3 Strategic Ways To Cycle On & Off Your Keto Diet For Optimal Results
The benefits of a high-fat, moderate-protein, low-carb keto diet occur largely because your body is tapping into the metabolic state of nutritional ketosis—when you burn fat for fuel as opposed to glucose (or carbs). And, after an initial adjustment period, many people feel great eating low-carb and staying in ketosis over the long term.
But if you've ever tried keto—and you really gave it a good shot—and something just felt off, you're definitely not alone. This doesn't mean you have to bail on keto altogether, though. The fact is, we are all different, and while some people do really well in long-term nutritional ketosis, others experience a greater benefit from the diet (and gain metabolic flexibility) when they strategically cycle out of ketosis now and then by upping their intake of healthy carbs.
The good news: When done correctly, cycling on and off keto won't dull the fat-burning, brain-boosting, inflammation-calming, craving-crushing health benefits. In fact, taking the time to listen to your body and personalize your keto diet to meet your needs is exactly what takes keto from the realm of fad diets to that of a real, sustainable wellness tool.
I talk about this type of flexibility in my (mostly) plant-based keto diet book, Ketotarian, and as a functional medicine practitioner, I've found it to be quite effective among my patients. I generally advocate trying keto—in which you eat no more than 55 grams net carbs from real, minimally processed food sources per day—for at least a month. But after that, many people do well with one of the following three variations of the keto diet:
1. The "moderate carb" approach.
In this approach, you increase your daily carbs to 75 to 155 grams of net carbs per day (pro tip: net carbs = total carbs minus fiber). You'll also want to compensate for this increase by reducing your healthy fat intake. For example, a good macronutrient ratio would be 20% carbs, 65% fat, and 15%t protein.
An easy way to do this is adding some of the healthy carb options below. I often suggest adding some of these extra carbs as sides with your clean keto dinner. This allows you to leverage the "sleepy time" effects of carbs around bedtime to promote quality sleep.
- Cooked carrots: 8 grams net carbs per 1 cup
- Blueberries: 18 grams net carbs per 1 cup
- Baked sweet potato: 23 grams net carbs per potato
- Baked yam: 33 grams net carbs per yam
- Rice: 45 grams net carbs per 1 cup (depending on the type of rice)
- Other fruits and fruit smoothies
If you feel better with higher carb intake, there should be no shame in that. A lot of people beat themselves up or feel like they've failed if they go over a supposed "carb limit," but it's all about what works for you. In fact, a lot of women actually do really well with a slightly higher carb intake. And if you're an athlete, boosting your carb intake before a big workout or event can be helpful as well.
2. The "weekly carb cycling" approach.
Another great way to find your carb sweet spot is to cycle your carb intake throughout the week. During a typical week, you'll eat less than 55 grams of net carbs for five or six days, then increase your carbs (with some of the healthy carb-rich foods from the above list) to 75 to 155 grams for the next one to two days.
I usually suggest this option if people have hit a weight loss plateau, as it seems to help jump-start metabolism. Like the approach above, this one can also be a great option for women, who tend to do better eating more carbohydrates in general, and endurance athletes, who need more carbs to fuel their workouts.
I don't typically recommend this option for people with insulin resistance, diabetes, or inflammatory issues or people who have more than 10 pounds of weight they want to lose. And again, if you are eating less than 55 grams of net carbs a day and feeling great, there is no need to eat more.
3. The "seasonal keto" approach.
Lastly, going into ketosis seasonally may be a good choice for you, especially if you try to eat mostly local, in-season foods. From an ancestral health perspective, this tool mimics the dietary cycles that humans would have once gone through naturally. In the winter, when fruit was harder to find, our ancestors would end up consuming fewer carbohydrates. However, during the summer, they would eat more berries and starchy root veggies like carrots, resulting in a higher intake of healthy carbs. I have seen firsthand how great adjusting your foods with the seasons works for those who have the metabolic flexibility to tolerate higher carbs from whole, clean food sources.
Who should try these options?
Again, I usually suggest starting with a keto diet consisting of less than 55 grams of net carbs per day for at least 30 days to help your body become keto-adapted (aka more of a "fat burner"). Then you can play around with one of the above options. If you're not sure which one will work best, I suggest first trying the "moderate carb" and "weekly carb cycling" approaches separately, for 30 days each, to see which one makes you feel better. Assess your energy, brain function, digestion, sleep, and overall life enjoyment while implementing the suggestions above.
The seasonal keto approach isn't something that can be assessed quite as quickly, so if you're at all curious about the other two options, I recommend trying seasonal keto last.
Generally speaking, I find that women, as well as many people who are very lean or stuck at a weight loss plateau, do really well with one of the above three options. Many of my female patients also do quite well when they increase their carb intake around their period and/or ovulation—once or twice a month—as opposed to cycling in added carbs every week. This helps with hormonal balance and energy levels, and details on exactly how to implement this type of monthly keto carb cycling can be found in this post.
On the other hand, I have found that many people who are prone to insulin or weight-loss resistance, insatiable cravings, or neurological problems thrive in longer-term nutritional ketosis. Still other people may do great with a higher carb intake long term but choose to go back to ketosis when they want a metabolic reset.
Ultimately, it's about experimenting and tweaking your keto diet until you find what helps you reach your goals in a balanced, sustainable way.