Carb cycling is a diet plan that alternates between low and high carbohydrate days. This kind of cycle can be applied to many types of diets, such as the ketogenic diet or the paleo diet.
If you’ve been on the keto diet for a while, you may have bought into “carb phobia” — an intense fear of carbs. And it may come as a surprise to learn that increasing your carb intake can be beneficial. So what’s keto carb cycling all about? And how does it work in practice? In this article, we’ll take you through everything you need to know about carb cycling and why it might be right for you.
What Is Carb Cycling On Keto?
First, let’s review the principle of keto. Basically, keto is a very low-carb diet. In other words, it aims to restrict your carbohydrate intake as much as possible. Most experts agree that you should aim for 50g or less of net carbs per day on this type of eating plan (7). Net carbs are calculated by subtracting the fiber content from total carbohydrates.
So what does this mean in practice? For most people, it means eating lots of healthy fats, moderate amounts of protein, and the bare minimum of carbs, most of which would come from fruits and non-starchy vegetables. The point of eating this way is to force your body to burn fat for energy instead of glucose.
In essence, by eating this way you get yourself into a metabolic state called “ketosis,” where your body burns fat as its main fuel instead of carbs (7). If by doing this, you put your body into a calorie deficit, you can lose weight.
Now, why would you need to change this seemingly efficient weight loss strategy? Well, for some people, the standard keto diet just doesn’t meet their physical and sometimes hormonal needs. Such people include:
- Athletes who need more energy for intense workouts
- Those going through stressful life periods
- Those who can’t seem to get past the keto flu symptoms (fatigue, brain fog, dry eyes, and mouth)
- Women who struggle with extreme symptoms at the start of their period
- Those who see a lifetime of limiting high-carb foods as difficult or depressing
The carb cycling keto diet is a great alternative for such people. It involves eating a high-carb diet on 1-2 non-consecutive days of the week (1). On the other days, you eat a standard keto diet.
The carb cycling vs keto comparison below puts this in better perspective:
- Standard keto diet: approximately 55-75% of calories from fat, 20-30% from protein, and less than 10% from carbohydrates.
- Carb cycling keto diet: follow the standard keto diet most of the week, but on 1-2 days get 55-75% of calories from carbs, 20-30% from protein, and less than 10% from fat.
Notice that, while fat and carbs trade places in the comparison above, dietary protein remains constant. For maintaining muscle, healing wounds, creating immune cells, producing hormones, and structuring every tissue in your body—there is no substitute for protein (8)
For producing energy, however, both carbs and fat are up to the task. When you carb cycle, you oscillate between these energy sources.
What Is The Difference Between Keto Cycling And Carb Cycling?
The cyclical keto diet is not the same as carb cycling.
While carb cycling, you lower your carb intake for 4-6 days and eat high carb for 1-3 days each week. In principle, the alternating low and high carb intake is similar to keto cycling. However, the carb consumption on low-carb days for the carb cycling diet isn’t low enough to induce ketosis.
Benefits Of Carb Cycling On Keto
There isn’t much research on cyclical keto. So, the benefits of this diet are mostly speculative. That said, below are some benefits you might enjoy from switching up your keto diet by introducing more carbs (10):
One of the reasons why keto carb cycling is a good idea for exercise is because you will not be as tired or exhausted as you might have been if you had stayed on a keto diet. Many individuals who eat this way often experience high levels of fatigue during their workouts, especially when they are working out with heavyweights. The reason? Their bodies don’t have enough glycogen to power them (4).
Using a cyclical keto diet can boost your energy levels and keep them steady so that you can achieve the body type that you desire without having to worry about getting tired too easily, or feeling less than optimal even though you’re exercising regularly.
Exercise enhancement is one of the biggest benefits of using this kind of diet when it comes to weight loss. If you’re not tired, it will be much easier for you to stick with your routine and push yourself harder at the gym.
An obvious benefit of using cyclical keto dieting is that since your body has enough glycogen stored, your energy levels won’t dip as they might have if you were still on a strict keto diet. As mentioned earlier, many people who follow this kind of diet end up feeling fatigued and tired when they exercise seriously because their bodies are low on glycogen.
Improved Muscle Gains
Muscle-building — or anabolic — hormones like insulin are suppressed when following very low-carb diets like the keto diet (6).
Carb cycling may help restore these hormones back to healthy levels. By strategically introducing more carbs on days you train, you might be able to maximize your anabolic hormones (after all, insulin is considered to be one of the most powerful anabolic hormones) (5).
That said, studies show that higher carb intake doesn’t necessarily increase insulin sensitivity or even inhibit muscle breakdown for post-workout meals. So it’s still not clear whether carb cycling would help optimize muscle growth over a long period of time (especially if keto dieting is already working well for you).
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Improved Gut Health
Given that most people on keto are focused on improving their health, the fact that carb cycling could improve overall gut health might be just what they’re looking for. If you aren’t getting enough fiber from vegetables, healthy fats, or fermented foods (e.g., sauerkraut) – then low-carb dieting could contribute to low levels of good gut microbes.
Not getting enough fiber, which can easily happen on a low-carbohydrate diet, has been shown to reduce the amount of beneficial bacteria in the gut and cause dysbiosis (2). Both of these are bad for a healthy gut. In other words: if you aren’t eating enough fiber, you aren’t feeding the bacteria that help prevent metabolic diseases like diabetes and inflammation.
Physical Ability Increase And Mental Clarity
Because there are periods where the carbohydrate amounts increase in a cyclical keto cycle, physical and mental abilities can be boosted. This can result in relief from keto flu symptoms (11) and:
- better brain clarity
- more energy to do activities
- better physical abilities
- more productivity on a daily basis.
A More Flexible Metabolism To Help You Lose Weight
Because your carbohydrate intake comes in waves during a cyclical keto cycle, you might experience better metabolic flexibility, which may lead to:
- better appetite management
- lower blood glucose and insulin levels
- less fat storage.
Likewise, your body may be able to burn fat stored in there faster because of the increase in energy consumption that goes with eating carbohydrates and exercising on a cyclical keto diet. This can help you lose weight quicker than if you were still trying to lose weight while staying off carbs altogether.
A Better Mood And Fewer Food Cravings
Since you’re allowed to eat some carbs during this diet, your mood might be brighter and you can have fewer cravings for sugar. By having a determined carb amount cycling on keto, it will become easier for you to control your sugar cravings as well as your food cravings in general, without feeling deprived of the foods that you want to consume most of all. This helps you stay motivated to stick to your diet. If you’re looking for a way to lose weight while feeling less deprived, carb cycling on keto might just be the right thing for you.
Reduced Hunger Pangs
Along with helping you control your food cravings, it has been observed that most of the people who use this kind of diet say that they end up feeling less hungry as well. This can be a huge advantage when it comes to losing weight because if you’re not as hungry as you used to be, it will become easier for you to stick with your diet and eat fewer calories.
How To Get Started On Keto Carb Cycling
Follow these practical tips to get started with keto carb cycling the right way:
- Start with standard keto for about a month – this gives your body time to adapt to using fat for fuel. It will help you return to ketosis faster after high-carb days.
- Plan your cycle – pick a day or two per week to eat high carb, and commit to it. Planning makes the diet easier to stick to. A low-carb day before a high-carb day may help get you back in ketosis faster.
- Choose healthy carbs – make sure your carbohydrate sources are healthy ones, such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Avoid white rice, white pasta, and white bread.
- Learn to read nutrition labels – don’t eat foods with lots of hidden sugars or starches.
- Stay hydrated – drink plenty of water when you’re eating more carbs.
- Remember the diet is about fat loss – If you want to lose weight on keto carb cycling, keep calories down (with a deficit) so that you can burn body fat for energy instead of carbs or protein. This means counting calories and weighing meals if necessary!
- Don’t freak out about “unnatural” foods – it’s not unusual for people new to keto carb cycling to feel like they’re cheating when they eat higher-carb foods. Don’t worry, you’re not! You are nourishing your body with foods that will support your health and help you achieve your goals.
You can use an app or other tracking method (notes on paper are easy) to plan your cycle days and count your carb grams from extra veggies like leafy greens. If needed, break larger servings into smaller ones: for example, half of an avocado is 1/2 of one serving of fruit per day.
The Keto Carb Cycling Meal Plan
When planning your keto carb cycling meals, there are 3 major types of carbs you’ll consider:
These carbs are not broken down by the body, so they have no calories or effect on blood sugar levels. They help keep you full and prevent constipation during high-carb days.
Fiber-rich carbs include vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, peppers, spinach (yes!), lettuce, onions…and most fruits that can be eaten with skin on. On high-carb days, choose as many fiber-rich carbs as you’d like, within your daily calorie limits.
Unrefined Complex Carbs
These carbs are broken down by the body, but they don’t cause a large jump in blood sugar levels. They do have calories and will kick you out of ketosis if eaten frequently throughout the day, so it’s important not to overdo it.
Examples of unrefined complex carbs include starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes, winter squash, yams, and rutabaga, along with whole grains (like whole wheat, brown rice, quinoa, oats) and legumes like beans and lentils. On high-carb days, choose a maximum of 2 servings of unrefined complex carbs.
These carbs are quickly broken down by the body and cause blood sugar levels to spike. Examples include white bread, white pasta, and white rice…and any other carb that has been highly processed which removes the fiber and other nutrients. On high-carb days, choose no more than 1 serving of refined carbs per meal, or avoid them altogether.
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Carb Cycling Meal Plans For Keto Beginners
Don’t know where to get started? Here’s an example day for someone who is just starting keto carb cycling: Note that this meal plan only uses the first two types of carbohydrates listed above, because these should be the only carbs you rely on to start with. It’s a basic keto diet plus 1-2 high-carb days per week but still allows for fat loss and sustainable weight loss even in those first few weeks.
The meal plan below consists of 1500-calorie diets:
Day One – Low Carb (9)
- Breakfast: 1 serving pice de gallo egg white cups and 4 strips of bacon – 2.7g carbs, 28.7 g fat, 13.4 g protein and 326 calories.
- Snack: 2 servings (2 oz) of cheese slices – 0.8g carbs, 19.2g fat, 13.6g protein and 230.2 calories.
- Lunch: 1 serving keto avocado pepperoni salad and 1 oz of almonds – 4.6g carbs, 43.1g fat, 21.5g protein and 508 calories.
- Dinner: 1 serving BLT lettuce wraps and 2 large ebay hard-boiled eggs – 6.8g carbs, 32.3g fat, 20.4g protein and 409.4 calories.
- Total daily carbs: 14.9 carbs
- Total daily calories: 1474 calories
Day Two – Low Carb (9)
- Breakfast: 1 egg, cheese and bacon omelet – 1.5g carbs, 2.6g fat and 34.2g protein and 347.7 calories.
- Snack: 1 serving plain tuna salad and 2 celery stalks – 3.3g carbs, 4.9g fat, 32.7g protein and 191.7 calories.
- Lunch: 2 servings turkey lettuce roll ups with 1 black olives with cheddar – 6.5g carbs, 19.4g fat, 25.7g protein and 311.3 calories.
- Dinner: 1 serving kielbasa and cauliflower stir fry – 21.1g carbs, 43.9g fat, 34.5g protein and 624 calories.
- Total daily carbs: 32.4 carbs
- Total daily calories: 1475 calories
Day Three – High Carb (9)
- Breakfast: 1 bowl of knock-oats – 63.5g carbs, 19.6g fat, 14g protein and 451 calories.
- Snack: 8 ounces of greek yogurt with 1 cup strawberry halves – 19.8g carbs, 1.3g fat, 24.1g protein and 182 calories.
- Lunch: 2 servings of tuna mex tuna salad – 13.3g carbs, 19.4 g fat, 47.4g protein and 398 calories.
- Dinner: 1 BBQ chicken sandwich – 40.2g carbs, 14.9g fat, 41.8g protein and 470 calories.
- Total daily carbs: 136.8 carbs
- Total daily calories: 1501 calories
Day Four – Low Carb (9)
- Breakfast: 2 servings of a Turkey omelet – 8.5g carbs, 4.2g fat, 50.2g protein and 615 calories.
- Snack: Turkey lettuce roll ups and 1 medium apple – 24.8g carbs, 9g fat, 18.8g protein and 213.5 calories.
- Lunch: 1 serving turkey lettuce cheese roll ups – 3.2g carbs, 16.4g fat, 23.7g protein and 258 calories.
- Dinner: 2 servings keto pizza chips with 2 large easy hard-boiled eggs – 3.1g carbs, 31.4g fat, 28.7g protein and 418 calories.
- Total daily carbs: 39.6 carbs
- Total daily calories: 1505 calories
Day Five – Low Carb (9)
- Breakfast: 1 serving spinach, swiss and egg white omelet with 4 strips of bacon – 2.7g carbs, 23.5g fat, 23.8g protein and 326 calories.
- Snack: 1 ounce of pecans – 1.2g carbs, 20.4g fat, 2.6g protein and 196 calories.
- Lunch: 1 serving turkey lettuce cheese roll ups and 1 ounce of almonds – 5.7g carbs, 30.6g fat, 29.7g protein and 422 calories.
- Dinner: 1 lettuce wrapped cheeseburger – 7.1g carbs, 42.8g fat, 33.6g protein and 557 calories.
- Total daily carbs: 16.7 carbs
- Total daily calories: 1500 calories
Day Six – High Carb (9)
- Breakfast: 8 ounces breakfast smoothie with 2 slices of buttered toast – 56.9g carbs, 14.1g fat, 9.1g protein and 378 calories.
- Snack: 1 cup of grapes with 1 medium apple – 52.5g carbs, 0.6g fat, 1.6g protein and 199 calories.
- Lunch: 2 servings of tuna stuffed pepper – 24.8g carbs, 5.5g fat, 70.1g protein and 424 calories.
- Dinner: 2 servings of Asian style beef and broccoli – 17.2g carbs, 29.3g fat, 41.4g protein and 492 calories.
- Total daily carbs: 151.4 carbs
- Total daily calories: 1494 calories
Day Seven – Low Carb (9)
- Breakfast: 1 serving mug omelet with 2 cups of strawberries – 18.9g carbs, 31.4g fat, 32.6 g protein and 508 calories.
- Snack: 1 oz almonds – 2.6g carbs, 14.2g fat, 6g protein and 164.1 calories.
- Lunch: 1 serving chicken celery sticks – 9.1g carbs, 16.8g fat, 33.4g protein and 341 calories.
- Dinner: 1 serving firecrackers burgers with 6 spears of roasted asparagus – 3g net carbs, 36.5g fat, 29.2g protein and 467 calories.
- Total daily carbs: 33.6 carbs
- Total daily calories: 1480 calories
The Bottom Line
If you’re having a hard time with the standard keto diet, carb cycling might be the perfect solution for you. It allows you to eat fewer carbs on certain days while eating more carbs on other days. It’s a simple way to make your body think it’s getting enough glucose, which can help reduce cravings and hunger pangs on low-carb days. It’s also a great way to get past those pesky keto flu symptoms.
This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!
- Carb Cycling: What Is It, and How Does It Work? (2020, webmd.com)
- Dietary Carbohydrate Constituents Related to Gut Dysbiosis and Health (2020, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Effects of varying amounts of carbohydrate on metabolism after weight loss (2018, hsph.harvard.edu)
- Fundamentals of glycogen metabolism for coaches and athletes (2018, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Insulin effects in muscle and adipose tissue (2011, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Insulin Sensitivity and Glucose Tolerance Are Altered by Maintenance on a Ketogenic Diet (2013, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Ketogenic Diet (2021, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Protein for Life: Review of Optimal Protein Intake, Sustainable Dietary Sources and the Effect on Appetite in Ageing Adults (2018, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Put your diet on autopilot (n.d., eatthismuch.com)
- Strategies of dietary carbohydrate manipulation and their effects on performance in cycling time trials (2013, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- The effect of a low-carbohydrate, ketogenic diet versus a low-glycemic index diet on glycemic control in type 2 diabetes mellitus (2008, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)