Cyclical Ketogenic Diet VS Ketogenic Diet – the ultimate keto brawl. Which one works better and which one should you choose? In this article, I’ll outline both of them and help you make the right decision.
Cyclical Ketogenic Diet VS Ketogenic Diet
Didn’t you know, there are many variations to the keto diet. The variations in the ketogenic diet directly point towards distinct metabolic environments the person will be in.
- Standard Ketogenic Diet (SKD) – low-carb high-fat diet that shifts your metabolism into a state of nutritional ketosis, in which your body produces ketones and burns fat as a primary fuel source.
- Cyclic Ketogenic Diet (CKD) – carb cycling diet, in which you cycle between periods of ultra-low carb and carb refeed eating.
The difference between the standard ketogenic diet and the cyclic ketogenic diet is that in one you’re aiming to be in nutritional ketosis all the time, whereas the other just restricts your carbohydrate intake at some days and compensates for it with refeeds.
Neither of them are perfect and both have their pros and cons. Let’s go through all of them.
Cons of Keto
Even though I think the standard ketogenic diet (SKD) is perfectly healthy and sustainable for practically everyone, it still has its cons and negative side effects – the dark side of keto.
- You might develop some mineral deficiencies, most popular of which are iodine, zinc, selenium, magnesium, potassium, and vitamin-K.
- Thyroid functioning can also suffer on people with a predisposing medical condition or during initial adaptation. What ensues is a suppressed metabolic rate and other hormonal imbalances
- Electrolyte imbalances may occur because the body holds onto less water when on keto.
- Social pressures are probably the most common reasons why people fail the ketogenic diet. They just can’t seem to avoid events and places where there are carbs.
In regards to burning body fat, low thyroid is at the top of the list. This can be addressed with either a lot of iodine supplementation or with a small spike of insulin that actually instigates a lot of the repair mechanisms that rev the metabolism back up again.
Don’t make the mistake many low carb advocates make and blame it all on the carbs. Sugar causes obesity, diabetes, financial crises and world poverty… It’s just like the low-fat craze, just flipped upside down.
However, more and more research is saying that liberal high carbohydrate consumption is not optimal for health, body composition, nor the brain. Everyone should restrict their carb intake, at least to some degree because our physiology isn’t meant to handle high levels of insulin and blood sugar all day every day.
Cyclical Ketogenic Diet Benefits
But still, carbs nor insulin aren’t the enemies, as long as they’re consumed selectively in certain situations. The benefits are immense:
- A small spike in insulin can upregulate the thyroid and speed up a sluggish metabolism. Any type of caloric restriction reduces metabolic rate and to keep your body burning fat, you need to stop dieting for a while.
- Eating carbs on the cyclical ketogenic diet will spike insulin levels dramatically. In response, the body will first shuttle those carbs into muscle cells and upregulates metabolic rate, as to be able to store that extra energy.
- Periods of carbohydrate restriction, followed by overconsumption, causes a super-compensatory effect, which increases the overall levels of your glycogen stores – more so than a regular high carb diet would. Refeeds create an even greater anabolic response by driving amino acids and glucose into the cells.
- The following day, your body will be topped off with glycogen, which increases vascularity, makes the skin thinner and muscles look fuller. You return to your low carb menu.
- Greater metabolic flexibility. During the first 2 days after the refeed, your body will be running on both that extra glucose and free fatty acids from your keto foods. The consecutive 2 days will limit your glycogen again and you’ll be burning fat exclusively.
- The Cyclical Ketogenic Diet allows more social compliance. You can schedule certain events and special occasions around your carb refeeds. It’s also great for bringing in more variety to your foods – you get to eat keto as well as carbohydrates.
Cyclical Ketogenic Diet Side Effects
It appears to be a cardinal rule that everything has its downside. As with SKD, so it is with CKD.
One recent study (Wilson and Lowery et al: 2015) compared cyclic ketogenic dieting to normal ketogenic dieting [i]. They calorically restricted subjects by 500 calories a day, and the cyclic subjects had a normal carbohydrate diet on Saturday and Sunday.
Both groups lost 3 kilograms of body weight—but there was a really big catch. The SKD group lost nearly all fat, while the individuals on CKD lost 2 kilograms of lean mass. What caused this?
The traditional keto group was in ketosis the entire week, whereas the cyclers didn’t establish ketosis until Thursday. Thus, they were only in very mild ketosis twice a week.
Why the Cyclical Ketogenic May Suck
Before you can establish nutritional ketosis, your liver glycogen stores need to be depleted, which increases the amount of ketones burned for energy. Before the body and brain fully accept fat as their primary fuel, the adaptation period may last for several weeks.
If you eat carbs again, your body will happily revert back to burning glucose because it’s easy to absorb and store for backup. As blood glucose goes up, ketones go down and vice versa – they can’t co-exist simultaneously.
Like during initial adaptation, you’ll get some side effects. It’s called the ‘keto flu’ – headaches, low energy, brain fog, smelly breath etc. After eating carbohydrates, you’ll get the ‘carb flu’ with similar symptoms. Your body is simply undergoing a small energy crisis.
It’s true that the first few days after eating carbs may get uncomfortable and cause fatigue, bloating and forgetfulness, but those symptoms can be alleviated if you structure your refeeds strategically.
Avoid the CKD Flu
Although the study mentioned beforehand might indicate that long-term keto-adaptation is superior to cycling with carbs, I would still take it with a grain of salt. (1) The refeeds may have been too small to get any enhanced anabolic effects, (2) having 2 days of refeeds definitely affects ketosis more negatively than one big carb loaded dinner.
The reason is that your body doesn’t really want to cause random metabolic changes. Like eating one ketogenic meal won’t put you into ketosis, you won’t really get kicked out of it by having a carb hefty one either.
That’s why I would imagine that the Keto Carb Cycle with one day of refeeding is better than the commonly used CKD version where you eat high carb for 2 days straight. I’ve used both of them and I must say that the Keto Cycle is better for ketosis as well as performance.
Which One Should You Choose?
But cyclical ketogenic diet vs ketogenic diet continues and the crowd awaits for an answer. Which one should you choose?
If you can circumvent all the negative side effects of carb cycling and maintain nutritional ketosis despite of it, then wouldn’t it be a more sustainable option?
Indeed, our primal physiology is supposed to alter between periods of metabolic flexibility. But the CKD is not for everyone.
Who Should Do the Cyclical Ketogenic Diet?
Questions You Need to Ask Yourself
- What am I trying to accomplish?
- If your goal is pure weight loss, then you can either stick to SKD or have longer keto cycles.
- In the case of performance and muscle building, you would benefit from more frequent refeeds.
- How long have I done keto? Initially, you should follow SKD for about a month, before you try CKD. It can be done with 2-3 weeks as well, but the longer you do it the better you become at using ketones for fuel.
- What’s my medical condition? If you’re diabetic, then it would be better to stick to strict nutritional ketosis. Eating some clean carbs won’t damage your health on the Keto Carb Cycle but if you want to reverse your illness completely, then I would stay on SKD.
- Do I need carbs? Some people react better to keto than others. It mainly has to do with how well adapted you are. Being psychologically dependent of carbohydrates may also create a placebo-like feeling of exhaustion. Your body is fine, but your mind is still addicted to sugar. One thing for sure, the longer you stay in ketosis the better you become at burning fat.
Choose Your Keto
Whatever the case may be, you’d benefit greatly from understanding the principles of your own physiology and keto, both with or without carbs.
One essential thing to know is that our bodies are never stagnant. Our metabolic conditions are in an everlasting state of flux. What I ate yesterday may not be the same as today or tomorrow.
Eating the same things year round is not what our physiology is adapted to. Seasonality, droughts, famine all follow random patterns in nature. Our body is supposed to function using different fuel sources.
We want to be able to burn our own body fat effortlessly. At the same time, we don’t want to develop gluten intolerance just because of not eating it or to become insulin resistance. Even more, getting brain fog after one day of carbs is not optimal for our performance or mood.
That’s why I would advise everyone to occasionally cycle off keto as to instigate other metabolic processes and to bring some variation into the diet.
Luckily, after years of practice, I’ve created a 30-day cyclical ketogenic diet meal plan that’s structured in a way to avoid all the flu symptoms. It has all the knowledge on how many carbs to eat and gives you 50+ recipes with exact quantities and macros. A must have for any keto-practitioner.
[i] Sharp, M.S., Lowery, R.P., Shields, K.A., Hollmer, C.A., Lane, J.R., Partl, J.M., … & Wilson, J.M. (2015). The 8 Week Effects of Very Low Carbohydrate Dieting vs Very Low Carbohydrate Dieting with Refeed on Body Composition. NSCA National Conference, Orlando, FL.