Though often considered inflexible, the ketogenic diet has many different variations.
The standard keto diet is by far the most popular form, but there are several other ways to follow this low-carb, high-fat regime — including the cyclical ketogenic diet.
The cyclical keto diet involves rotating between a strict high-fat, low-carb ketogenic meal plan and higher carb intake.
This article explains the benefits, downsides and basic steps of the cyclical ketogenic diet.
The ketogenic diet is a high-fat, very low-carb diet.
When following a ketogenic diet, you normally restrict carbs to under 50 grams per day (1).
When carb intake is drastically reduced, your body must burn fat for energy instead of glucose, or blood sugar, in a process known as ketosis.
While in ketosis, your body uses ketones — byproducts of fat breakdown produced by your liver — as an alternate energy source (2).
Though the cyclical ketogenic diet is a variation of the standard ketogenic diet, there are major differences between the two.
Cyclical ketogenic dieting involves adhering to a standard ketogenic diet protocol 5–6 days per week, followed by 1–2 days of higher carb consumption.
These higher-carb days are often referred to as “refeeding days,” as they’re meant to replenish your body’s depleted glucose reserves.
If you undertake a cyclical ketogenic diet, you switch out of ketosis during refeeding days in order to reap the benefits of carb consumption for a temporary period.
The cyclical ketogenic diet is popular among those seeking muscle growth and improved exercise performance.
Though research to support this claim is lacking, some people speculate that the cyclical diet is superior to the standard version for boosting strength and muscle.
Is It the Same as Carb Cycling?
The cyclical ketogenic diet is often compared to carb cycling — but it’s not the same thing.
Carb cycling involves cutting carbs on certain days of the week while upping your intake on others. Typically, each week is divided between 4–6 days of lower carb intake and 1–3 days of higher intake.
While the method is the same, carb cycling doesn’t reduce overall carb intake drastically enough to reach ketosis.
Summary The cyclical keto diet involves modifying the standard keto diet with days of higher carb intake to bring your body in and out of ketosis.
There is no standard set of rules for a cyclical ketogenic diet.
However, anyone wanting to start it should follow a standard ketogenic diet 5–6 days per week, adding 1–2 days of higher carb intake.
Stick to a Standard Keto Diet 5–6 Days per Week
During standard ketogenic days, it’s important to consume fewer than 50 grams of carbs per day.
During this phase of the cyclical keto diet, healthy fats should deliver approximately 75% of your total calorie intake.
Healthy fat options include:
- Coconut oil and unsweetened coconut
- Full-fat dairy products
- Low-carb nuts and seeds
- Nut butters
- Fatty meats
- MCT oil
Proteins should make up around 15–20% of your total calories, while carb intake is typically restricted to under 10% (4).
Be sure to follow the standard keto diet 5–6 days per week.
Increase Carb Consumption 1–2 Days per Week
The second phase of the cyclical keto diet involves choosing 1–2 days per week to “refeed” your glycogen stores.
During refeeding days, you should consume more carbs in order to break ketosis.
On refeeding days:
- Carbs should comprise 60–70% of your total calories.
- Protein should account for 15–20% of your total calories.
- Fats should deliver just 5–10% of your total calories.
Though the goal of the refeeding phase is to increase the number of carbs, carb quality also matters.
Instead of relying on unhealthy sources like white bread and baked goods, you should get the majority of your carbs from healthy sources.
Some examples of nutritious, complex carbs include:
- Sweet potatoes
- Butternut squash
- Brown rice
- Whole-wheat or brown-rice pasta
- Beans and lentils
These carbs are high in vitamins, minerals and fiber, which fuel your body and keep blood sugar levels stabilized.
Avoid foods and beverages high in sugar — like candy, juice, soda and cake — as they’re devoid of nutrients and lead to blood sugar irregularity, which can cause increased hunger and irritability (5, 6).
Returning to Ketosis Quickly
After high-carb, refeeding days, you should consider intermittent fasting to return to ketosis fast.
The most common intermittent fasting method involves fasting for 16 hours of the day.
High-intensity workouts on the days following refeeding are also advised in order to achieve ketosis while optimizing muscle growth.
Summary In the cyclical keto diet, you follow a standard ketogenic diet most days of the week, then “refeed” with carbohydrate-rich foods a few days per week.
Research on the cyclical ketogenic diet is very limited. Still, it may provide advantages.
May Aid Muscle Gain
Though some evidence suggests that the standard keto diet is effective at building lean body mass in resistance-trained athletes, some argue that the cyclical version is better for muscle growth (7).
Using the cyclical keto diet to strategically raise insulin levels on specific days could allow you to use the anabolic effects of insulin to promote muscle growth.
Keep in mind that there is not enough research on this diet to prove this method’s effectiveness.
May Boost Performance in Athletes
Refeeding with carbohydrates may benefit elite athletes who are following very low-carb diets.
One study in 29 elite race-walkers found that the athletes benefited from periodic high-carb intake — though it did not specifically test the cyclical keto diet.
The study revealed that the walkers who received periodic high-carb feedings prior to training sessions experienced significant improvements in performance compared to those following a standard keto diet (11).
The researchers concluded that athletes who periodically consumed a lot of carbs saw an improvement in performance, while those following a strict keto diet did not.
Decreases Keto-Related Side Effects
The ketogenic diet is associated with unpleasant side effects collectively known as the keto flu.
These symptoms emerge when your body struggles to adapt to using ketones as a primary fuel source.
Cycling in carbohydrates 1–2 days per week can decrease these symptoms.
Adds More Fiber to Your Diet
Constipation is a common complaint among those first transitioning to a keto diet.
This is because some people struggle to obtain enough fiber when eating a high-fat, very low-carb diet.
Though it’s possible to consume enough fiber on a standard keto diet, transitioning to a cyclical ketogenic diet can make it much easier.
During refeeding days, high-fiber carbs, such as oats, sweet potatoes, beans and quinoa, are allowed.
Makes the Keto Diet Easier to Stick To
The keto diet is linked to various health benefits, such as weight loss, blood sugar control and a reduced risk of heart disease. Yet, it can be difficult to follow long term (13).
Because you must drastically reduce your carb intake to reach ketosis, many healthy — yet high-carb — foods are off limits.
Using the cyclical keto diet, you can eat carb-rich foods on refeeding days, which may make the diet more sustainable in the long run.
However, because there is currently little research on the cyclical keto diet, its long-term benefits are unknown.
Summary Following a cyclical keto diet may decrease keto flu symptoms, make the standard keto diet more achievable, boost athletic performance, increase fiber intake and promote muscle growth.
Because research on the cyclical keto diet is limited, its side effects are largely unknown.
Until studies on the diet are completed, it’s impossible to determine its full effects.
Keep in mind that many people may eat too many calories on refeeding days, counteracting the weight loss benefits of the standard keto diet.
Also, it should be noted that transitioning from a standard to a cyclical keto diet may result in temporary weight gain — primarily due to excess water that is retained when consuming high-carb foods.
In fact, your body stores each gram of carbs in muscle with at least 3 grams of water (14).
For those looking to boost muscle mass or improve athletic performance, it’s unknown whether the cyclical keto diet is more effective than the standard one.
Summary Though little is known about the potential side effects of the cyclical keto diet, it may be easy to consume too many calories on refeeding days.
A cyclical ketogenic diet involves adhering to a standard keto diet 5–6 days per week, followed by 1–2 days of higher carb intake.
While this method is claimed to reduce keto flu symptoms, boost athletic performance and promote muscle growth, research on its effectiveness and possible drawbacks is lacking.
No matter which type of keto diet you choose, it’s always important to choose healthy, nutrient-dense foods in order to reach your goals.