Counting macros and carb cycling are two different dietary approaches used by athletes, bodybuilders, and gymgoers with the goal of dropping fat and gaining muscle.
These are two popular methods that you’ll see people using nowadays. Both carb cycling and counting macros can give results, reducing body fat and helping to gain muscle especially when they’re combined with proper, consistent training and working out.
A commonly asked question though is which is the better approach to use?
Carb cycling and counting macros come with different pros and cons, so understanding both of these will help you to make the best choice for which approach will work for you.
Here I’ve covered everything you need to know about these two approaches.
Table of Contents
What Is Carb Cycling?
‘Carb cycling’ is a phrase used for a dietary approach that manipulates carbohydrate consumption in order to lose weight. Essentially, throughout the week or over the course of a couple of weeks, your carb intake varies.
Some days you would consume a higher amount of carbs. This would typically be done on days when you’re working out and you’re going to need more carbs to fuel a session.
However, you need to be careful with this – if you don’t do a lot of exercise or training on higher carb days then you’ll end up putting on fat as this higher amount of carbs isn’t being utilized for energy expenditure.
On other days you’d consume a low-carb or no-carb diet. This would usually be on rest days when you don’t need the same amount of carbs.
This allows your body to burn fat, helping you to lose weight and increase your overall muscle mass.
Although carb cycling can sound like a big dietary change, you’ve probably already heard of it or might even be doing it inadvertently.
In fact, some people end up carb cycling accidentally through cheat days. Most of the time they’d consume a pretty low carb diet, but during cheat days, go-to meals like pizza and burgers are high in carbs.
Is Carb Cycling Good for Fat Loss?
Carb cycling is good for fat loss. Taking short breaks from carb consumption allows your body to burn fat instead of burning carbs. However, on low-carb days, you shouldn’t overdo it by doing intensive exercise as this can be bad for your health.
Is Carb Cycling More Effective Than Low-Carb?
Carb cycling can be more effective than low-carb as you’re still giving your body the necessary carbs it needs to help you feel energized to work out intensely, whilst allowing your body to burn fat instead of carbs on rest days.
Low carb diets work well in the short term but most people struggle to follow them long-term. Fatigue, low energy levels, low levels of muscle glycogen (meaning you can’t get a pump in the gym), and cravings for treat foods make a low-carb diet very difficult to adhere to.
For this reason, carb cycling might not necessarily be more effective than a low carb diet but it’s one that’s definitely easier to adhere to which can result in better long-term results.
What Is Counting Macros?
Macros refer to macronutrients, basically the major nutrients the body requires which are protein, fat, and carbs. Counting macros is a different approach than carb cycling as it involves looking at your daily calorie and macros intake, not just carb intake.
The idea with counting macros is to stick to a set split of macros. For example, you might start out by having a 40/40/20 split of protein, carbs, and fat to begin with.
You’d usually stick with this split of macros for about two weeks and then change up your carbs and fat ratios before changing back to the original split.
This 6 week period is called a cycle. After the first cycle, you might want to change up your percentages to see what works best for you. For example, you could try a 30/50/20 split of protein, carbs, and fat to see what gives the best results.
As you lose weight you might also lower the number of calories you’re consuming each day within the cycle so that you continue to lose weight.
If you’re not sure how many calories you should be eating per day then there are plenty of online calculators which can point you in the right direction.
These online calculators can also tell you how many calories you should have to maintain or lose weight, so they can be really helpful.
Some of these online calculators will also work out the macro percentages for you, so you can see exactly what percentage of each of the three macros you should be getting during each week.
Counting Macros vs Carb Cycling (Which is Best)
There isn’t much evidence to suggest counting macros or carb cycling is more effective for losing weight and gaining muscle. However, counting macros has other advantages including flexibility, ease of meal prep, and helping to maintain steady energy levels.
To expand on this, both counting macros and carb cycling come with their own pros and cons.
Choosing between the two will depend on your own preferences. Here, I’ve explained the main pros and cons of each of these approaches so that you can decide for yourself which is best for you.
The main thing people are typically concerned with when it comes to deciding between counting macros and carb cycling is which approach is going to deliver the best results for helping to lose fat and gain muscle.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a clear-cut answer for which delivers the best result.
In fact, there’s limited scientific research on both of these approaches, but anecdotal evidence suggests that both approaches can deliver results.
Is Carb Cycling More Effective?
There’s no evidence to suggest that carb cycling is more effective than counting macros in terms of results for losing fat and gaining muscle. Anecdotal evidence suggests that both carb cycling and counting macros can deliver results.
Both counting macros and carb cycling require some calculations and work to keep track. For counting macros you need to determine what amount of protein, carb, and fat you should be eating during each aspect of the cycle.
Related – How to count macros
For carb cycling, you need to calculate what amount of carbs you’ll be consuming each day, with differences for days that you’re training and on rest days.
Although both approaches require you to do some calculating, most people find counting macros to be easier to figure out. This is because once you’ve figured out your macro split through some initial calculations you stick to it for weeks before changing.
In comparison carb cycling requires more calculating as you need to think about it daily. With carb cycling the level of carbs you’re consuming will vary daily and people can find this difficult to keep track of.
Having to think about these calculations each day therefore can be off-putting for some people.
Overall then, most people find it easier to keep track when counting macros as after you do some initial calculations you’re set for a couple of weeks. In comparison, carb cycling requires keeping track each day.
When you’re counting macros, the number of carbs and fats you consume will vary every couple of weeks, whilst the amount of protein stays the same.
In comparison, if you’re following a carb cycling diet then the number of carbs you’re consuming each day will vary depending on your activity level.
If you like to meal prep then, this makes counting macros a much easier diet to follow. You can batch cook all of the food that you’re going to be eating that week based on your macro split.
In comparison, if you’re carb cycling then you need to plan in advance what you’ll be eating depending on what level of activity you’re doing each day. This requires a lot more planning, which can make meal prepping a challenge.
So if you’re someone who likes to meal prep and have a set diet for a week or two at a time then counting macros is going to be a much more suitable approach.
When you’re carb cycling you have to monitor your carb intake each day.
This can mean that you end up missing out on foods that you’re used to having, especially higher-carb dishes like pasta and pizza. This is because higher-carb meals are reserved for days when you’re working out intensely, so you can’t eat them on rest days.
See also – What to eat on rest days
In comparison, when you’re counting macros you can have more variety in your diet, so long as you account for the macros of what you’re eating. This has psychological benefits as you won’t feel deprived of foods that you’re used to eating as you aren’t missing out on them.
In fact, there’s evidence to suggest that by not depriving yourself of foods you enjoy completely, you’re more likely to stick to the diet, and that way you’re more likely to see results in the long term.
This suggests that counting macros would be an approach that is more sustainable in the long term.
The bottom line then is that when it comes to flexibility, counting macros is definitely the more flexible approach.
Carbohydrates are important for energy levels. When carb cycling you will have low or no-carb days. As carbohydrates play a crucial role in supporting energy levels, this can mean that you experience low energy on those low or no carb days.
This can be a big problem for people.
Even though you wouldn’t be working out intensely (so you don’t need energy for that) you’ll be doing other things on those days that require you to have higher levels of energy, whether that’s working or seeing friends or whatever you’ll need the energy to do.
In comparison, when you’re counting macros you’re still going to have the same amount of carbohydrates, which means that you have a constant amount of energy coming from what you’re eating.
As a result, you’re less likely to experience these hits to your energy levels.
So in terms of supporting and maintaining steady energy levels counting macros would be the better approach.
When it comes to counting macros vs carb cycling it’s not necessarily a direct head to head. The approaches aren’t similar enough to rival diet strategies but there are similarities between the two, mainly the need to track a macro to some degree.
Carb cycling can be good for short-term fat loss whereas counting macros can be a good strategy to adopt if you want to adhere to a plan for the long term as it’s definitely a more sustainable approach.
Both diet approaches can have a degree of flexibility, though carb cycling is more of a fixed flexibility as you still need to get high, moderate, and low carb days in equal measure.
For some further reading, check out:
Counting macros but not losing weight
Does it matter what you eat as long as you hit macros