Exercise, Nutrition, Science
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Ketogenic Carb Cycling: The Ultimate Guide

Whether you’re looking to lose fat or gain muscle, the Cyclical Ketogenic Diet (CKD) is a great dietary strategy that maximizes fat loss, builds muscle and pushes your body into a fat burning state. Carb cycling limits the number of carbohydrates in order to reach ketosis on low-carb days and replenish depleted glycogen stores on high-carb days. Ketosis occurs when the glycogen stores in the body are depleted so the body turns to fat stores to use as energy in the absence of carbohydrates.

So can you have your cake and eat it too? Well, let’s find out.

How Does Ketogenic Carb Cycling Work?

Carb cycling works by alternating high-carb and low-carb days in order to shed fat and build muscle. The ketogenic diet trains the body to use fats as its primary energy source, by reducing carbohydrate consumption and levels of glycogen in the body. However, when we’re trying to build muscle our body needs glycogen for better performance and muscle growth, which is why it’s important to incorporate carb refeed days to replenish our glycogen stores.

Interestingly, carb cycling is as much a hormonal strategy as it is a caloric one. When carbs enter our blood stream we break it down into sugars (glucose) and insulin is released to use the glucose as fuel or for storage in the muscle cells. Low-carb days keep insulin levels low, which means glucose isn’t taken up by cells and fat stores are used as energy in the absence of carbs. High-carb days cause insulin levels to spike and the empty muscles are refilled with amino acids and nutrients.

Leptin, known as the ‘satiety hormone’, is produced by fat cells to regulate appetite. If you consume too many carbs, you can become leptin-resistant which means your body is unable to detect when you feel full. Low levels of leptin, which can occur when you follow a very low-carb diet, can have the opposite effect and cause the body to feel hungry, conserve energy and slow the metabolism right down. Carb cycling finds a happy medium. When leptin levels fall low on low-carb days, high-carb days reset this and keep us leptin-sensitive.

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Why Are Carb Refeeds Important For Muscle Growth?

You may be wondering why it’s important to incorporate high-carb days to maximize muscle growth. The purpose of low-carb days is to deplete your muscles of glycogen. Refeeds then replenish the glycogen stores that are needed for better performance and muscle growth prior to the next ketogenic cycle.

On high-carb days your body will temporarily switch out of ketosis and fill your muscles with glycogen to enhance training performance. Refeed days should be moderated as you need to be careful not to consume more carbs than you need to replenish your stores, as this can cause the excess glycogen to be stored as fat. It’s recommended that you allocate 5 days to low-carbs, which is when your body will reach a ketogenic fat burning state, along with 1-2 high-carb days to refill the muscles with glycogen.

How Does Carb Cycling Burn Fat?

Ketogenic carb cycling trains the body to use dietary fats and fat stores as its primary energy source, rather than glycogen in the body. Carbohydrates are always your body’s preferred fuel source, but when the stores are depleted your body switches to fat as its fuel source instead. By limiting your carb intake to less than 30g per day on low-carb days, your energy comes from fat and protein instead.

Your body will become fat adaptive after around 3-14 days. You may initially experience the ‘metabolic switch’ period, also known as ‘brain fog’, which is basically when your body begins to synthesize the enzymes and re-trains your body to use fat as its primary fuel source. This synthesis can take a bit of time but it will only be short-term, and once the body gets used to it you’ll have much more energy than before.Nutrition_Metabolic_Summary

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What Are The Benefits Of Ketogenic Carb Cycling?

You mean…benefits other than losing fat and gaining muscle? Well, there are many! The great thing about carb cycling is that you learn so much about your body and how to make smart dietary choices, so you feel mentally and physically empowered and better still, you lose fat and build lean muscle.

It’s also nice to have those high-carb days for your sanity, as it’s much easier to follow a strict diet for 5 days at a time than it is to follow a strict plan for a solid 12 weeks.

How Do I Get Started On A Carb Cycling Plan?

The ideal is 5 low-carb days a week, and 1-2 high-carb days for refeeding. If you’re training intensely and you feel your gym performance is deteriorating, you can add a high-carb day midweek to replenish your levels of muscle glycogen.

LOW-CARB DAYS: Limit your carb intake to less than 30g a day, so that your energy sources come from fat and protein and you maintain ketosis. Eat leafy, fibrous greens, healthy fats and lots of protein. Good sources of high fat proteins are red meat, eggs, bacon and oily fish. You should stick to a high fat, high protein and low carbohydrate balance on these days.

HIGH-CARB DAYS: Your carb-up days should be limited to 2 days per week and carbs should take up 60-70% of your total calorie consumption. You should stick to a high carb, high protein and low fat balance on these days. Many people like to refeed on Friday night and all day Saturday, and then return back to low-carb on Sunday.

Your refeed days should consist of starchy, clean carbohydrates along with protein and fat. ‘Clean’ carbs consist of foods such as sweet potatoes, oats, green veg and legumes. If you want the occasional bad treat (because let’s face it, low-carb all week can be tough), have these on your refeed days but don’t go crazy; the last thing you want to do is consume more carbs than you need and end up storing fat.

You may feel some water retention on your high-carb days. When I started carb cycling I noticed this, and I wondered if I was gaining weight because of the additional carbohydrates in my diet. What I didn’t realize was that for each gram of carbohydrate, you retain 4g of water. Water retention is normal and when you’re back to low-carb days you’ll rid of the excess fairly quickly.

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How Do I Re-Enter Ketosis After Carbing Up?

It’s recommended that to get into a state of ketosis you should begin with high fat intake and lower protein intake – around a 80%/20% balance –  and no carbs, for the first 2 days. Insulin will drop faster because of the lower amounts of protein (protein can be converted to glucose easier than fat) so you’ll enter into the state of ketosis much quicker. For the following 2-3 days you can switch to 65% fat, 30% protein and 5% carbs, because your body will begin to need more protein. Your 5% carbs should come mainly from fibrous vegetables to ensure bowel functioning.

In A Nutshell…

This is a lot of information to process, so if you take away anything just remember these 4 things…

1) The aim of ketogenic carb cycling is to train your body to use fat as its primary energy source, rather than carbohydrates.

2) Low-carb days are designed to completely deplete your muscle stores of glycogen so that you use fat as your fuel. Consume less than 30g carbs, which should mainly come from fibrous, leafy vegetables. Aim for 5 low-carb days per week.

3) High-carb, refeed days are designed to refill your muscle glycogen stores so that you maximize muscle growth and gym performance. You should consume clean carbs however if you’re going to have a treat, incorporate this into your refeed day. Refeeding should take place for 1-2 days.

4) In order to see benefits, you need to make sure you strictly adhere to a low-carb diet in the week so that your body enters a state of ketosis and you use fat as your primary fuel source. You can also buy urine testing kits from the pharmacy to see if your body is in a state of ketosis.

18 Comments

  1. Robin says

    Great article….i almost found everything what i could find but i would love to share something. I started TKD @ 180 pounds and i dropped 17 lbs in 37 days with 3 cheat days of High G.I( Festival period).The first cheat meal was after 26 days. I went for weight lifting 4 days a week in order to preserve muscle mass. I consumed 160-170 g of fats/80-100 g of proteins in my diet.i managed to keep my carbs under 30 g a day.after 37 days,i am @ 12% bf n i feel more confident now. But my concern is that i have lost some muscle mass along with bf.Now i am looking forward to gain some muscle mass around 3-4 kg in the coming months but i want to keep my bf% low around 10-12%.So i would really appreciate if u could suggest me with the caloric calculations ?

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  2. Great article! Very helpful! I’m currently in ketosis for the past 6 weeks and looking to transition into keto carb cycling. Should high carb days be on the days where your workouts are the most intense? Does the order of low – high during the week matter?

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    • Hi Naz,

      Yes, it does matter! When you are on your high carb days, that’s when you have the glycogen reserves needed to power your HIIT workout. After your rigorous workout, you should have depleted most of your glycogen stores, which will enable you to get back into ketosis pretty quickly.

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      • Thanks for your response! I was thinking of increasing my carbs to 40g a day for non HIIT days but I would like a cheat meal on a non workout day. Is that possible? The logistics of it all is a bit confusing for me.

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      • Hey Naz, it really depends on what your cheat meal consists of. If you’re trying to keep yourself at 40g per day, one cheat meal could put yourself waaaay over. However, there are ways to cheat in a ‘smart’ way. There are always great substitutes for any dish, and even sweets that you can find. You can find a bunch of recipes online on this blog or by just typing keto “dishname”. Also we have a growing selection of products that are extremely carb friendly over at our e-commerce site.

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  3. Stacie says

    Do you have a diet plan done? I am working out now 6 times a week. 3 weight days and 3 HIIT cardio days. Weights mon Thurs and Friday. All in the morning at 6. Thing is…I’ve been doing this for 2 weeks and I’m exhausted. I know I’m not eating enough…and or properly for my workout days. I feel like this could work for me but I don’t know how to set up the meal plan per my workouts. 😦 I want to feel better.

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  4. Alecia says

    Do you subtract fiber from your total carbs to get your carb count for the day?

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  5. I have read so many posts about the blogger lovers except this
    piece of writing is genuinely a nice piece of writing, keep it
    up.

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  6. Kate martin says

    This is by farbthe best article about CKD thabk you for this!! All my questions were answered.

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  7. Mariela says

    I learned a lot from your article, so thank you! If I were to start my high carb day on Friday night about what time should I begin? About what time should I stop eating that night?
    Thanks again!

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  8. On high-carb reefed days, do you stay at the same calories you were eating on low-carb days and just manipulate your macros? Or do you increase cals?

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  9. Dawn says

    Great article! One question regarding carb
    limits. Are you referencing total carbs or net carbs? Thanks.

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  10. eSean says

    It’s actually pretty easy to maintain a Low Carbohydrate, High Fat, Moderate Protein diet full time for weeks or months at a time and stay in nutrional ketosis. Less than 50g total carbs per day, less than 130g total protein per day (unless you have more than 160 lbs. of lean body mass) and make up the rest of your daily caloric intake with fats from food (olive oil, butter, coconut oil, meat/fish/hard cheeses). If you want to lose body fat, shoot for a 10%-20% caloric deficit each day, taking into account your base rate and additional daily exercise. Be sure to increase sodium intake after the first week or two (one boullion cube per day does the trick easily).

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