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What is carb cycling and why some athletes use it

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Some research suggests that carb intake goals should be adjusted daily.
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  • Carb cycling is a dietary method where you alternate your carbohydrate intake on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. 
  • Research has shown that the timing and amount of carb intake around physical activity can affect muscle recovery and athletic performance. 
  • Carb cycling may also help with weight loss, although it depends on which kind of carbs you are cutting or adding — and there may be even simpler dietary methods to lose weight. 
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Keeping track of popular diet regimens can seem nearly as difficult as actually sticking to a new food plan. But a key theme for many diets is limiting the number of carbohydrates you eat. 

Some diets, like the keto diet, are more extreme than others. If you're not a fan of cutting out nearly all carbs from your diet, then perhaps carb cycling is for you. 

If you're considering carb cycling, here's what you should know first. 

What carb cycling is, and how it works 

As the name suggests, carb cycling involves varying your intake of carbohydrates. The cycle itself varies — it's often daily, with people switching between high- and low-carb days, but it can also be weekly or monthly. 

For example, on a five-day carb cycling program, a person might eat around 100 to 125 grams of carbohydrates for three consecutive low-carb days, then consume 175 to 275 grams for two high-carb days, when they're more physically active. 

For perspective, the FDA recommends that someone on a 2,000 calorie diet should consume about 300 grams of carbohydrates daily.

Carb cycling is based on research that links carb intake with athletic performance and muscle recovery. A 2010 study in the Journal of Sports Medicine found that the timing and amount of carbohydrates a person eats affects how their body breaks down carbs into glycogen, a key source of energy in the body. 

Since more intense physical activity depletes glycogen faster, some research suggests that carb intake goals should be adjusted daily, based on the intensity of that day's workout. 

That's why you may want to eat more carbs around periods of physical activity. But many factors influence those results, including the type of workout, a food's glycemic index, nutrition composition, and quantity. 

Carb cycling may help you lose weight 

Weight loss, naturally, is a big reason people decide to try carb cycling. 

Those who want to cut back on carbs — while still having the leeway to indulge sometimes — might be attracted to the idea of carb cycling. The thinking is that their carb intake will "even out," says Liz Weinandy, a registered dietitian at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. 

Studies on the effects of carb cycling have mostly been theoretical, Weinandy says, since the concept is still relatively new. It might be that carb cycling can help with weight loss in the long run — but even when people do lose weight cycling carbs, it's possible that simply reducing calorie intake is playing a role, too. 

"Many people think going on one of these diets is going to be the magic bullet," Weinandy says. "Really what research has shown — time and time again — is that if you are reducing calories overall, you will lose weight." 

On the other hand, Weinandy says some people do have an easier time losing weight on low-carb diets. "But it doesn't necessarily mean that it's the best or the healthiest approach for them," she adds.  

Creating a diet that's low-carb and still healthy takes a lot of planning. So if you're curious about trying it, it's worth talking with a professional to see what the healthiest option is for you, since people's diet results can vary widely.

Not all carbs are created equal

Weinandy says she sometimes hears from patients that in order to cut down on carbs, they've cut out eating fruit, which misses the point. 

It's important to distinguish between complex carbs, like beans, lentils, and legumes — as opposed to chips or cookies, which are certainly high in carbohydrates, but not likely to be recommended by dieticians. 

Often, Weinandy says, the answer is more simple than overhauling your diet altogether. Think of your food choices as a lifestyle, rather than just as a means of changing your weight. Focusing on the quality of your entire diet — instead of just carbs — might end up yielding better, more lasting results. 

One incredibly useful tool: Write down everything you eat. According to Weinandy, that's a research-supported way to get in touch with your habits, especially mindless snacking you might not even realize you're doing, and understand what foods (and restrictions) work best for your body. 

Related stories about popular diets:

More: Health Explainers Health Diet Carbs
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