body fat, and a decrease in the hormone leptin.
You’ll be able to conduct specific workouts when you’re low on glycogen, which is one of the main aspects of carb cycling. It has been demonstrated that training in a glycogen-depleted condition increases the expression of genes that encourage the development of mitochondria8,9,10,11.
Increased mitochondrial density in muscle mass can boost fat oxidation, increase energy efficiency, and enhance endurance performance4,12.
According to research, using a carb cycling plan with particular workout techniques can help you lose fat immediately compared to non-carb cycling diets in as little as three weeks13. Both the increase in fat oxidation during exercise12 and the increase in mitochondrial density brought on by low-carb training are likely to be accountable for this.
How Does Carb Cycling Work?
Carb cycling seeks to assist you with weight loss and fitness goals by alternating between low-carb days, moderate-carb days, and high-carb days.
Low-carb dieters frequently consume more proteins and fats, which might help them feel fuller for longer14. Additionally, it restricts hypoglycemia, which lessens hunger and calorie intake.
Diets rich in nutrient-dense carbohydrates, such as fruits and vegetables, have other advantages. Eating meals high in fiber-rich carbohydrates and containing vegetables and fruits may lower the chance of acquiring type 2 diabetes. Furthermore, there is proof that people with type 2 diabetes with high-carb diets have improved insulin sensitivity15.
The idea behind carb cycling is that you can reap the benefits by switching back and forth daily, weekly, or monthly between a high-carb diet and a low-carb diet.
High-carb days are used on days with more exercise or when you have a high-intensity workout planned (e.g., high-volume leg days). On the other hand, low-carb days should be used when you are less active or have a light exercise planned (e.g., rest days or active recovery). Low-carb days promote fat loss, while high-carb days encourage muscle growth and help you perform at your best.
While your weekly carb intake will vary, it is recommended that you maintain a constant daily calorie intake. To achieve this, you usually modify your fat intake in the other direction so that your calorie intake remains consistent and you can limit your carb intake.
This is crucial since changes in calorie intake determine variations in body weight. Your calorie intake alone will influence whether you stay the same weight, put on weight, or lose it, and your intake of macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, and fats) will define the composition of your body (fat: muscle ratio).
It’s best to limit yourself to healthy fats and avoid excessive fat intake.
How To Carb Cycle?
Carb cycling comes in various forms, you can use daily, weekly, or monthly schedules.
Whether you eat a high, moderate, or low-carb meal will determine how many carbohydrates you consume daily16.
- Very low carbohydrates: Your calorie intake from carbohydrates will be less than 10%.
- Low carbohydrates: Carbohydrates will make up under 26% of your daily caloric intake.
- Moderate carbohydrates: Carbohydrates comprise 26-44% of your daily caloric intake.
- High carbohydrates: Carbohydrates will make up at least 45% of your daily calorie intake.
Carb Cycling Methods
1. Train High, Sleep Low, Train Low, Repeat
To make this method effective, you need to alternate high-volume and low-volume days throughout the week.
Because alternating high and low training volumes on a daily basis is so common in endurance training, this approach is one of the most thoroughly explored in endurance sports.
A great example is you’re to work out vigorously on a Monday. Due to its higher volume and longer duration, this workout would be considered your “Train High” routine. You consume carbohydrates all day long before your workout to ensure that your glycogen stores are completely stocked and ready to go when lifting weights.
On the other hand, the “Sleep Low” section of the term refers to the fact that once your workout is over, you’re done consuming carbohydrates for the day. The goal is to prolong the period of glycogen depletion after exercise because this could encourage additional adaptation4.
The following step, known as “Train Low,” is to carry out your Tuesday workout while on a low-carb diet. A steady-state cardio exercise or an arms session would be a good suggestion for your Tuesday workout, as it should be shorter, lower in volume, and overall effort. After this workout, you can resume eating carbohydrates to replenish your muscle glycogen stores4. You skip out on carbs from finishing your “Train High” workout until your “Train Low” session ends.
Repetition of the cycle is the final phase. Once the workout is over, you’re done consuming carbs until after the following lighter workout or cardio session. Your Wednesday workout can be another “bone crusher” in which you consume carbs before improving training volume and intensity4.
2. Fuel for the Work Required
Another popular carb cycling method is “Fuel for the Work Required.” This method is a little easier to plan as most bodybuilders or powerlifters aren’t always going to perfectly alternate high-volume and low-volume sessions. In short, this method involves planning your carb intake based on how your training will be that day5.
Studies have shown that practicing “Two-a-Days,” involves doing a heavier/higher volume exercise in the morning, abstaining from carbohydrates the rest of the day, and then doing a lighter session in the evening when you’re carb-depleted, which can enhance whole body fat burning5,11.
The best part is that you can still consume carbs after your evening workout. This is because consuming some carbohydrates before bed might aid to improve the amount of muscle glycogen for that intense workout when your hefty session occurs in the morning.
Who Can Do Carb Cycling?
People who seek the advantages of a low-carb diet (a leaner physique and enhanced health markers) and the advantages of higher-carb days might consider a carb cycling diet (improved athletic performance, increased adherence).
If you want to lose weight while simultaneously improving your fat-mass-to-muscle mass ratio then you should consider carb cycling.
Due to the attention to detail, carb cycling is best suited for those with greater expertise in managing their macros.
Additionally, carb cycling is not recommended for you if you struggle with an obsession with dieting or macronutrient counting, are already underweight, or both.
What Is Intermittent Fasting?
Intermittent fasting (IF) emphasizes time-restricted eating, in which you consume your daily caloric intake during a specific feeding period and fast during certain periods.
For instance, some individuals consume all their daily caloric needs between 12 pm and 6 pm and then start fasting by 6 pm until 12 pm the following day.
Contrary to carb cycling, intermittent fasting solely emphasizes the time of your meals rather than the types of calories you should consume. This implies that you can follow any macro split you wish as long as you eat within a specific window.
It may take trial and error to identify the fasting window that is most effective for you, just like with carb cycling. There are various approaches to intermittent fasting.
Different Intermittent Fasting Periods
While controlling your daily caloric intake shouldn’t be a focus of intermittent fasting until you need it to be, it should be during the eating window when the emphasis should be on whole food nutrition. If you adhere to a predetermined eating and fasting schedule, you will likely consume fewer calories than those who stick to a more conventional eating schedule.
- Overnight Fast. The easiest fast to follow since it slightly mimics how you usually eat. Limit to a 12-hour fast and a 12-hour eating period where your eating window is throughout the day, such as 6 am to 6 pm.
- 5:2 Diet. You continue eating normally for five days, but on the final two days of the week, you limit your calorie consumption to 500-600.
- Eat, Stop, Eat. This involves a 24-hour fast once or twice per week and eating for the remaining five days. You choose any day of the week or two nonconsecutive days per week where you abstain from eating for an entire 24-hour period.
- Alternate-day Fasting. This type of fasting is similar to 5:2, except you switch daily between a full feasting day and a 500-calorie restricted day.
- Whole day Fast. You only eat one meal each day. The most common eating window for an entire day fast is dinner time.
- 16/8. One of the popular time-restricted fasts. You only have an eight-hour window to feast and a 16-hour fast each day. For instance, you are eating only between 8 am-4 pm.
What Are The Benefits Of Intermittent Fasting?
There are several health benefits of intermittent fasting, some of which include the following:
Intermittent fasting can support weight loss.
According to studies, intermittent fasting can be a useful weight-loss strategy. It helps in improving metabolic rate. However, a caloric deficit is necessary for this diet to be successful such as eating fewer calories than your body needs to maintain weight17.
Intermittent fasting can improve heart health.
Time-restricted feeding has been demonstrated to enhance insulin sensitivity, blood pressure, and appetite18.
Intermittent fasting could possibly lower the risk of cancer and other diseases.
According to some evidence, intermittent fasting may treat or prevent diseases like cancer, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and neurological disorders like Parkinson’s19.
Intermittent fasting can be regarded as simple to follow.
If you are accustomed to eating small, regular meals throughout the day, you may find intermittent fasting a pleasant shift. You may be able to put food out of your mind and concentrate on other activities when you consistently stick to the same eating window.
Who Can Do Intermittent Fasting?
If you are someone who finds it challenging to consume several meals throughout the day or who wants to have fewer, larger meals throughout the day then you might want to try intermittent fasting. It can also help you if you are trying to manage your health concerns, such as weight loss.
Despite its many advantages, intermittent fasting is not for everyone. Some people just can’t or shouldn’t skip their first meal of the day by that much. Before making any significant changes to your nutritional lifestyle, speaking with a medical practitioner is advisable.
3 Key Differences Between Carb Cycling And Intermittent Fasting
Carb cycling and intermittent fasting are successful methods for losing weight, but which best depends on your preferences and specific objectives.
1. While intermittent fasting solely concentrates on when you should eat, carb cycling does not define how many calories or what kinds of calories you should eat. Instead, it focuses on modifying macronutrient intake, notably carbs and fat.
2. While carb cycling does not define when you should eat your calories throughout the day, intermittent fasting limits consumption to certain times of the day.
3. While carb cycling has not been demonstrated to have the same advantages as intermittent fasting, it has been shown to assist with some chronic health issues, including cancer19.
Combining Carb Cycling And Intermittent Fasting
Both carb cycling and intermittent fasting need forethought and a timetable. It is entirely possible to commit to both carb cycling and intermittent fasting and benefit from both practices simultaneously.
When attempting to achieve weight or fitness objectives, you may find it simplest to start with either carb cycling or IF before combining the two. Start with the one you believe will be the simplest to adjust if this strategy sounds appropriate. By the time you’re ready to incorporate the other, you’ll already be experiencing the benefits, which can motivate you to commit to both fully.
Benefits Of Combining Carb Cycling And Intermittent Fasting
By combining the two nutritional strategies, they complement one another and improve the effects of each. The benefits you will likely enjoy are:
- Increase in muscle mass and lean muscle
- Overcome weight loss plateaus
- Accelerated fat loss
- Body weight reduction
- Enhanced energy
- Better focus, energy, and attitude
- Improved metabolism
- Improved quality of sleep
Carb cycling and intermittent fasting always come with pros and cons. Do thorough research before making it your weight loss plan.
Consult your doctor if you are expecting, breastfeeding, or have any other underlying medical concerns as carb cycling and intermittent fasting might not be advisable for you.
Experiment on what’s best for you. Try a month of carb-cycling, then a month of intermittent fasting, and when you can, a month of both. Just remember to go at your own pace and not to jump into either routine too quickly.
1 Macdougall, J. D., Ray, S., Sale, D. G., Mccartney, N., Lee, P., & Garner, S. (1999). Muscle substrate utilization and lactate production during weightlifting. Canadian Journal of Applied Physiology, 24(3), 209-215.
2 Robergs, R. A., Pearson, D. R., Costill, D. L., Fink, W. J., Pascoe, D. D., Benedict, M. A., … & Zachweija, J. J. (1991). Muscle glycogenolysis during differing intensities of weight-resistance exercise. Journal of Applied Physiology, 70(4), 1700-1706.
3 Impey, S. G., Hearris, M. A., Hammond, K. M., Bartlett, J. D., Louis, J., Close, G. L., & Morton, J. P. (2018). Fuel for the work required: a theoretical framework for carbohydrate periodization and the glycogen threshold hypothesis. Sports Medicine, 48(5), 1031-1048.
4 Marquet, L. A., Hausswirth, C., Molle, O., Hawley, J., Burke, L., Tiollier, E., & Brisswalter, J. (2016). Periodization of carbohydrate intake: short-term effect on performance. Nutrients, 8(12), 755.
5 Hansen, A. K., Fischer, C. P., Plomgaard, P., Andersen, J. L., Saltin, B., & Pedersen, B. K. (2005). Skeletal muscle adaptation: training twice every second day vs. training once daily. Journal of Applied Physiology, 98(1), 93-99.
7 Harvie, M., Wright, C., Pegington, M., McMullan, D., Mitchell, E., Martin, B., . . . Howell, A. (2013). The effect of intermittent energy and carbohydrate restriction v. daily energy restriction on weight loss and metabolic disease risk markers in overweight women. British Journal of Nutrition, 110(8), 1534-1547. doi:10.1017/S0007114513000792
8 Hansen, A. K., Fischer, C. P., Plomgaard, P., Andersen, J. L., Saltin, B., & Pedersen, B. K. (2005). Skeletal muscle adaptation: training twice every second day vs. training once daily. Journal of Applied Physiology, 98(1), 93-99.
9 Hulston, C. J., Venables, M. C., Mann, C. H., Martin, C., Philp, A., Baar, K., & Jeukendrup, A. E. (2010). Training with low muscle glycogen enhances fat metabolism in well-trained cyclists. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 42(11), 2046-2055.
10 Van Proeyen, K., Szlufcik, K., Nielens, H., Ramaekers, M., & Hespel, P. (2010). Beneficial metabolic adaptations due to endurance exercise training in the fasted state. Journal of Applied Physiology, 110(1), 236-245.
11 Yeo, W. K., Paton, C. D., Garnham, A. P., Burke, L. M., Carey, A. L., & Hawley, J. A. (2008). Skeletal muscle adaptation and performance responses to once a day versus twice every second day endurance training regimens. Journal of Applied Physiology, 105(5), 1462-1470.
12 Lane, S. C., Camera, D. M., Lassiter, D. G., Areta, J. L., Bird, S. R., Yeo, W. K., … & Hawley, J. A. (2015). Effects of sleeping with reduced carbohydrate availability on acute training responses. Journal of Applied Physiology, 119(6), 643-655.
13 Marquet, L. A., Brisswalter, J., Louis, J., Tiollier, E., Burke, L., Hawley, J., & Hausswirth, C. (2016). Enhanced Endurance Performance by Periodization of CHO Intake:” sleep low” strategy. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 48(4), 663-672.
15 Holesh JE, Aslam S, Martin A. Physiology, Carbohydrates. [Updated 2022 Jul 25]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK459280/
16 Oh R, Gilani B, Uppaluri KR. Low Carbohydrate Diet. [Updated 2022 Jul 11]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK537084/
17 Lowe DA, Wu N, Rohdin-Bibby L, Moore AH, Kelly N, Liu YE, Philip E, Vittinghoff E, Heymsfield SB, Olgin JE, Shepherd JA, Weiss EJ. Effects of Time-Restricted Eating on Weight Loss and Other Metabolic Parameters in Women and Men With Overweight and Obesity: The TREAT Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA Intern Med. 2020 Nov 1;180(11):1491-1499. doi: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2020.4153. Erratum in: JAMA Intern Med. 2020 Nov 1;180(11):1555. Erratum in: JAMA Intern Med. 2021 Jun 1;181(6):883. PMID: 32986097; PMCID: PMC7522780.
18 Sutton EF, Beyl R, Early KS, Cefalu WT, Ravussin E, Peterson CM. Early Time-Restricted Feeding Improves Insulin Sensitivity, Blood Pressure, and Oxidative Stress Even without Weight Loss in Men with Prediabetes. Cell Metab. 2018 Jun 5;27(6):1212-1221.e3. doi: 10.1016/j.cmet.2018.04.010. Epub 2018 May 10. PMID: 29754952; PMCID: PMC5990470.
19 Mattson MP, Longo VD, Harvie M. Impact of intermittent fasting on health and disease processes. Ageing Res Rev. 2017 Oct;39:46-58. doi: 10.1016/j.arr.2016.10.005. Epub 2016 Oct 31. PMID: 27810402; PMCID: PMC5411330.