On keto, you don’t have to obsess over counting calories. You don’t have to fork over cash for expensive meal plans. The one thing you have to do is extremely limit carbohydrate intake (usually to less than 50g a day). But what if carbs could be consumed occasionally while still following keto?
With the cyclical ketogenic diet, you can stay in ketosis most of the time while still enjoying carbs one or two days per week. It’s important to note the cyclical ketogenic diet is a less researched strategy based largely on experiments and anecdotal circumstances; but it may still be effective for some individuals when implemented properly.
Want to try the keto lifestyle but don’t want to give up carbs entirely? Here’s how it can be done.
1. How Cyclical Keto Works
The cyclical keto diet has a less formal structure than traditional keto.
Common practice is to eat keto several per week and consume controlled amounts of complex carbs the remaining day(s). While this may seem sacrilegious to the keto community, many strength athletes employ cyclical keto dieting because of the need for carbs on heavy training days. If you want to give cyclical keto a shot, first assess your needs, then figure out how to best implement them.
Phase 1: The Ketogenic Phase
As a quick refresher, the ketogenic diet produces metabolic adaptations in the body by almost eliminating carbs. The body will begin to employ fat as fuel, which also results in the release of ketones.
Ketones are a highly efficient fuel for the body, but one of their main benefits is also being fuel for the brain; unlike fat, ketones can cross the blood-brain barrier.
People on a cyclical keto diet follow the standard keto diet most of the time. [#Paolia2013] Five or six days of the week you consume between 50g – 100g of carbs or less. The majority of calories in your diet will come from healthy fat sources with a moderate protein intake and an extremely low amount of carbs.
The following macronutrient ratio should be used for standard keto days:
- 70% – 80% of calories from healthy fats
- 10% – 15% of calories from protein (or 20% – 25% if choosing a more liberal keto diet)
- 5% – 10% of calories from carbs
Low carb intake will eventually result in depleted glycogen stores, typically within 24 – 48 hours, leading to a breakdown of fat, leading to ketone production, resulting in a metabolic change.
Phase 2: The Carb Loading Phase
The word “carbohydrates” is a four letter word for people on keto. But on cyclical keto, “carbing-up” or “refeed days” allow more carb consumption than traditional keto based on (usually) needs for training. These carb days are not designed to be full-on cheat-with-all-the cake days, but should allow you to eat healthy carbohydrate options. Start with one day per week and see how your body responds.
The carb loading days should follow a macronutrient ratio of 30% – 40% of calories from carbs (similar, but still lower than the standard Western Diet), 25% – 30% of calories from protein, and 30% – 40% of calories from fat. Carbs should come from micronutrient-dense, whole foods.
Foods containing processed sugar should be avoided, as they can cause an unhealthy, rapid spike in insulin levels and provide no valuable nutrients.
Certain athletes might benefit from the advantages of strategic carb use. Bodybuilders and strength athletes may perform better with carbohydrates, as they’re a fast-burning fuel best employed for high-intensity exercise.1 The carbs provide your body with the appropriate fuel to perform and recover, which are converted to muscle glycogen and may enhance performance in strength-based exercises.
Be sure to schedule your carbohydrate intake around your heaviest workouts (even timing carb intake just before or just after your workout). Thinking bigger picture, those heavy workouts can also come on days following a carb refeed, optimizing usage of glucose stores. Remember—carb loading days are designed to enhance performance, not to cheat on your diet.
So now that you have an idea of the structure of your week cyclical keto dieting, lets talk about what you need to eat on each of those diet days.
The Ketogenic Diet Days
Here, you’ll be following the keto diet basics: eat lots of healthy fats, moderate protein, and very little carbs (less than 50g daily). Sounds easy enough, right? There may be more to it than you realize.
Here are some of the foods to consider including in your diet:
- Meats and fish: Choose unprocessed, organic or grass-fed meats high in fat, including beef and pork. Fish should be fatty, and contain a high amount of Omega-3 fatty acids, like salmon, or tuna.
- Eggs: A staple of the keto diet, these can be cooked in endless ways such as scrambled, fried, over-easy, omelettes, etc.
- Non-starchy vegetables: Leafy green options such as spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini, and bell peppers provide micronutrients for essential vitamins and minerals.
- Low-carb dairy: Butter and high-fat cheeses can be included in the diet. Milk on the other hand is high in carbs and should be used sparingly.
- Nuts: Can be consumed in moderation, but be aware of their relatively high caloric content. The best low-carb options are raw almonds, pecans, and macadamia nuts.
- Berries: Most fruits are not recommended on keto days, but limited amounts of berries are acceptable due to their low carb content.
- Healthy oils: Coconut oil, avocado oil, and MCT oil are all healthy fat sources used for cooking or dressings. If you’re looking for an easy source of MCT oil powder, you can check one out by clicking here.
Some foods have a sneaky-high carb count; here are a couple to avoid, that you may be unaware of:
- Butternut squash
- Sweet potatoes
- White potatoes
Since you’ll be in ketosis most of the time, the goal is to reap all the benefits associated with keto. But now that you have extra carbs in your tool belt to use sparingly, let’s look at which kinds of carbs are the best to use.
The Carb Loading Days
Rejoice! You’ve arrived at the one or two days a week with increased carb intake. These “refeed” days replenish glycogen stores for upcoming workouts, and on these days, the carbs will likely pull you out of ketosis.
Refeed days should be focused on consumption of quality whole food carbohydrate sources—not the overly processed potato chips that have been staring you down from the cupboard. Choose micronutrient dense, healthy complex carb options for best performance on workouts.
Some of the best choices include:
- Sweet potatoes
- White rice
- Brown rice
- Steel-cut oats
- Butternut squash
- Black beans
Foods containing simple sugars such as white breads, baked goods, candies, cakes, cookies, and chips should be avoided due to their lack of nutritional value. They can also cause high glycemic variability leading to negative side effects.2 Healthy complex carbs provide better satiety when compared to foods containing simple sugars.3
Although carb intake is increased, be sure to eat adequate protein to conserve lean body mass (LBM). Most studies suggest at least 0.8g per pound of LBM to prevent muscle loss. The leaner you become, the more efficiently your body burns fat due to increased resting metabolism.4
The carb loading days will vary depending on the specific person. You should start with one day per week and listen to your body. If your body responds favorably, try to add another carb loading day. Your body’s response can also be dependent on the amount of carbs and quality of those carbs; don’t go overboard on the, it’s not a free pass to throw your diet out the window.
Getting Back into Ketosis
You’ve consumed carbs for a day or two. Now time to get the body back into ketosis. You have a few options.
Intermittent fasting is an easy way to help kickstart ketosis. Common fasting schedules include a 24-hour fast once weekly, or a 16 / 8 fast, where you eat for eight hours during the day, and fast for the other 16. You can try to stop eating carbs as early as practical on your carb loading day and do not eat until noon the following day. Intermittent fasting will help to deplete glycogen stores from increased carb intake, resulting in the body turning to fat as fuel (and thus producing ketones).
Another way to help you get back into ketosis is high-intensity workouts.
Performing high-intensity exercise training (HIIT) after high carb days will help deplete glycogen stores.
Workouts requiring the most energy, such as circuit training, will be best for depleting glucose storage. Using the stored energy obtained during carb refeed days is optimal for performance and better results.
Fasting and glycogen depleting workouts will help trigger the production of endogenous ketones naturally, meaning the body will be producing its own ketones. The other way of triggering ketosis is exogenously, in which blood ketone levels are increased with the help of an external supplement.
Medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) are a great, everyday choice to help boost ketone levels. These are fatty acids that do not contain ketones, but instead are readily converted into ketones based on their shorter chain length.
Other supplements, like ketone salts, can raise ketone levels but have some side effects. They can often lead to overconsumption of sodium, can cause GI issues, and don’t have clear performance benefits.
If you’re looking for a deep, immediate ketosis, try H.V.M.N. Ketone. It’s the world’s first ketone ester drink, shown to improve performance and recovery. Within 30 minutes, it can raise ketone levels to 3.0mM -5.0mM.5,6 This will get you back into ketosis rapidly, and back on the right track to enter the keto cycling of your dieting.
3. Cyclical Keto vs. Carb Cycling
On the surface, cyclical keto may appear to be similar to other diets—like carb cycling.
Cyclical keto involves a mostly ketogenic diet mixed in with limited carb days for athletes who need to restore glycogen stores. These carb days are designed to take the body out of ketosis temporarily before returning to ketosis shortly thereafter.
Carb cycling is usually based around variable carbohydrate intake alternating throughout the week, involving high, moderate, or low carb days.7 High carb days are reserved for intense workouts while low carb days are generally reserved for rest days. Carb cycling can even get more granular; where cyclical keto focuses on number of carb days per week, carb cycling can even mean eating carb strategically throughout the day.
Carb cycling does not necessarily induce ketosis. Carb intake is adjusted each day, but it’s likely never reduced enough to get you into a ketogenic state. Carb cycling can work for athletes but isn’t necessarily about increasing ketone levels. If you’re an athlete who’d like to become fat-adapted but still needs carbs for high-intensity workouts, maybe carb cycling is right for you.
4. Benefits of Cyclical Keto
Your diet should work with your life, from exercise to social needs. But if you do try a cyclical keto diet, here are some benefits you might expect.
May Increase Muscle Growth / Performance on Keto
Performing regular carbohydrate refeed days may improve the performance of elite strength athletes on low-carb diets. Keto reduces insulin secretion but some people may argue insulin is important to allow amino acids and glucose into muscles increasing protein synthesis.11,12
Cyclical keto can be used strategically on intense training session days to enhance the anabolic effect of insulin for muscle development.
Preventing the Keto Flu
By entering in and out of ketosis, there’s a possibility you may experience the keto flu more frequently than someone who maintains ketosis constantly.
As the body struggles to adapt to using fat and ketones as primary energy sources, some symptoms may emerge during the transition period. The common side effects associated with carbohydrate withdrawal include: fatigue, irritability, weakness, nausea, and mood swings.13
Carb intake can help to get rid of the keto flu in the short term, but be warned, you may still get keto flu when you try to get back into ketosis. You can also try supplements, like H.V.M.N. Ketone, to lessen these symptoms by introducing ketones to the body while its depleted of fuel.
Increases Nutrient Intake
By semi-regularly consuming healthy complex carbohydrate sources, your diet may become more nutrient rich.
Foods such as sweet potatoes, quinoa, butternut squash, and brown rice are difficult to include on a ketogenic diet due to their high carb content. However, they provide valuable nutrients such as vitamin A, fiber, manganese, magnesium, and more.
While carb sources are not required for obtaining these micronutrients, they’re an added benefit of practicing cyclical keto. A poorly formulated keto diet can be micronutrient poor as food choices can seem limited.
Makes Keto Easier to Maintain
Some people may have difficulty sticking to a standard keto diet due to its restrictive nature. Cyclical keto encourages occasional carb consumption from whole food sources, allowing for a more varied diet.
Some people may find cyclical keto easier to follow from both a mental and physical perspective. It can be difficult to stick to a keto diet 100% of the time. Sometimes you should be allowed to get off keto to enjoy social gatherings with friends and family. No matter what diet you choose, adherence is more likely if you enjoy what you eat.
May Improve Lifespan and Longevity
Animal models suggest lifespan and midlife mortality may be improved with cyclical keto. Although not yet proven in humans, this study found cyclical keto to improve certain aging related health markers in mice.
In one study, memory, survival, and health-span in mice all improved while on a cyclical keto style diet, but not with a regular full time keto diet.14
In contrast, another study published in the same journal showed regular keto could increase lifespan and survival in mice, so the jury is still out as to if regular keto or cyclical keto is best.15
These results definitely open up the possibility you may not need to constantly be in ketosis to benefit from a low carb diet.
5. Downsides to Cyclical Keto
The current human research on cyclical keto is somewhat limited at the moment. Although one or two animal studies have shown promising results as mentioned above, it’s impossible to know its full effect on humans at this stage.
Cyclical keto may be counterproductive to weight loss if too many carbohydrates are consumed on refeed days. If you are consuming too many carbs on a regular basis, it may be difficult to get back into sustained ketosis in between refeeds.
Increased carb intake following glycogen depletion may also cause water retention and temporary weight fluctuations. Don’t get too caught up in the numbers on the scale—do what’s best for your body.
The downsides of cyclical keto are minimal, but should be considered when switching diets.
Is the Diet Right for You?
The research on the cyclical keto dieting is currently limited, but it may show promising results for certain groups depending on fitness and nutrition needs. But it is important to choose the diet right for you—what works for one person may not work for another.
No matter which diet you choose, be sure to pick a sustainable diet you can follow long term
This article was originally published on HVMN by Ryan Rodal