By Kelley Herring
If your goal is to lose weight and improve your body composition, you’re probably familiar with the benefits of low-carb eating. After all, insulin and blood sugar promote the storage of fat… so it’s no surprise that a low-carb diet can be highly effective for burning fat.
But did you know that ADDING carbs to your diet could actually help improve your body and increase lean body mass? It’s true, when carbs are used properly and in a strategic way.
In my last article, you learned about the hormonal imbalances that can occur in some people on long-term carb-restricted diets. You’ve also discovered the symptoms and conditions that may indicate a need for more carbs in your diet.
Today, you will learn:
The difference between Keto Cycling and Carb Cycling
How adding carbs to your diet (strategically) could improve body composition
The right carbs to choose, plus
Meal ideas to get you started!
Keto Cycling & The Carb Refeed
Keto cycling is just what it sounds like: You eat in a way that allows your body to cycle in and out of ketosis. And while this can be tweaked to your unique needs, most people choose to eat less than 50 grams of net carbs for six days of the week. Then, increase carbs to around 150 grams on the seventh day. This is known as a “carb refeed” day.
One primary reason why people choose to cycle in and out of ketosis strategically is to improve body composition. That’s right… consuming carbs might actually improve your physique!
When you eat the same way consistently, your body adapts to your eating pattern over time. This is why many people reach a weight loss plateau on a low-carb or keto diet.
By adding a carb refeed day, your leptin levels also get a boost.1 Not only does this benefit your perception of hunger, it also helps to prevent your metabolism from going into “conservation mode” where it tends to hold on to fat for survival.2
With a strategic carb refeed, many people report higher energy levels, greater weight loss and fewer cravings.
It is an important distinction that a carb refeed is not a “cheat day”. This isn’t a day to go hog wild on bread, pasta and pizza. It’s about replenishing your glycogen stores with the Paleo-friendly whole food carbohydrates we note below.
Now let’s look at how a keto cycling differs from carb cycling…
Carb Cycling: Adjusting Carb Intake to Your Activity Levels
The key difference is that a carb cycling diet tends to be a diet high in protein, moderate in fat, and without a focus on maintaining ketosis. In fact, carb cycling often depends on adjusting carb consumption based on activity levels.
While there are many ways to carb-cycle, most people choose to switch between low carb, moderate carb and high carb throughout the week. The low-carb days help sensitize your cells to insulin and assist your body to use carbohydrates more efficiently.3,4 Those low-carb days also help your body tap into fat stores to peel away that layer of unwanted fat.
The higher-carb days help to build muscle. If your calories or carbohydrate levels are too low, you may inhibit muscle growth, as the muscles utilize glycogen from carbohydrates in order to grow.5
Of course, greater more muscle mass means you’ll burn more calories through the day – even at rest.6 So, your metabolism gets a boost too!
Now, this is not to say that you cannot build muscle while consuming a keto or low-carb diet. In fact, a study of 25 college-aged men compared a traditional Western diet against the ketogenic diet for muscle gain, strength, and performance. They found that both diets were equally effective.
Interestingly, the keto diet group enjoyed a carb refeed at week 10 which correlated with an increase in lean body mass during that same period.7
Another study showed that a very low-carb keto diet in elite gymnasts for 30 days decreased body weight and body fat, without negatively impacting strength.8
Similarly, a study in in overweight women found that the combination of resistance exercise with a ketogenic diet reduced body fat without significantly changing lean body mass… while resistance exercise on a regular diet increased lean body mass without significantly affecting fat mass.9
The key seems to lie in the strategic addition of carbohydrates (especially if you have been very low carb or keto for some time), and taking your own body composition goals into account.
How Do You Know When to Add More Carbs?
In general, your carbohydrate intake should be dictated by your activity level.
On days when you do harder workouts – such as HIIT, sprints or weight lifting – your body will be more sensitive to insulin. It can tolerate more carbohydrates and utilize those carbs for muscle growth.
On days when you do lighter activity – such as walking, gardening or yoga – your insulin sensitivity will be lower, and consuming fewer carbs would be wise, as they will more likely be stored as fat.
Your macronutrient ratios on carb cycling will look different based on your goals. If you aim to increase muscle mass, your carb intake on the higher-carb days will be more than if your goal is weight loss.
Carbohydrate Foods to Choose for Keto & Carb Cycle
When adding carbohydrates back to your diet, choose those foods that are closest to what our ancestors enjoyed, while taking into consideration your own sensitivities*. Here’s a quick list of Paleo-friendly carbs to choose:
- Sweet potatoes
- Purple sweet potatoes
- Butternut squash
- White rice*
- Potato starch*
Carb Cycling Sample Meal Plans
Now that you’ve learned about the potential benefits of carb cycling and carb refeeding, you might wonder what this way of eating looks like.
If you search the internet, you’ll find carb cycling plans with up to 250 grams of carbs per day. However, unless you are a very large person, with a high metabolism and excellent insulin sensitivity, who does a lot of heavy exercise, this is an excessive amount of carbs. Case in point – 250 g of carbohydrate is equivalent to a whopping 11 bananas or 7 baked potatoes!
A more reasonable upper limit on carbs during a “refeed” is around 100 grams. And as with most things in the world of nutrition, adjust to your own personal needs.
Here are a few sample meal plans, illustrating how to pair activity with carb cycling.
High-Carb Day Sample Meal Plan
Activity Indicator: Intense activity – HIIT, sprints, heavy lower body weight training
Carb target: Up to 100 grams, ideally root veggies at each meal
Include carbs: At each meal
Breakfast: Pastured Egg Omelet with Tomatoes, Mushrooms & Onions + Organic Home Fries
Lunch: Wild Salmon Burger + Caramelized Onions + Roasted Sweet Potato
Dinner: Roasted Free-Range Chicken Breast + Purple Potato Puree + Arugula Salad with Lemon Vinaigrette
Moderate-Carb Day Sample Meal Plan
Activity Indicator: Moderate activity – hiking, jogging
Carb target: Up to 50 grams
Include carbs: At breakfast
Breakfast: Scrambled Eggs + Sweet Potato Pancakes with Grass-Fed Butter
Lunch: Wild Salmon Burger + Organic Green Salad
Dinner: Grass-Fed Flank Steak + Pepper, Mushroom & Onion Stir-Fry
Very-Low Carb Day Sample Meal Plan
Activity Indicator: Light activity – walking, gentle yoga
Carb target: 20- 30 grams
Include carbs: Minimally, from above-ground vegetables
Breakfast: Meat-Lover’s Omelet with Pastured Pork Sausage & Grass-Fed Cheddar Cheese
Lunch: Wild Shrimp Cocktail with Easy Mayo Remoulade + Organic Green Salad
Dinner: Grass-Fed Beef Burgers in Lettuce Wraps with Pickles, Mayo & Avocado
You are Unique & Your Diet Should be Too!
Your ideal carbohydrate intake will depend on your own genetics, life phase and activity level.
If you choose to increase your carbohydrates strategically, track your progress to see how your body responds. A journal is a wonderful tool for this, and many apps are also available to help make keto cycling or carb cycling accessible.
Also, remember that a tape measure is a far better indication of improved body composition than the scale, as muscle is denser than fat.
Have you experimented with carb cycling or keto cycling? If so, what were your results?
Read more Health & Wellness articles from Kelley Herring on our Discover Blog.
Kelley Herring is the author of the brand new book Keto Breads – which includes more information you need to know about why it is so important to avoid wheat and grains in your diet, plus how to use healthy replacements for these foods to create all the breads you love… without the gluten, carbs and health-harming effects. Click here to learn more about Keto Breads…
- Dirlewanger M, di Vetta V, Guenat E, Battilana P, Seematter G, Schneiter P, Jéquier E, Tappy L. Effects of short-term carbohydrate or fat overfeeding on energy expenditure and plasma leptin concentrations in healthy female subjects. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 2000 Nov;24(11):1413-8. doi: 10.1038/sj.ijo.0801395. PMID: 11126336.
- N L Keim, J S Stern, P J Havel, Relation between circulating leptin concentrations and appetite during a prolonged, moderate energy deficit in women, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 68, Issue 4, October 1998, Pages 794–801, https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/68.4.794
- Gower BA, Goss AM. A lower-carbohydrate, higher-fat diet reduces abdominal and intermuscular fat and increases insulin sensitivity in adults at risk of type 2 diabetes. J Nutr. 2015 Jan;145(1):177S-83S. doi: 10.3945/jn.114.195065. Epub 2014 Dec 3. PMID: 25527677; PMCID: PMC4264021.
- Francois ME, Gillen JB, Little JP. Carbohydrate-Restriction with High-Intensity Interval Training: An Optimal Combination for Treating Metabolic Diseases? Front Nutr. 2017 Oct 12;4:49. doi: 10.3389/fnut.2017.00049. PMID: 29075629; PMCID: PMC5643422.
- Aragon AA, Schoenfeld BJ. Nutrient timing revisited: is there a post-exercise anabolic window?. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2013;10(1):5. Published 2013 Jan 29. doi:10.1186/1550-2783-10-5
- Zurlo F, Larson K, Bogardus C, Ravussin E. Skeletal muscle metabolism is a major determinant of resting energy expenditure. J Clin Invest. 1990;86(5):1423-1427. doi:10.1172/JCI114857
- Wilson JM, Lowery RP, Roberts MD, Sharp MH, Joy JM, Shields KA, Partl J, Volek JS, D’Agostino D. The Effects of Ketogenic Dieting on Body Composition, Strength, Power, and Hormonal Profiles in Resistance Training Males. J Strength Cond Res. 2017 Apr 7. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000001935. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 28399015.
- Paoli A, Grimaldi K, D’Agostino D, Cenci L, Moro T, Bianco A, Palma A. Ketogenic diet does not affect strength performance in elite artistic gymnasts. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2012 Jul 26;9(1):34. doi: 10.1186/1550-2783-9-34. PMID: 22835211; PMCID: PMC3411406.
- Jabekk PT, Moe IA, Meen HD, Tomten SE, Høstmark AT. Resistance training in overweight women on a ketogenic diet conserved lean body mass while reducing body fat. Nutr Metab (Lond). 2010 Mar 2;7:17. doi: 10.1186/1743-7075-7-17. PMID: 20196854; PMCID: PMC2845587.