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Carb cycling and the keto diet are both dieting strategies that are effective for weight loss if implemented correctly but there are situations when one is much better than the other.
What is the difference between carb cycling and keto? The main difference between carb cycling and the keto diet is that when you are following a keto diet, you will eliminate or significantly reduce your carb intake for an extended period, whereas with carb cycling, you will consistently rotate between high carb and low carb days.
In this article, we will discuss:
- What is carb cycling?
- What is keto?
- 5 differences between carb cycling and keto
- Which is better for weight loss?
- Can you do carb cycling on keto?
What Is Carb Cycling?
Carb cycling is a dietary approach that involves intentionally fluctuating your carb intake with high carb days and low carb days. Carb cycling is most often used to achieve fat loss, but can be used during periods of maintenance or bulking as well.
In general, it is recommended to increase carb intake on days where you’re more active, and decrease carb intake on days where you’re less active. This is to try and time your carb intake so that it’s higher when your body needs the most energy.
It is also recommended to keep your calorie intake constant across low carb and high carb days so that you’re working towards achieving your overall goal (weight loss, recomposition, or bulking).
This is important because calories are the main determinant for changes in body weight, so without accounting for them, you will not achieve the results you’re looking for.
Calories are kept constant across high and low carb days by fluctuating your fat intake as your carb intake changes: higher fat when lower carb and lower fat when higher carb. However, protein intake should stay constant to support muscle retention and/or gain .
Pros & Cons of Carb Cycling
There are both pros and cons when it comes to carb cycling, and both should be considered when deciding whether or not carb cycling is the right strategy for you.
The pros of carb cycling are:
- Effective for fat loss. When paired with a calorie deficit, carb cycling can help you achieve fat loss while retaining muscle.
- Can Improve Hunger Hormones. Implementing high carb days after low carb days can improve leptin and ghrelin levels and allow you to feel full and satisfied while dieting.
- Can help improve insulin sensitivity and metabolic health. If you struggle with insulin sensitivity (how responsive your cells are to the hormone insulin), controlling carb intake can improve this along with how your body processes incoming energy.
- Can improve athletic performance. Timing your carb intake around your workouts can provide you with more energy, which will improve your performance during your training session.
The cons of carb cycling are:
- Can result in lower energy. Since carbs are the body’s preferred source of energy, implementing low carb days can result in less energy to get you through the day.
- Can be difficult to adhere to. Due to the fact that carb cycling involves the daily fluctuation of your macros, carb cycling can be a tough diet to stick to, providing a larger margin for error.
- Can lead to potential loss of muscle mass. Since there is evidence that supports carbs being an important factor in muscle growth, restricting carbs (especially if paired with a calorie deficit) could potentially result in a loss in muscle mass.
- Could lead to overeating or binging. Because carb cycling involves periods of carb restriction followed by a carb overload, if you have any issues with overeating or binging after periods of restriction, you might have difficulty controlling your intake on a high carb day.
Who Is Carb Cycling Good For?
While some individuals might experience great results from carb cycling, there are others who may not benefit as much. For example, if you are someone who is already thin or underweight, or who has a history of becoming obsessed with diets and counting macros, then carb cycling may not be for you.
In addition to this, if you are someone who has a goal of gaining weight or putting on large amounts of muscle mass, then you are likely better off to follow a calorie surplus that consists of a consistent higher carb intake, rather than following a carb cycle.
On the contrary, a carb cycling diet is optimal for any individual who would like to obtain the benefits of a lower carb diet, while still reaping the benefits that higher carb days provide. They are optimal for anyone who is looking to improve their metabolic health (how effective the body generates and processes energy), or is looking to lose weight.
What Is Keto?
The Ketogenic (or Keto) diet is a high fat, low carb diet that encourages the body to enter a state of metabolic ketosis, which allows the body to use fat for energy rather than carbs. However, it still requires a caloric deficit to result in weight loss.
With a standard keto diet, you are eating around 70% of your calories from fat, 20% from protein, and only 10% from carbs.
You can also follow a higher protein version of this diet, where your macros might look more like 60% fat, 35% protein and 5% carbs. You may choose to follow a higher protein version of the keto diet if your goal is to build lean muscle mass.
In general, in order for your body to enter a state of ketosis, it will require eating less than 50 grams of carbs per day or 25 grams of net carbs per day (total carbs – fiber = net carbs).
Net carbs are often used to track carbohydrate intake because your body doesn’t break absorb fiber and therefore it won’t affect your ability to enter ketosis, so it can be subtracted from your carb intake.
Although this diet focuses on a high fat/low carb intake to encourage ketosis, it will only result in weight loss if you’re eating less calories than your body needs to maintain weight.
If you’re eating too many calories, then even if you’ve achieved ketosis, you won’t lose weight.
The only way to tell if you’ve entered a state of ketosis is to test your urine using keto strips, which are available on Amazon.
Pros & Cons of Keto
While many people will implement a keto diet for its weight loss benefits, it can provide many other health benefits as well; but whether these benefits outweigh the drawbacks is up to you to decide.
The pros of the keto diet are:
- Effective for fat loss. When paired with a calorie deficit, the keto diet can be a very effective strategy for fat loss.
- Lowering bad cholesterol and blood pressure. Some research suggests the keto diet has the ability to reduce blood pressure and high cholesterol in the body. More specifically, it can help to raise good cholesterol (HDL) while lowering bad cholesterol (LDL).
- Improved metabolic health. The keto diet can help to improve how your body produces and utilizes energy (metabolic health) and how responsive your cells are to insulin (insulin sensitivity). This can reduce your risk for metabolic disease (e.g. diabetes) and reduce fat storage caused by insulin resistance (when cells can’t easily uptake glucose from the blood).
- Can improve certain health conditions. The keto diet has been shown to improve certain serious medical conditions such as heart disease, cancer, epilepsy, and Alzheimer’s.
- Good for carbohydrate intolerance. If you do not tolerate a high carbohydrate intake well (some indicators for this are a high fasting blood glucose and poor digestion/heartburn/fatigue after eating carbs) then you will likely benefit from a low carb, high fat diet. You can test how well you tolerate carbs with a glucose intolerance test administered by a medical professional.
The cons of the keto diet are:
- Potentially difficult to sustain. Since the keto diet requires an extremely low carb diet with virtually no breaks, it can be very difficult to adhere to for long periods of time, especially in social settings.
- Potential nutrient deficiencies. The keto diet could lead to nutrient deficiencies due to the elimination of whole food carbs that are full of essential vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
- Constipation. Since the keto diet centers around high fat, low carb foods, constipation can occur due to a lack of dietary fiber intake (mostly found in plant foods that contain carbs).
- The “keto flu”. Feeling foggy and tired, also known as the “keto flu” when your body is making the switch from carbs to fat as its main source of energy.
- Possible low quality fat intake. If you aren’t careful with the types of foods you choose on the keto diet, you could potentially overconsume sources of “bad fats” (trans fats or too many saturated fats) with not enough “good fats” (unsaturated fats).
- Risk of dehydration. When eliminating glycogen (carbs) from the diet, you increase your risk of dehydration because carbs help to store water in the body.
- Risk of kidney failure.This is especially concerning for those with pre-existing kidney disease. If you’re unsure about whether the keto diet is safe for you or not, then please talk to your doctor.
Who Is The Keto Diet Good For?
The keto diet is a great option for someone who is looking to lose weight and enjoys low carb, higher fat foods. It can also be great for someone who is potentially looking to manage certain medical conditions (such as diabetes, or even epilepsy) that have shown to be improved by a low carb, high fat diet.
If you’re someone who has a high body mass index (BMI of over 40), then the keto diet could be a great diet for you.
In addition, if you’re diabetic then you could benefit from following a long-term ketogenic diet because the high fat intake can help to stabilize your blood sugars.
Individuals who should not enter into a keto diet are those who are already quite thin, or have experienced/ are experiencing any form of eating disorder.
Some women in particular need to be very careful about following a low carb diet, as this can affect female hormone production and fertility.
Additionally, a keto diet isn’t the best option for those who are looking to add large amounts of muscle mass, or those who consider themselves to be elite endurance athletes because these individuals would require a higher carb intake.
Last but not least, it would not be advised that you enter into a keto diet if you don’t think it is something that you would enjoy or could sustain. Severely restricting carb intake can be extremely difficult, it is important to make sure it is something you can see yourself maintaining without adding large amounts of stress to your daily life.
5 Differences Between Carb Cycling and Keto
The 5 main differences that are worth noting between a carb cycling and keto diet are:
- The keto diet requires an extremely low carb intake for a prolonged period while carb cycling involves a rotation of high and low carb days
- The keto diet has been shown to provide health benefits to those with serious health conditions such as cancer, epilepsy and Alzheimer’s, whereas a carb cycling diet has not been shown to help these ailments
- Carb cycling allows you to time your carb intake to your workouts for increased energy while training, while the keto diet does not allow for this
- Carb cycling is potentially an easier protocol to adhere to in social situations where carbs are abundant, in comparison to the keto diet
- Protein intake on a keto diet might be kept lower (around 20% of total calories) in comparison to carb cycling (around 30% of total calories)
While both carb cycling and the keto diet can be used for weight loss, the diet that is best for you will depend on your individual goals and your personal preference.
Carb Cycling vs Keto: Which Is Better for Weight Loss?
When it comes to weight loss, both the carb cycling diet and the keto diet can be effective dieting strategies to help you achieve your goal, provided that they are also accompanied by a healthy calorie deficit.
With that being said, when determining which diet is a more sustainable method for weight loss, it can be argued that the carb cycling diet can provide you with the weight loss that you desire, without the potential negative side effects that accompany a keto diet.
Since the carb cycling diet does still allow for days with a higher carb intake, it is considered a much more sustainable way of eating compared to keto.
This is of the utmost importance when it comes to weight loss, since the primary factor that dictates the success of a weight loss phase is adherence to a diet for a consistent period of time.
For this reason, carb cycling is a better option for most people. The keto diet would be best reserved for more urgent situations like the need for improvement of life threatening metabolic conditions.
Can You Do Carb Cycling on Keto?
You can do carb cycling while on keto; in fact, there is a form of the keto diet known as the cyclical ketogenic diet, that involves cycling your carbs where you would maintain a ketogenic diet for a period of time, followed by a short period of a carbohydrate refeed.
For example, on the cyclical keto diet, you might follow a keto diet for 5 or 6 consecutive days, which would be followed by 1 or 2 higher carb days.
It’s important to note that if you’re cycling carbs on a keto diet, then your body will not be in a state of ketosis on your higher carb days. This means that you might not receive all of the benefits discussed above that are associated with a constant state of ketosis.
However, the benefits that you could receive from a periodic refeed while practicing keto could provide benefits that are superior to staying in a ketogenic state for a prolonged period of time.
Carb cycling on the keto diet is best for those who want to improve their training performance while on the keto diet. These individuals will benefit from the occasional increase in carbs to replenish their body’s glycogen stores and improve their energy levels.
Frequently Asked Questions:
Does Carb Cycling Work Better Than Keto?
Carb cycling can be a more sustainable diet to follow in comparison to the keto diet since carb cycling still allows for higher carb days while the keto diet severely restricts carbs for a prolonged period. However, both protocols can provide work well when paired with a calorie deficit if your goal is weight loss.
What To Read Next:
- Refeed vs Carb Cycling: Differences, Pros, & Cons
- How Many Calories Should You Eat When Carb Cycling?
- How Long Should You Carb Cycle? And, Can You Do It Forever?
- Who Is Carb Cycling Good For? (And Who Is It Not For)
- Carb Cycling vs Intermittent Fasting: Which Is Better?
About The Author
Colby Roy is a holistic health and nutrition coach. She is certified through Precision Nutrition and has a passion for all things nutrition and healing the body. More specifically, Colby likes to work with clients who want to optimize their gut health and energy levels.