The Cyclical Ketogenic Diet
Why the cyclical ketogenic diet might be a good approach for athletes.
Disclaimer: The information in this article is not intended to replace personalized medical advice. A low carb diet may not be suitable for you. Consult your health care provider before making any changes to your lifestyle or use this information at your own risk.
What is a Cyclical Ketogenic Diet?
The cyclical ketogenic diet involves following a standard low carb, high fat ketogenic diet for 5-6 days of the week, followed by 1-2 days of eating a high carb diet (also known as carb loading). This approach allows you to obtain the benefits of both a ketogenic diet and a high carb diet, which can be important for people wanting to maintain a high intensity exercise regimen that requires carbohydrates.
From a historical perspective, cyclical dieting provided our ancestors with many health benefits. As hunter gatherers, humans used to experience alternating periods of fasting and bingeing, since we didn’t have 24/7 grocery stores. When food supply was high, such as during the warmer months and animal mating seasons, we were able to load up on carbs and calories. However, during colder months, our diets would have changed quite a bit and may have involved longer periods of fasting. On a smaller scale, our diets may have also varied from day to day, depending on the success of the hunt or how many plants we could forage. It has been shown that fasting has several benefits for the body, and the metabolic state known as ketosis provides a lot of the same effects.
Who Should Do a Cyclical Keto Diet?
The cyclical keto diet can have many benefits for athletes and people who exercise regularly. This is because it still allows you to include carbohydrates, in your diet, which is essential for muscle growth and repair. Most athletes will avoid a low carb high fat diet, because carbs provide energy for our muscles (stored as glycogen molecules), which get depleted when we work out and must be replenished.
A cyclical ketogenic diet also requires a more advanced understanding of nutrition, which is why it may not be suitable for beginners or first-time dieters looking to shed a couple of pounds. It is essential to give your body the right macronutrients in the right amounts on this diet and if you aren’t familiar with nutrient tracking and measuring, you may not see the intended results. If you are interested in starting a ketogenic diet, but don’t consider yourself an expert in nutrition, check out our guide to starting a clean ketogenic diet for beginners.
Finally, if your main reasons for wanting to follow a ketogenic diet involve health or medical concerns, such as to treat a neurological disorder or metabolic disease such as type 2 diabetes, a cyclical ketogenic diet is not recommended. Consuming a high carb diet even just 1-2 days a week can have detrimental effects for those dealing with serious medical conditions. Always speak to a practitioner about the right approach for you and discuss any previous or existing medical conditions that may affect your progress.
Benefits of a Cyclical Keto Diet
While there isn’t much clinical research on cyclical ketogenic diets specifically, there have been studies that show that when test subjects are fed a ketogenic diet for a period of time, and then switched back to a standard Western (i.e. high carb) diet. As a result, they experienced significant increases in lean body mass and athletic performance. This may have to do with the fact that ketosis induces an increase in the human growth hormones, which is normally stunted when insulin levels are high (i.e. when we consume carbohydrates). In addition, high fat diets have been linked to increases in testosterone levels, which encourages muscles growth and fat metabolism (this is true for both males and females!). Cyclical ketogenic dieters also receive the benefits of carb loading, which includes less muscle loss and better muscle repair after intense workouts.
Whether cyclical or not, we also know that ketogenic diets can have several positive effects on the body. Consuming a diet rich in healthy fats can reduce inflammation and repair damaged cells, similar to when we fast – but without the need to fast. The energy we obtain from metabolizing fat molecules (ketones) is also a much longer-lasting fuel source, allowing our bodies to sustain themselves for longer periods of time and perform better in endurance exercises. While a long-term ketogenic diet may not be suitable for someone such as an athlete who needs carbohydrates to rebuild muscle mass, a cyclical ketogenic can offer many of the same benefits while still allowing them to maintain (and even improve) their athletic performance.
How to Start A Cyclical Ketogenic Diet
If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably interested in trying a cyclical ketogenic diet. As always, speak to your health care provider first if you have any medical conditions that you are currently managing.
Macronutrients on a Cyclical Ketogenic Diet
During the ketogenic portion of the diet, one should aim to eat 30g of carbohydrates or less. Note that the less carbohydrates consumed, the quicker the body is able to get into ketosis, which is important since there are only 5-6 days of this phase! The rest of the diet on these days should consist of 70-80% healthy fats and 15-25% lean protein (leaving the remaining 5% or less from carbohydrates). Check out our top keto products that can help guide you through this phase of the cyclical ketogenic diet.
On carb loading days, it is advised to consume 60-70% of your daily calories from carbohydrates, 15% from fat and 15-25% from protein. Choosing clean, low glycemic carbohydrates such as whole grains, fruits, legumes and root vegetables is recommended to get the most nutrients from the diet and avoid the harmful health effects of refined or processed carbohydrates. See our selection of moderate carb products that can help you stay within these guidelines.
Another thing to consider for athletes trying to increase or decrease their body mass is their caloric intake. In general, you can follow these guidelines for how many calories you should be consuming every day to achieve your desired fitness goals:
- Gaining mass: 18 calories per pound of current body weight
- Losing mass: 12 calories per pound of current body weight
- Maintaining weight: 15-16 calories per pound of current body weight
Below are some more guidelines and tips you can use to get started with a cyclical ketogenic diet!
Re-Entering Ketosis After Carb Loading
Once you have completed a full week of cyclical ketogenic dieting, you will need to repeat the cycle again and again until your desired results are achieved. Unfortunately, you won’t snap right back into ketosis once you re-start the cycle; it takes a bit of training to get your body used to this method of eating. In addition, everyone will re-enter ketosis at slightly different rates, depending on things like how familiar your body is with keto dieting, how much you exercise and at what intensity, the types of carbohydrates you eat on carb loading days, and how consistent you are with the diet overall.
Here are some tips for helping your body into ketosis for a smoother transition:
- Stop eating 12-14 hours before you plan to wake up on day 1 of the ketogenic phase. This will allow the body sufficient time to deplete glycogen stores and prepare your body to enter ketosis after 1-2 days of carb loading.
- Perform HIIT (high intensity interval training) or intense weight training on an empty stomach the next morning (day 1). Throughout the day, maintain a very strict ketogenic diet with 0-2% carbohydrate intake. This combination of intense exercise and very few carbohydrates will help deplete any remaining glycogen stores so that your body can return to ketosis again rapidly.
- On day 2, perform a medium intensity workout on an empty stomach. Then, increase your carb intake to 3-5% carbohydrates and continue to eat this way for the remainder of the ketogenic phase.
Other Tips for Cyclical Ketogenic Dieting
Taking MCTs on ketogenic days can give yourself an extra boost of ketones and help the body get into ketosis quickly. Medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) are a type of fat that gets converted into ketones more rapidly than other types of fats. Taking MCT oil first thing in the morning is a great way to help the body shift into ketosis. You can add it to coffee, smoothies and salad dressings or drizzle it over proteins and vegetables.
It is also best to consume lower glycemic carbohydrates on carb-loading days to help you re-enter ketosis more quickly. These include whole foods such as unrefined grains (oats, quinoa, brown or wild rice, whole grain pasta, etc.), root vegetables (sweet potatoes, beets, yams, carrots, etc.), fruits and legumes. High glycemic foods, such as refined carbohydrates (found in white bread, short white grain rice, cold cereals, cookies, cakes, etc.), cause blood sugar levels to spike and insulin levels to rise and these effects make it harder for the body to transition into ketosis again. When insulin is high, the body can only use carbohydrates as fuel, rather than fat-derived ketones. So, insulin levels need to be restored to their normal basal levels before the body can effectively use ketones again for fuel, which can take a couple of hours. Then, your body must start producing ketones, which can take about 12 hours of overnight fasting.
While the cyclical keto dieting approach may not be suitable for everyone, it definitely provides interesting and useful insights into how our bodies work! Whether you choose to embark on a cyclical ketogenic diet or not, you may be able to apply information from this article into your own personalized diet and workout plan. Remember that it is important to consume carbohydrates if you plan to increase your muscle mass. In addition, our bodies are versatile and adaptable, but consistency is always key to health and nutrition. Find what works for you and implement a routine that will help your body get into a natural rhythm, regardless of whether you are feeding it carbohydrates or fats!
We hope that you enjoyed learning about the cyclical ketogenic diet and feel encouraged to continue your research on this topic if this dieting method interests you. If you would like to learn more about cyclical dieting or have information to add, join the conversation on our Facebook and Instagram pages. We’d also love to hear what you think about this article, and our products, so please also consider leaving a Google Review. And lastly, for the best selection low-carb and sugar-free products on sale, check out our weekly newsletter.