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Standard Keto Too Hard? Try the Cyclical Ketogenic Diet
By Rachel Link, RD, MS
May 19, 2020
While the idea of following a cyclical keto diet may seem like a recent trend, cycling in and out of ketosis is nothing new. Our ancestors are believed to have done this unintentionally for periods of time throughout history because a variety of food wasn’t always plentiful to them.
Whether you’ve already had success while on a “traditional ketogenic diet” and are now looking to maintain your results, or you’re new to very-low carb dieting and want to ease in, a cyclical ketogenic diet can be a good option.
The ketogenic (“keto”) diet is a high-fat, very low-carb diet. It causes your body to use fat for energy, rather than carbohydrates.
Without glucose coursing through your body, you produce ketone bodies instead that help to fuel your brain, muscles and organs. Once your blood levels of ketones rise to a certain point, you officially reach nutritional ketosis.
The keto diet can be a great tool for reaching your health-related goals — since it can support you in healthy weight management and body composition, promoting mental clarity, and managing hunger and promoting already-healthy blood sugar levels.
Being in ketosis can help support you in your weight loss goals or maintaining a healthy stable weight.
When you increase your consumption of healthy fats, this also helps to create satiety, leaving you feeling fuller between meals. And because ketosis supports healthy blood sugar management, many people in ketosis report feeling that they have high amounts of energy.
Your carbohydrate intake is very limited while on the keto diet. To stay in ketosis, most people need to eat under 50 grams of net carbs per day (and often even less). This means that foods like grains, sweetened drinks, desserts and even fruit are off limits.
When first beginning the keto diet, it’s also not uncommon to experience some temporary keto-associated side effects while your body gets accustomed to using fat for fuel — such as cravings, sluggish digestion and low energy.
Keto-cycling is a version of “carb-cycling," in which you eat higher amounts of carbs on some days, and lower amounts on others.
Compared to a “strict keto diet," cycling allows for a period of hours or days when you purposefully increase your carbohydrate (and sometimes protein) consumption.
What happens when you eat carbs after keto? While following a cyclical keto diet, you fluctuate in and out of nutritional ketosis. Cyclical ketosis means that you sometimes burn mostly fat for energy, and other times burn mostly carbs. On days when you eat more carbs you won’t be in ketosis; however, you can shift back in once you drop carbs low for 1-2 days.
Why is carb cycling good for keto? There are several reasons why this approach is appealing:
It can be used to maintain your results while giving you more dietary flexibility. By varying your diet between periods of being stricter and more flexible, you can help prevent yourself from feeling “burnt out,” deprived or from losing motivation.
By boosting your glucose consumption from carbs, you may help ward off certain keto side effects from occurring.
May lead to less cravings and hunger, since your favorite foods can be enjoyed in moderation.
Gives you the opportunity to eat a greater variety of foods, which can help to maintain adequate nutrient intake and to support gut health (including fiber, vitamins and minerals).
Can be useful for supporting muscle recovery following exercise, since higher carb intake helps to replenish glycogen stores and can be used to power tough workouts.
Helps to signal your body to maintain beneficial hormone levels, which are important for sleep, your mood, energy and more.
Can help you to stay “metabolically flexible,” meaning that your body stays accustomed to using both fat and carbs for energy.
For many people, following a very-low carb diet is not the easiest thing to do, especially long-term. For those who don’t want to give up eating most carbs forever, but have found that low-carb dieting helps them reach their goals, carb-cycling can be a good fit.
Can you reach your weight goals on a cyclical ketogenic diet? Like with every type of diet, this depends on the individual and exactly what they’re eating.
It’s certainly possible to do so if you eat a nutrient-dense, “clean keto diet” most days of the week. Ultimately, there are a handful of factors that will likely determine whether you reach those weight goals on a low-carb diet, including your starting weight, genetics, activity level and total calorie intake.
One popular approach to doing a cyclical keto diet is to follow a rotating three-day pattern:
For two days consume fewer than 30 grams of carbs per day.
On the third day consume between 75 and 100 grams of carbs (higher carb days are commonly referred to as “re-feeds,” and might involve eating more calories, too).
Repeat this cycle, which will still keep your overall carb consumption low but will provide you with enough to replenish glycogen and support muscle recovery.
Feel free to experiment and try different methods of cycling; however, keep in mind that you may feel best if your stricter keto days fall on non-consecutive days of the week. You may need to deal with some trial and error as you find out which approach works best for you.
What should your carbohydrate intake be? How many carbs will kick you out of ketosis?
On “strict keto days” limit your carb consumption to about 25-30 grams of net carbs per day, the amount recommended to stay in ketosis. (Net carbs are total carb grams minus fiber grams.)
During strict keto days you should be getting about 75 percent or more of your calories from fat, about 20 percent from protein and only around 5 percent from carbs. In other words, the bulk of your calories should come from fats.
On higher carb days, aim for about 100 net grams of carbs per day. Because you should feel more energized and your muscles will have access to more glycogen, try planning your harder workouts so they fall on higher carb days.
To stick to the principles of the keto diet, your focus should be on cutting added sugar and refined carbs from your diet, while eating plenty of healthy fats, plus vegetables and quality protein.
On lower carb days, focus on these foods:
Healthy fats and oils like olive oil, coconut oil and MCT oil
Grass-fed butter and ghee
Eggs, fish and grass-fed meat
Nuts and seeds
On higher carb days, eat the foods above plus these sources of healthy carbs and fiber:
Organic, unsweetened yogurt
Starchy veggies like sweet potatoes, beets, etc.
Legumes and beans
Sprouted whole grains
How long should you follow a cyclical keto diet?
As long as you feel good and are experiencing the results you’re looking for, you can continue to eat a cyclical ketogenic diet for many months or even years, since you’ll be consistently replenishing your glycogen supply and eating a wide variety of whole foods.
Remember that you always have the option to transition back to a stricter keto diet following cyclical ketosis if it makes sense to do so.
Certain keto supplements can help you to transition into ketosis more easily while you’re following a cyclical keto diet, such as exogenous ketone products. Here are some supplements to consider adding to your routine:
KetoFIRE— Provides exogenous ketones, MCTs (a source of fat) and adaptogens. These ingredients can help to boost energy levels as well as cognitive and athletic performance, plus to support a healthy metabolism and healthy weight management. KetoFIRE contains caffeine to support high energy levels, but also comes in a caffeine-free version.
Keto FIBER — A powerful combination of organic high fiber superfoods including chia, flax and cinnamon, boosted with fermented herbs and MCTs. These ingredients can help support healthy levels of inflammation, digestion and cardiovascular function.
Keto FUSION Organic MCT Oil — Derived from organic coconut, featuring medium-chain triglycerides that support natural ketone production and energy levels in the body. When you’re shifting into high-energy, fat-burning mode, MCTs can help provide you with fat to keep you fueled. You can take this oil by the spoonful or add a bit to a variety of recipes.
While it depends on the person, a strict keto diet is usually most appropriate and beneficial when it’s followed for about 2-6 months. After this point, a cyclical keto diet can be used long-term to maintain results.
You may want to kick start the keto diet by “going all in” at first and sticking to a very low carb intake for a period of time. If you go with this approach, it’s possible that you may deal with some keto side effects initially, such as low energy, sluggish digestion and cravings. These usually clear up within a couple weeks, so try to be patient as your body adjusts.
It might be tempting to treat higher carb days like “binges” in which you throw all rules out the door. But if you “go wild” on higher carb days, it may make it harder to get back into ketosis the next day and might leave you feeling sluggish and bloated.
Even on your higher carb days, try to avoid eating lots of added sugar, processed foods and artificial sweeteners — which are found in foods like cereals, ice cream, sweetened beverages, flavored yogurts, snack bars, etc. Stick to a clean diet, whether you’re cutting carbs or not, in order to get the best results overall.
A cyclical keto diet is a variation of carb-cycling. It involves eating higher amounts of carbohydrates on certain days of the week, and restricting carbs in order to get into ketosis the other days.
A cyclical keto approach can help you to maintain the benefits of ketosis long-term, plus it allows for more flexibility in your diet. Other benefits of a cyclical ketogenic diet include: supporting athletic performance and recovery, keeping hunger levels in check, inclusion of a wider variety of foods, and support for digestion and gut health.
How does it work? For two days consume fewer than 30 grams of carbs per day. On the third day consume between 75 and 100 grams of carbs from healthy, whole foods as a “refeed.”
Rachael Link, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian based in New York City. She completed her undergraduate degree in Dietetics at the University of Central Missouri and later received her Master’s degree in Clinical Nutrition from New York University. Rachael is passionate about plant-based nutrition and enjoys providing easy-to-understand information to readers looking to support their health.