Staying in Ketosis vs. Carb Cycling

Ketosis and carb cycling are major players in the nutrition game. Although they're different, they often go hand in hand. When first starting out, many people have to make a choice between staying in ketosis vs. carb cycling.

High-fiber carbohydrates, like sweet potatoes and pumpkin, are excellent choices when carb cycling. (Image: Julia Murray / EyeEm/EyeEm/GettyImages)

When you stay in ketosis, you eliminate carbs for the long-term, but when you carb cycle, you alternate low-carb days with higher-carb days. There's no definitive answer on what's best, but knowing the difference and how you can incorporate the two together can help you decide what you want to do.

An Explanation of Ketosis

To understand the difference between staying in ketosis vs. carb cycling, it's helpful to know exactly what ketosis is. If given the option, your body prefers to use carbohydrates over the other macronutrients (protein and fat) for energy. That's because carbohydrates are easy for the body to get to.

When you eat carbohydrates, your digestive system breaks them down into their simplest form, which is the simple sugar glucose. Glucose enters your bloodstream, where it's picked up by the hormone insulin, and then one of two things happens. Some of the glucose is carried to your cells where your body immediately uses it for energy.

Storing Glucose for Later

Once your body's current energy needs are met, the remaining glucose is converted into a substance called glycogen. Insulin carries glycogen to your liver or muscles where it's stored for later.

When you run out of energy again, like the few hours in between meals, your liver will break down the stored glycogen, turn it back into glucose and use that for energy. If you eat carbohydrates again soon after, this entire cycle continues, and your body will use carbohydrates for energy indefinitely.

Where Ketosis Comes In

On the other hand, if you restrict carbohydrates by following a low-carb or ketogenic diet, your body has to turn somewhere else for energy. In the absence of glucose and/or glycogen, your liver will convert the fat stored in your body to energy-rich substances called ketones.

As long as you avoid eating carbohydrates, your body will continue to convert fat into ketones. And as a result, it's highly likely that you'll lose weight and your percentage of body fat will decrease. This metabolic state is called ketosis.

Maintaining Ketosis vs. Carb Cycling

Many people following a ketogenic, or very low-carb diet, choose to stay in ketosis for the long-term, or until they reach their goal, whether that is weight loss, more energy or improved concentration. That means significantly restricting carbohydrates until further notice.

Others choose to follow a dietary regimen that alternates these low-carb, fat burning days with high-carb, or "carb-loading" days. This dietary regimen is called carb cycling or keto cycling, depending on how significantly carbohydrates are restricted during low-carb days.

Keto Cycling or Carb Cycling?

Carb cycling and keto cycling follow the same general principles, but they differ in a couple major ways. On a regular carb cycling plan, you alternate low-carb days with high-carb days, but you never restrict your carbohydrates enough to get into ketosis on your low-carb days. With keto cycling, you still follow some low-carb days and some high-carb days, but on your low-carb days, you significantly restrict your carbohydrates so that your body can enter into a state of ketosis.

The other major difference is in how the schedule is set up. Since carb cycling doesn't necessarily involve kicking your body into ketosis, many people following a carb cycling plan will work in two or three high-carb days each week. On the other hand, since it can take a few days for your body to get into ketosis, most people following a keto cycling plan only work in one high-carb day each week.

Benefits of Carb Cycling

When choosing between staying in ketosis vs. carb cycling, it's helpful to consider the benefits. Carb cycling is popular among endurance athletes and body builders. That's because glucose can provide quicker bursts of energy that help power muscles through long exercise events, like marathons or triathlons, and help build muscle mass.

Other benefits of carb cycling include:

  • Increased adherence to the diet long-term
  • Weight loss
  • Balanced hormones
  • Improved insulin sensitivity
  • Boost in fat burning
  • Better cholesterol levels
  • Increased energy

How Many Carbs Per Day?

On a standard carb cycling plan, you'll eat around 0.5 grams of carbohydrates per pound of body weight on your low-carb days and 2 to 2.5 grams of carbohydrates per pound on high-carb days. If you weigh 150 pounds, that means you'll limit carbs to 75 grams on your lowest days, and you'll eat up to 375 grams on your high-carb days.

For a keto cycling plan, you'll limit carbs to no more than 50 grams on your low-carb days. On your high-carb days, 60 to 70 percent of your calories will come from carbohydrates. If you're eating 1,500 calories per day, this means getting 225 grams to 263 grams daily.

Best Carbs for Carb Cycling

When designing a keto and carb cycling meal plan, it's not just about paying attention to how many carbs you're eating, the types of carbs you're eating is important too. If you use your high-carb days as an excuse to eat pizza and ice cream, there's a slim chance you'll reach your health goals.

That's why it's best to choose nutrient-dense, slow-digesting carbohydrates instead. Examples of healthy carbohydrates for your high-carb days include:

  • Sweet potatoes
  • Sprouted quinoa
  • Sprouted brown rice
  • Beans
  • Lentils
  • Butternut squash
  • Beets
  • Pumpkin
  • Bananas
  • Apples

These foods aren't just high in carbohydrates, they also provide important vitamins, minerals and antioxidants as well as a good amount of fiber. Because they're fiber-rich, they'll move through your digestive system slowly and keep your blood sugar and insulin levels stable even on your high-carb days.

Incorporating Exercise While Carb Cycling

Many people following a carb cycling plan tend to schedule days of high-intensity exercise that coincide with their high-carb days. That means if your high carb days are on Wednesday and Sunday, you'll do your most challenging exercises on those days.

This is because the glucose in the carbohydrates provides the fuel needed to power through intense workouts. High-intensity exercise also helps deplete glycogen from the liver faster, so planning your exercise accordingly will help you get back into a ketogenic state faster, if that's your goal.

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