Both the keto diet and carb cycling are successful weight-loss programs when done correctly, but there are some circumstances in which one is superior to the other.

Despite their differences, they frequently complement one another. Although carb cycling and keto are popular for dieters, both of these diet programs have pros and cons. While a ketogenic diet promotes consistent weight loss, the carb cycling approach uses carbohydrate restriction to lessen some of the keto diet’s side effects.

Let’s understand better the differences and similarities of carb cycling vs. keto, their benefits, side effects, pros and cons, and sample meal plan in this article.

Carb Cycling vs. Keto – Their Difference

Knowing ketosis in detail can help you understand the differences between maintaining ketosis and carb cycling. In almost every instance, your body prefers to use carbohydrates for energy over other macronutrients such as protein and fat. The main reason here is that the body can easily access carbohydrates more than other stored macronutrients [1].

When Does Keto Happen?

Your digestive system converts the carbohydrates you consume into their simplest form, which is glucose. Once glucose enters your bloodstream, it is taken up by the hormone insulin to perform its function. Their key function once in the bloodstream is to transport some of the glucose to your cells, where it serves as their energy source.

When a person restricts consuming carbohydrate-rich foods, the body will find alternative energy sources through other stored macronutrients such as protein. Because the body cannot use glucose due to a low carbohydrate diet such as keto, the liver will convert the body’s stored fat into the energy compounds known as ketones. These compounds will serve as the cell’s energy source.

This process continues to happen when the fat stored in the liver will convert into ketones as long as one follows a keto diet. You will almost certainly lose weight as a result, and your body fat percentage will go down. This is when a person will go into a ketosis state.

What Happens in Carb Cycling?

Carb cycling is a dietary method that purposely alternates between high and low-carb days. The most popular reason for using carb cycling is to lose weight, although it can also be used for bulking or maintenance.

Although there isn’t a set process for carb cycling, it usually involves alternating between days with lower and higher carb intake. In general, protein intake is constant, while fat intake rises on days with fewer crabs and falls on days with more carbs.

Carb Cycling vs. Keto Benefits 

In a 2013 study published in the British Journal of Nutrition, 115 overweight women between the ages of 20 and 69 with a history of breast cancer were examined. The study happened for three months when the women were randomized into three groups. The first group followed a low-carb, calorie-restricted diet two days a week. 

The second group followed the same diet, but they were also allowed to consume an unrestricted amount of protein and good fats such as lean meat, olives, and nuts during low-carb days. The third group consumed fewer calories seven days a week and followed a traditional Mediterranean diet.

Carb Cycling Benefits

The women in the first and second groups performed better. The two groups lost an average of 9 pounds compared to 5 pounds in the Mediterranean group. Additionally, insulin resistance dropped by 22% for those people following a traditional low-carb diet. The second group only dropped by 14%, while those who followed a Mediterranean diet dropped by just 4%. These findings were important for the participants because reducing insulin resistance and weight gain may help prevent breast cancer [2].

It’s helpful to think about the benefits while deciding between maintaining ketosis and carb cycling. Bodybuilders and endurance athletes both enjoy carb cycling. Because glucose can offer faster bursts of energy, it can help power muscles through extended activity events like marathons or triathlons and help develop muscle mass [3].

Keto Benefits

One benefit of ketosis is that your body has an endless energy source. The number of carbohydrates that your body can store in your muscles and liver is limited, whereas the amount of fat that your body can store is unrestricted. 

Your body has a total glycogen storage capacity of 600 grams, which is split between your muscles and liver, according to a report in Nutrition Reviews in 2018 [4]. It can, however, store as much fat as you give it.

To put it another way, if your body uses carbohydrates for energy, it will ultimately run out of stored energy; however, if your body utilizes ketones, you will have an endless supply of energy.

Carb Cycling vs. Keto Side Effects

Although there aren’t many high-quality studies that address the benefits or potential side effects of carb-cycling for health, we can try to conclude from the available information. 

According to one study, a diet low in calories and carbs reduced the production of T3 hormones more quickly and significantly than a diet high in carbohydrates but low in calories [5]. But according to some low-carb specialists, carb cycling won’t have any side effects, and when used for the right group of people, it may even be beneficial.

Meanwhile, keto is generally safe for most healthy individuals, but there may be some initial side effects while your body adjusts. These effects sometimes called the “keto flu,” have some subjective proof [6]. The report shows that it normally passes in a few days. Some reported keto flu symptoms are vomiting, constipation, and diarrhea [7].

Carb Cycling vs. Keto Pros and Cons

Like any other diet program, carb cycling and keto may have pros and cons. Here are some of the pros and cons that you want to take note of should you consider following one or both of them.

Pros

A full-blown keto might favor people with thyroid and adrenal gland problems. This can be the case when following long-term low-carb dieting, as it can lower thyroid hormone levels. When this happens, a person may experience insulin resistance and weight gain. Patients with epilepsy, cancer, and diabetes can also benefit from it. 

When a person has a lot of mending to do and hasn’t been on a clean diet for a while, adding carb cycling to a keto diet can be helpful. The carb cycling strategy may also be required if you experience coldness, constipation, hair loss, or mental drowsiness.

More nutrients from foods like starchy vegetables should be available to you daily if you need to heal your body. With this, carb cycling can be beneficial. It’s best to skip intermittent fasting while you’re recovering and eat extra food for breakfast.

Cons

Meanwhile, when following a carb cycling routine, the body may get less energy throughout the day, especially when implementing low-carb days. Carbohydrates can be essential in muscle growth, so restricting carbohydrates can lead to muscle loss.

Because carb cycling involves periods of carb restriction followed by a carb overload, you might find it difficult to regulate your intake on days with high carb consumption if overeating is one of your concerns.

One of the biggest cons for those who are on a keto diet is that it could lead to nutrient deficiency. This is because whole food carbohydrates, which are rich in essential vitamins, minerals, and fiber, are restricted from a keto diet.

Lastly, because carbohydrates help the body store water, cutting out carbohydrates on a keto diet increases the risk of dehydration.

Carb Cycling vs. Keto Meal Plan

There is, indeed, no one-size-fits-all approach to nutrition and exercise, so it’s critical to find a strategy that works for you. Additionally, it can also require some trial and error. Here’s a sample carb cycling meal plan that you may want to start with:

  • Monday, Wednesday, and Friday: Low carbohydrates for weight-training days
  • Sunday: Low carbohydrates on a rest day
  • Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday: High carbohydrates for endurance or cardio days

According to a typical carb cycling plan, a low-carb day should be within 2.5 grams of carbohydrates per pound of body weight. High-carb days are when you consume 2 to 2.5 grams. This means that if you’re 150 pounds, your low-carb days should be within 75 grams of carbohydrates and up to 375 grams on high-carb days.

Though it might seem intimidating, switching to a ketogenic diet doesn’t have to be challenging. Remember to lower your carbohydrate consumption and increase the amount of fat and protein in your meals and snacks.

Limiting carbs is necessary to enter and stay in a state of ketosis. While some individuals may only need 20 grams of carbohydrates per day to enter ketosis, others may do so with larger carbohydrate consumption.

The less carbohydrate you consume, the easier it is to enter and maintain ketosis.

Bottomline: Carb Cycling vs. Keto

Your daily schedule should be considered when deciding between a keto diet and a carb cycling diet. Both diet programs require close attention to achieve the weight loss you want. Before beginning any diet plan, make sure to speak with your doctor to confirm whether it would be safe for you. Also, think about attempting both diets to determine which one suits your body the best.

Disclaimer: This article is only a guide. It does not substitute the advice given by your healthcare professional. Before making any health-related decision, consult your healthcare professional.

Editorial References And Fact-Checking 

  • Prats, C., Graham, T. E., & Shearer, J. (2018). The dynamic life of the glycogen granule. The Journal of Biological Chemistry, 293(19), 7089–7098. https://doi.org/10.1074/jbc.R117.802843
  • Harvie, M., Wright, C., Pegington, M., McMullan, D., Mitchell, E., Martin, B., . . . Howell, A. (2013). The effect of intermittent energy and carbohydrate restriction v. daily energy restriction on weight loss and metabolic disease risk markers in overweight women. British Journal of Nutrition, 110(8), 1534-1547. doi:10.1017/S0007114513000792
  • Rosset R, Lecoultre V, Egli L, Cros J, Rey V, Stefanoni N, Sauvinet V, Laville M, Schneiter P, Tappy L. Endurance Training with or without Glucose-Fructose Ingestion: Effects on Lactate Metabolism Assessed in a Randomized Clinical Trial on Sedentary Men. Nutrients. 2017 Apr 20;9(4):411. doi: 10.3390/nu9040411. PMID: 28425966; PMCID: PMC5409750.
  • Murray B, Rosenbloom C. Fundamentals of glycogen metabolism for coaches and athletes. Nutr Rev. 2018 Apr 1;76(4):243-259. doi: 10.1093/nutrit/nuy001. PMID: 29444266; PMCID: PMC6019055.
  • Mathieson RA, Walberg JL, Gwazdauskas FC, Hinkle DE, Gregg JM. The effect of varying carbohydrate content of a very-low-caloric diet on resting metabolic rate and thyroid hormones. Metabolism. 1986 May;35(5):394-8. doi: 10.1016/0026-0495(86)90126-5. PMID: 3702673.
  • Bostock ECS, Kirkby KC, Taylor BV, Hawrelak JA. Consumer Reports of “Keto Flu” Associated With the Ketogenic Diet. Front Nutr. 2020 Mar 13;7:20. doi: 10.3389/fnut.2020.00020. PMID: 32232045; PMCID: PMC7082414.
  • Martin-McGill KJ, Jackson CF, Bresnahan R, Levy RG, Cooper PN. Ketogenic diets for drug-resistant epilepsy. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2018 Nov 7;11(11):CD001903. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD001903.pub4. Update in: Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2020 Jun 24;6:CD001903. PMID: 30403286; PMCID: PMC6517043.

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Charish Luzuriaga, RDN

Charish is a Registered Nutritionist-Dietitian (RDN) who really enjoys helping her readers understand their dietary habits better. She has impressive experience and knowledge about the nutritional values of various foods and ingredients and enjoys informing her readers about popular diets, supplements, and herbs. Charish harnesses her nutritional expertise to inspire and empower people to make positive, healthy changes through what they eat (and drink!). LinkedIn

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  • Charish is a Registered Nutritionist-Dietitian (RDN) who really enjoys helping her readers understand their dietary habits better. She has impressive experience and knowledge about the nutritional values of various foods and ingredients and enjoys informing her readers about popular diets, supplements, and herbs. Charish harnesses her nutritional expertise to inspire and empower people to make positive, healthy changes through what they eat (and drink!). LinkedIn

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Charish is a Registered Nutritionist-Dietitian (RDN) who really enjoys helping her readers understand their dietary habits better. She has impressive experience and knowledge about the nutritional values of various foods and ingredients and enjoys informing her readers about popular diets, supplements, and herbs. Charish harnesses her nutritional expertise to inspire and empower people to make positive, healthy changes through what they eat (and drink!). LinkedIn