Restricting carbohydrates is one of the most common methods people implement when trying to lose weight. Although some people prefer doing a strict keto plan, others prefer cycling their macros. They have several similarities, but they can also be very different. So, how does carb cycling compare to keto?
In this article, we’ll dig into everything you need to know about these popular diet alternatives, including similarities and differences between them, benefits and side effects of each, and foods allowed and not allowed according to each plan. Plus, which one costs more, and finally, which is the healthiest.
Carb cycling is when you vary the daily number of carbohydrates you consume. This means that some days you can have a low-carbohydrate diet, while other days, you might have a higher carbohydrate intake.
When people plateau after several weeks of following a low-carb approach, they might benefit by introducing certain higher-carbohydrate days during the week.
This might be done for weight loss. It is also common for athletes: whether off-season or during competition, they might require higher carbohydrate intake on certain days.
The day you need higher carbohydrate intake depends on your current activity levels. For example, it may be recommended that you have a higher intake on days when your training levels are higher (or when you are competing), while maintaining the lower carbohydrate range when you are resting.
So, what is the difference between this and a regular ketogenic diet?
While on keto, you follow a low-carb diet every day. On the other hand, with the cycling approach, you may have certain days that are ketogenic, but on other days you eat more carbohydrates. The amount of carbs you consume can vary a lot depending on your needs and preferences.
You can even implement both.
This is often called cyclical keto. However, in a cyclical ketogenic diet, you follow a low-carbohydrate diet for 5-6 days a week and have only 1 or 2 days with a higher carb intake.
On the other hand, with carb cycling, each cycle can last longer. You may increase your carbs for several weeks or even months, or you may go back and forth every other day.
Although they might seem like two different approaches, they have several similarities.
Keto or carb cycling for weight loss
Both options can help you lose weight. It’s common to experience more drastic weight loss during the first week of keto, but in the long run, you can achieve similar results with either diet.
Your results will vary on carb cycling depending on how many carbs you eat in your low-carbohydrate days, how often you cycle, how much you exercise, and the types of foods you eat on high-carb days.
On either plan, if you maintain a caloric deficit (eating fewer calories than your body needs), you will lose weight.
For sedentary people
Although you will get more benefits from carb cycling if you are working out, you can still get some of its benefits when you are sedentary. Cutting down on carbs means reducing your intake of many unhealthy foods, such as soda, breaded fried foods, high-carb fast food, cookies, cakes, and pastries. (Ideally, even on days when you cycle into eating more carbs, these should be coming from whole foods like fruit, lentils, and beans.)
Additionally, exercising for 150 minutes per week will help you have optimal health regardless of your diet plan.
Although they are built around a similar concept, there are differences between them.
One of the most significant differences in the number of carbs you consume during the day. You have an average carbohydrate intake of 5-10% of your total caloric intake on a ketogenic diet.
On a carb cycling calendar, there is no set macro percentage. It depends on the type of exercise you are doing and your goals. On average, you may choose 10-20% carbohydrates on lower days and 50-60% on higher carbohydrate days. You can also include a mid-carbohydrate day that could range from 30-40% of the total calories.
The keto diet vs. carb cycling for endurance athletes
Keto can significantly impact an endurance athlete’s performance during the first few days. After a while, when your body has adapted, your performance levels can go back to normal.
However, athletes might benefit from a higher carbohydrate intake due to carbs repleting glycogen stores which can be useful during the competition season. Thus, a carb cycling diet might be more convenient for endurance athletes, especially during competition.
Both eating patterns can produce similar benefits since they are both low-carb options. Here is a list of the possible advantages of following a low-carbohydrate approach.
Additionally, you get a couple of extra benefits from cycling your carbohydrate intake.
Since they have a similar approach of having days that are low in carbs, you can get similar side effects. Here is a list of the most common ones you might experience.
Remember that these are symptoms that you might experience during keto and only during your very low carbohydrate days on a carb cycling diet.
The foods to eat and not to eat will vary depending on where you are during your carb cycling. This means that you will eat different foods on low vs. high carbohydrate intake days.
The following table analyzes the difference between the foods you can and/or can’t have in both types of diets.
|CARB CYCLING |
|Beans and legumes||In moderation||Allowed||In moderation|
|Condiments and sauces||Allowed |
|Sugar-sweetened beverages||Not allowed||Allowed |
(but not encouraged)
|Alcoholic drinks||Allowed |
|Fish and seafood||Allowed||Allowed||Allowed|
|Fruits||In moderation||Allowed||Allowed |
|Grains and starches||In moderation||Allowed||In moderation|
|Herbs and spices||Allowed||Allowed||Allowed|
|Meat and poultry||Allowed||Allowed||Allowed|
|Nuts and seeds||Allowed||Allowed||Allowed|
|Oils and fats||Allowed||Allowed||Allowed|
|Natural sweeteners||Allowed |
|White and brown sugars||Not allowed|| |
|Starchy vegetables||In moderation||Allowed||In moderation|
As you can see, the foods to eat are the same when following a ketogenic approach as during the low-carbohydrate days of carb cycling.
There are no technical restrictions on high-carbohydrate days, but it does matter where you get your carbs from. Opt for healthy whole foods like fruit, beans, lentils, quinoa, and starchy vegetables instead of sugary, fried, or ultra-processed products.
If you are unsure whether a food is keto-friendly or low in carbohydrates, you can check the following food index to ensure you are on the right path.
The costs of each diet vary according to the type of food you get. For example, your grocery bill can be costly if you get fresh and organic produce. On the other hand, the bill might be cheaper if you buy local products that are in season.
Grains can be cheaper than healthy fats (avocado, olives, and olive oil). Thus, while doing the high-carbohydrate day, it might be more affordable than the rest of the low-carbohydrate days.
So, which is better? For athletes, carb cycling could be better than keto. This can help you perform well and lose weight at the same time.
However, if you have a mostly sedentary lifestyle or work out with less intensity and are trying to shed a couple of pounds, keto might be the way to go.
You also need to consider your social activities. If you have no problem finding meals and places that are low-carbohydrate, you can go with a ketogenic approach. On the other hand, if you have a hard time with this, you can either do cyclical keto or carb cycling. For example, you can eat low-carb at home but allow for flexibility when you go out.
Either of these meal plans can be a good option for those trying to lose weight and make healthier food choices. The best one is the one that you can see yourself doing as a lifestyle.
Whatever you decide, remember to drink plenty of water, aim for at least three different colored veggies per day, and avoid a sedentary lifestyle.