Carbohydrate Cycling: What Does It Consist Of?

Through carbohydrate cycling, the aim is to increase insulin sensitivity and thus increase a person's metabolic flexibility. It's a strategy that can promote weight loss.
Carbohydrate Cycling: What Does It Consist Of?

Last update: 09 April, 2021

Carbohydrate cycling is a strategy that people can use to lose weight, although, in the past, many used it to maximize the filling of glycogen stores. However, it has certain limitations. For example, those with diabetes or low metabolic flexibility shouldn’t practice it.

Before we jump right into discussing this technique, it’s important to note that it’s best to consult with a nutritional professional before implementing protocols of this type. If you execute it incorrectly, you may not obtain the desired results.

Why practice carbohydrate cycling?

With carbohydrate cycling, the intention is two-fold. On the one hand, to reduce total daily caloric intake. And, on the other hand, to increase insulin sensitivity. Both of these consequences have a common goal, which is to promote weight loss.

However, in the case of athletes, they can exploit the latter condition to experience an increase in metabolic flexibility and, therefore, an increase in performance.

The concept is simple: the individual establishes a period in which they avoid carbohydrate intake. They then follow this period with a time in which they allow themselves to consume carbohydrates. On the metabolic level, the effects are similar to those that intermittent fasting produces, although it doesn’t always involve a state of ketosis.

In any case, the differences between a low-carbohydrate diet and a low-fat diet are not significant in terms of weight loss. A study published in JAMA shows this. However, both can be effective, depending on their energy density and the complementary physical activity the individual performs.

A variety of carbohydrate sources, including bread, pasta, fruit, and seeds.


Its application in athletes

Until a few years ago, many argued that carbohydrate cycling could be an effective strategy for athletes to replenish glycogen storage and thus increase performance.

A model was proposed that involved limiting carbohydrate intake and increasing training load. Subsequently, the idea was to reduce training load and increase sugar intake prior to competition. In this way, the deposits were oversaturated and an advantage was obtained.

The truth is that the most current studies, such as one published in the journal Nutrition Reviews, argue that it’s not necessary to resort to such an aggressive dietary variation. It’s enough to manage training loads and rest periods, at stable carbohydrate doses, to achieve the same effect.

The evolution of the carbohydrate cycle

As we mentioned, the carbohydrate cycle is based on alternating periods that allow for the consumption of carbohydrates with others that restrict it. However, although it may make some metabolic sense to suggest something like this, this technique has evolved over time.

Chrononutrition experts claim that consuming sugar at night may have a more harmful impact on the human body. However, experts are recommending intermittent fasting periods nowadays more than carbohydrate cycles, since it achieves a more efficient caloric restriction.

However, for those who don’t adhere to fasting protocols, limiting carbohydrates at certain times can be effective. Usually, such restriction occurs during the nighttime period, in order to take advantage of hormonal variations.

A man sitting at a table in front of a variety of carbohydrate sources.


Carbohydrate cycling, a controversial strategy

Despite the above, there are many experts who are against carbohydrate cycling, in any of its forms. They argue that all macronutrients should be consumed in a minimum proportion, avoiding prolonged periods of fasting or the absence of any of these elements in the diet on a continuous basis.

This is a subject that generates discordance. However, science is, in many ways, in favor of carbohydrate restriction, either by establishing a cycle or by reducing carbohydrate consumption in general.

It should be noted that the response to carbohydrates isn’t the same in all individuals. Much depends on metabolic health, the degree of physical activity, and genetic issues. In diabetic people, for example, a protocol such as carbohydrate cycling could be counterproductive in terms of blood glucose maintenance.

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  • Gardner, C. D., Trepanowski, J. F., Del Gobbo, L. C., Hauser, M. E., Rigdon, J., Ioannidis, J., Desai, M., & King, A. C. (2018). Effect of Low-Fat vs Low-Carbohydrate Diet on 12-Month Weight Loss in Overweight Adults and the Association With Genotype Pattern or Insulin Secretion: The DIETFITS Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA, 319(7), 667–679. https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.2018.0245
  • Murray, B., & Rosenbloom, C. (2018). Fundamentals of glycogen metabolism for coaches and athletes. Nutrition reviews, 76(4), 243–259. https://doi.org/10.1093/nutrit/nuy001