What The Hell Is ‘Nutrient Cycling’?


What The Hell Is ‘Nutrient Cycling’?

If you’re hungry for faster progress, Elite PT Andy Vincent presents the smart eating plan reshuffle that you need to try.


How much are you meant to eat each day? 2500kcals for men and 2000kcals for women, right? Come rain, shine, gym session or sofa day – if you stick to these numbers every day, combined with some exercise here and there, the popular conception is that you’ll set a course for success. However, it’s a little more sophisticated than that. That’s not to say it’s complicated – in fact, it’s entirely logical; and it’s called nutrient cycling.

So, let’s start by explaining exactly what a nutrient cycle is. If you think about it, you don’t use the same amount of energy every day. Think about the comparative calorie burn of a lazy sofa Sunday and a tough weekday of cycle commute and lunchtime workout, for example. A nutrient cycle, therefore, allocates more nutrients to active days to aid your performance and to fuel recovery.

So far, so simple, but it’s really only for those who already have a good understanding of nutrition. To benefit fully, ideally you need to be either tracking your daily intake, or have tracked in the past and know roughly what your daily intake is. Nutrient cycling is not an excuse to stuff your face after a workout, or a call to starve yourself during a sedentary day shackled to your desk. It should be a measured approach that shifts the dial of your average intake to suit your needs.

Put It Into Practice

Depending on your goal, nutrient cycling can be implemented for fat loss, muscle gain or for performance. It’s not so much a diet but a framework of how to plan out a week.

If fat loss is your goal then, like any diet, the aim is to create a calorie deficit. Let me give you some examples that you can trial for yourself.

Choose a three-day nutrient cycle. This has a high, moderate and low nutrient intake day. Then you allocate the days to the types of training that you do in a week. Days where you do weight training are your high intake days, when the demands of recovery are highest. Conditioning days or HIIT training would be your moderate and then recovery days where you either totally rest, do yoga or go for a long walk will be your lowest intake of nutrients. So a week can look like this:

Monday – Weight training – High intake
Tuesday – Conditioning – Moderate intake
Wednesday – Weight training – High intake
Thursday – Rest – Low intake
Friday – Weight training – High intake
Saturday – HIIT – Moderate intake
Sunday – Yoga – Low intake

As mentioned, if you’re looking for fat loss you need to achieve an energy deficit over the week. So, if you are consuming 1500kcal to achieve this deficit (which is where the aforementioned calorie-tracking savvy kicks in) your weekly intake shouldn’t exceed 10,500kcal. Your allocation could therefore look like:

1700kcal on high days (3 days)
1500kcal on moderate days (2 days)
1200kcal on rest days (2 days)

Total weekly intake = 10,500kcal

Is It Really Worth It?

You might be thinking, that’s a lot of effort to achieve the same results as consuming 1500kcal every day, and in part you’re right. However, if you’re after long-term, sustainable dietary success, there are major benefits to cycling.

1. When eating at a constant deficit, fuelling for and recovering post training can be hard, which can cause your training intensity to drop. Allowing yourself to eat more around a session helps you to maximise the benefits.

2. Staying in a deficit every day can be mentally challenging. Knowing that for three days a week you can eat more of what you like will serve as ballast to your brittle willpower over longer periods.

Does It Work For Building Muscle, Too?

If you’re looking to build muscle then you need to eat at your maintenance level of calories or in a slight surplus. Then the next step is to look at your training splits. If, for example, you are doing upper and lower splits then you would have your lower body days as your high intake days, upper body days as your moderate intake and then rest or conditioning days would be your lower intake days.

Within a nutrient cycle you would also do nutrient timing – most commonly, eating the bulk of your carbs around your workout. This means having carbs before and after training. If you’re doing morning training you would ensure you have carbs with your evening meal the previous day, too.

This protocol is no magic pill. Nor is it a seesaw between feast and famine. Instead it is a smart way to tweak your week and bring some flexibility to the world of eating plans – a sphere where rigid structure too often leads to failure. Try it and see; jumping in the saddle of nutrient cycling may be what you need to finally ditch that stubborn inch of fat.

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