The keto diet can help you reach a number of health goals—but it’s not the easiest diet to follow long-term. In fact, research has yet to confirm whether it’s even healthy to do so. That’s where cyclical keto comes in. This twist on the standard keto diet can be exactly what keto eaters need to make their results last.
Can You Stay In Ketosis Forever?
Some keto dieters claim to have spent years in ketosis, the state in which we burn fat for fuel. However, that may not be the best approach for most people.
Many keto experts believe our bodies have evolved to function in ketosis periodically, but not permanently. You see, historically, human beings went days at a time without eating much (or anything) when food was scarce. In response to the threat of starvation, the body would shift into ketosis. In this state, it could use stored body fat for energy instead of the carbs it’d normally get from food. An evolutionary back-up generator, ketosis would get us by until the next hunt, forage, or harvest.
With that in mind, I usually recommend people follow a keto diet for about two to six months. While research is still developing, some studies suggest that staying in ketosis for periods longer than this may increase risk for cardiovascular, metabolic, and liver problems—particularly in people who are genetically susceptible.
Enter Cyclical Keto
So, what are you supposed to do after those few months of ketosis? I recommend a cyclical keto protocol, which will support your long-term health, maintaining your results, and allow for more flexibility in your diet.
Also known as ‘keto-cycling,’ cyclical keto involves alternating between eating strictly keto-style and eating higher amounts of carbs and protein. The result: Some days you’ll burn fat for fuel, others you’ll burn glucose from carbohydrates. This way, you can continue to reap the benefits of keto and enjoy higher-carb foods and more protein.
The Benefits Of Cyclical Keto
Convinced you can never go back to carbs? Here are a few of the perks of cycling in and out of ketosis and burning both carbs and fat for fuel:
- Ability to eat a greater variety of foods, which increases intake of nutrients—like fiber, essential vitamins, and antioxidants—and may help prevent deficiencies
- Greater flexibility in food choices when eating out or at social events
- Replenishes glycogen (stored energy from sugar) in your muscles, so you can work out harder and recover more easily
- Maintains greater motivation long-term (less restrictive, more sustainable)
- Keeps your metabolism high and prevents weight loss plateaus, fatigue, and cravings.
- Helps ward off potential long-term keto side effects, like hormonal imbalances, fatigue, and indigestion
Not to mention, cyclical keto supports your ‘metabolic flexibility,’ or ability to respond or adapt to conditional changes in metabolic demands. Basically, this means your body will use both fat and carbs for energy more efficiently—good news for your waistline and your long-term health.
Because cyclical keto consistently replenishes glycogen and allows you to eat a wide variety of whole foods, you can follow it for as long as you want! There’s little to no risk involved.
How To Implement Cyclical Keto
You can start cyclical keto as early as 30 days into a typical ketogenic diet, at which point your body should be adapted to utilizing fat for fuel.
On cyclical keto, you’ll rotate between two different approaches to eating:
- ‘Strict keto’ days: Three days a week, you’ll limit your carb consumption to about 25 to 30 grams of net carbs per day. (This is the standard amount recommended for getting into ketosis.) On these days, you’ll eat about 75 percent (or more) of your calories in fat, about 20 in protein, and just about five in carbs.
- ‘Re-feed’ days: Two days a week, you’ll eat about 100 grams of net carbs per day. While that’s still not truly high-carb, it’s high enough to make room for fruit, legumes, and other traditionally non-keto foods. The extra carbs will provide your muscles with glycogen and you’ll feel re-energized.
On your strict keto days, the bulk of your calories should come from healthy fats like olive oil, eggs, and avocado, along with coconut oil, MCT oil, grass-fed butter, ghee, fatty cuts of grass-fed meat, and fatty wild-caught fish. For breakfast, you might have two or three eggs cooked in butter with a side of veggies. Then, for lunch, grass-fed beef with avocado and greens. And for dinner, a serving of fish or meat with veggies sautéed in olive oil. And for snacks, macadamia nuts, olives, or fat bombs made with MCT oil.
On your higher-carb days, though, you have much more wiggle room. For breakfast, you might have a smoothie made with a cup of fruit, protein powder, and coconut oil. Then, for lunch, chicken and a sweet potato. And for dinner, a lettuce-wrapped grass-fed burger, or a piece of salmon with starchy veggies. For snacks, carrots with hummus, dark chocolate, a spoonful of nut butter, or half an avocado with whole-grain crackers.
Cyclical Keto Do’s And Don’ts
To feel and perform your best, I recommend two or three keto days followed by one higher-carb day.
For most, cycling this way allows for enough time eating keto-style to deplete glycogen stores and boost fat-burning. Then, it replenishes glycogen before keto flu symptoms pop up, supporting energy and performance.
However, there is a bit of room for flexibility, so make adjustments as needed! Listen to your body and adjust this eating plan depending on your energy levels and progress. Each week might look a bit different depending on your schedule, exercise intensity, and other factors.
Since you’ll feel extra energized and your muscles will have access to more glycogen on your higher-carb days, I recommend lining them up with your more-intense workouts. The extra carbs will not only help power you through your workout, but help you recover afterwards, too.
Remember, though: These higher-carb days are not an invitation to overeat or load up on junk you wouldn’t normally eat. Going too high on carbs several days a week will not only make it harder to shift back into ketosis the following day, but might also leave you feeling sluggish and bloated. Cyclical keto is about incorporating a wider variety of whole foods, like fruit, nuts, and starchy veggies—and the important nutrients they provide—into your diet.
Of course, you can still treat yourself to your favorite higher-carb meals and desserts now and then. Generally, though, try to stick with unprocessed, whole foods—no matter what day of the week it is.
Dr. Josh Axe, D.N.M., D.C., C.N.S., is a doctor of natural medicine, clinical nutritionist, author, and member of The Vitamin Shoppe’s Wellness Council. Dr. Axe operates one of the world’s largest natural health websites, sharing healthy recipes, herbal remedies, nutrition and fitness advice, and information on essential oils and natural supplements. Dr. Axe founded one of the largest functional medicine clinics in the world, in Nashville, TN, and has served as a physician for many professional athletes.