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I get a lot of questions on social media about what I personally eat, and while I love to show what I eat in a day on Instagram and Tiktok (and in posts on this blog as well!), but those posts and videos usually only encompass the meals from one day in isolation. I don’t really talk very much about my general eating pattern. So, in my latest cookbook (Plant-Forward Keto), I did a deeper dive into one of my favorite tools: carb cycling on a vegan keto diet. I’m not big into gatekeeping info (as evidenced by the decade I’ve been posting veg keto recipes and info for free), so I thought I’d share the info from my book here. I hope you find it helpful!
I’m not as dogmatic about keto as a lot of people out there. I like to think of ketosis as a tool to help balance my hunger and fullness cues (via the hormones leptin and ghrelin) as well as balance my blood glucose levels, eliminate food cravings and reduce inflammation. Another tool that I’ve found to be incredibly helpful is carb cycling, which is a great way to make ketogenic diets more sustainable, especially for those who are active.
As with ketogenic diets in general, carb cycling can be as simple or as complicated as you want. I’m going to focus here on the simpler implementation of this practice that will be beneficial to a wide range of people. A quick note, studies can be found at the bottom of this article!
What Is Carb Cycling?
As you may have inferred from the name, carb cycling refers to alternating between a set amount of lower-carb (or keto) days and higher-carb days. While you can certainly practice carb cycling outside the bounds of a ketogenic diet, I’m going to focus on how this practice can be used in conjunction with keto.
If you work out a lot, you may want to have more than one higher-carb day in a week, matching your workout schedule. I know some people who make each heavy workout day a higher-carb day, while moderate workout days might be moderate-carb days and rest days are very low-carb. You can experiment over time to optimize carb cycling for your lifestyle.
The bottom line is that there isn’t one correct way to practice carb cycling in conjunction with ketosis. It depends entirely on your particular metabolism, lifestyle, activity level and fitness goals. I want to make this point clear because I see so many websites talking about carb cycling as if there’s only one correct way to do it, and that’s simply not true.
Why Carb Cycle on a Plant-Based Ketogenic Diet?
There are a few main reasons someone might start adding higher-carb days to an otherwise low-carb or ketogenic eating plan. The first is to reduce cravings for higher carb foods. I think this is the most obvious benefit. If you have a scheduled day when you plan on having some french fries or pasta, you’re less likely to indulge in those foods during the rest of the week.
The second most common reason people start a CKD is to support their workout and fitness goals. The idea is to replenish glycogen stores that are depleted throughout your workouts on the high-carb day.
Another rationale for considering carb cycling, especially if you’ve been on a ketogenic protocol for a wile, is that some studies have indicated it can prevent the dip in metabolism that can occur in long-term low-carb dieters. This effect is enhanced by overfeeding carbohydrates.
So, eating over your daily caloric expenditure on your high-carb day can actually help with long-term weight loss. This is also the reason many people find that a cheat day or high-carb day can help them break through a weight-loss plateau.
Finally, some people, particularly those who menstruate, those with certain hormone imbalances, and those with thyroid imbalances, may find that they feel tired, irritable, and somewhat lethargic on long-term very-low-carb diets. Introducing higher-carb days can alleviate some of that fatigue and discomfort.
Won’t Carb Cycling Kick Me Out of Ketosis?
Most likely, yes – but that’s okay! You do not need to be in ketosis 100 percent of the time to glean benefits from this way of eating. Additionally, you can typically get back into ketosis within a day or two. If you find that you are unable to easily transition back into ketosis after a high-carb day, moving to a cycle where you have a high-carb day every two weeks may work better for you.
As mentioned previously, being knocked out of ketosis every once in a while can actually help you preserve your metabolic rate and aid in long-term weight loss.
How to Get Started on Carb Cycling
If you’re brand-new to keto or low/moderate carb diets, I wouldn’t recommend carb cycling right away. Usually, it takes about a month to become fat-adapted, where your body has fully adjusted to its new low-carb existence. At this point, re-entering a state of nutritional ketosis will be much easier than it was during the adaptation period. Additionally, the first month is the time in any new dietary protocol where cravings hit the hardest and can easily de-rail your progress, if you’re not fat-adapted.
Once you’ve made it past the first month on a ketogenic diet, starting to carb cycle is really easy: just pick a day and eat more carbs. Like I mentioned before, cyclical ketogenic diets are only as complicated as you want to make them, so there’s nothing wrong with just eating a bunch of carbs one day and seeing how it goes. If you want to track calories and macros on that day, you can definitely do that, but it’s not necessary.
What Kind of Foods Should I Eat on a High Carb Day?
This is really up to you; you can play around to see what feels best. I like to eat in the same plant-forward way but incorporate more beans, fruit and starches into my meals. So, I might add chickpeas to a stew, or substitute sweet potato for butternut squash, or make sweet potato fries in my air fryer. I also use these days to enjoy some of the higher-carb keto treats that are available nowadays. From cereals to sandwich cookies to ice cream, there are so many commercially available sugar-free products that can easily be incorporated into a higher carb day without totally blowing up my blood sugar.
On the other hand, you may want to use this day as an opportunity to indulge in some traditional comfort treats with real sugar that you may be missing. I say this about pretty much everything, but it really is all about what feels best for you and your body and what will help you to achieve your goals.
Many of the recipes in Plant-Forward Keto include substitutions and variations that are a little higher in carbs for those that want to try carb cycling.
How High Is “High-Carb”?
Buckle up, because this is going to be another annoyingly vague answer: it depends. Most of my high-carb days are around 75-150g of net carbs (depending on how much exercise I do), and that seems to be the sweet spot for me. Anything higher than that and I start to feel sick, which is the exact opposite of how I want to feel.
For you, this number is likely going to be different. If you are intensely sensitive to carbs, you may want to start at 50-75g of net carbs on a high-carb day. If you are using your high-carb day(s) to life lots of heavy weights, you may want to start at 200g. It really depends on your particular metabolism, lifestyle and fitness goals. Like carb tolerance, caloric intake and macronutrient targets, this is one of those things that you’ll have to play around with to see what works best for you.
If you are trying to stay within a caloric target, keep in mind that you will want to reduce your fat intake on high-carb days to make up for the additional calories from the extra carbs you are eating. This doesn’t mean you should avoid fats altogether, but you don’t need to add extra oil to a stir-fry or extra coconut cream to a smoothie in order to hit a fat target.
Sample Carb Cycling Schedules
Here are a few examples of how you could schedule carb cycling in the context of a ketogenic or low-carb diet. These are just general guidelines for matching your carb intake to your lifestyle and workout intensity, and you should modify them to fir your lifestyle and workout schedule based on how you feel.
Basic 6 Days Keto, 1 Day High-Carb
- Monday – Saturday: 25-50g net carbs
- Sunday: 100-150g net carbs
Simple Cyclical Ketogenic Diet for Workout Out
- Monday (heavy lifting): 200g net carbs
- Tuesday (rest day): 25-50g net carbs
- Wednesday (cardio): 75g net carbs
- Thursday (light yoga): 25-50g net carbs
- Friday (light cardio): 25-50g net carbs
- Saturday (cardio): 75g net carbs
- Sunday (rest day): 25-50g net carbs
A Note on Workout Out on Keto
If you have been doing keto for a while and are totally fat-adapted, then you can skip this section – this message isn’t for you. However, if you are new to ketogenic diets, or are getting back into nutritional ketosis after some time off, you may want to go easy on the exercise for the first few weeks. That doesn’t mean you can’t work out at all, just that you ight want to keep your workouts at a moderate level.
It can take a few weeks to a couple of months to become fully fat-adapted, and during this time your body may struggle during exercise. However, studies show that ketogenic diets can actually improve performance for fat-adapted endurance athletes, especially during training periods of high-volume low-to-moderate intensity workouts.
While low-carb diets can benefit endurance athletes in the long run, athletes who participate primarily in strength-based exercise may find that a super low-carbohydrate diet hinders their performance, as heavy lifting is a glycogen-demanding activity. Additionally, as insulin is beneficial for building muscle, those looking to add muscle may find that staying in ketosis all the time makes hypertrophy too much of a challenge. These types of athletes are prime candidates for a carb-cycling routine that is tailored to their workout schedule.
Further Reading About Carb Cycling:
- Effects of short-term carbohydrate or fat overfeeding on energy expenditure and plasma leptin concentrations in healthy female subjects
- Circulating FGF21 in humans is potently induced by short term overfeeding of carbohydrates
- Response to carbohydrate and fat refeeding in the expression of genes involved in nutrient partitioning and metabolism: striking effects on fibroblast growth factor-21 induction
- LIMITED CARBOHYDRATE REFEEDING INSTRUCTION FOR LONG-TERM WEIGHT MAINTENANCE FOLLOWING A KETOGENIC, VERY-LOW-CALORIE MEAL PLAN
- Effect of low-carbohydrate-ketogenic diet on metabolic and hormonal responses to graded exercise in men
- The Effects of a Ketogenic Diet on Exercise Metabolism and Physical Performance in Off-Road Cyclists