The ketogenic diet has been used for decades as an alternative treatment to drug-resistant epilepsy in children, and in recent years it’s been gaining popularity among the general population as an effective way to lose body fat, increase energy and improve insulin sensitivity.
But even though it’s practical and sustainable, the diet itself—comprised of high fat intake and severe carbohydrate restriction of no more than 100 grams of net carbs per day, and often far less than that—deviates significantly from the typical diet recommendations we’ve heard for years. This is probably one of the reasons why it’s so effective—after all, we know the "Standard American Diet" comes with dire consequences, as evidenced by the fact that a majority of the US population is now considered overweight or obese. But keto’s uniqueness can sometimes make it difficult to stick to in the face of holidays, parties, travel, and other situations.
The question is:
If you feel, function, and look the best on a ketogenic diet, do you have to maintain that diet at all times for maximal effect? Or, are there benefits to being a bit more flexible—that is, cycling in and out of ketosis?
3 Reasons to Cycle In and Out of Ketosis
1. Being in uninterrupted ketosis for a long time can trigger an elevation in blood sugar due to chronically low insulin.
The hormone insulin (secreted by the pancreas) helps control blood sugar levels. If blood sugar gets too high (which can happen when you eat a lot of carbs), then insulin levels rise to stop the liver from creating more glucose and help sugar get into the cells where they can be used for energy.
On a ketogenic diet, your body is using ketone bodies converted from stored body fat for energy instead. You’re also consuming an extremely low amount of carbs, so your blood sugar levels generally remain low and steady. Because of this, your body won’t need to produce as much insulin. Paradoxically, remaining in a chronic state of super low insulin can trigger a compensatory rise in blood sugar levels, thanks to an uptick in glucose production from the liver and a "refusal" of your muscles to take in glucose for energy (since they’ve become adapted to using ketones). Referred to by some as "adaptive glucose sparing," this isn’t necessarily a bad phenomenon, but some research indicates that these high levels of blood sugar caused by chronic ketosis may eventually contribute to insulin resistance and an increased risk of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (at least in mice).
By cycling in and out of ketosis, you may be able to help your body retain what’s known as "metabolic flexibility," or the ability to use both glucose AND fat for energy—as well as avoid potential symptoms of high blood sugar, including headaches and excessive thirst.
2. Cycling on and off your diet helps preserve your body’s gut health.
Low-carb diets sustained for prolonged amounts of time may not sufficiently support the microbiome in your intestines—the millions of healthy bacteria who help your body break down food, absorb nutrients, and bolster your immunity.
Hint: bacteria love sugar. So intermittently consuming more carbohydrates than normal can help your gut flora stay healthy and happy.
3. Cylical ketosis helps you enjoy indulgences (in moderation) more freely.
Let’s be real: sometimes you just want to enjoy some comfort food. Heck, even a roasted sweet potato with butter, chives, and sour cream can seem like a dream if you’ve been doing ketosis for a long time (although being in ketosis does eventually decrease food and sugar cravings once you get past the initial transition phase). And from a psychological standpoint, when you label certain foods as "bad" or "forbidden," you may only be increasing your temptation for those foods in the first place.
The freedom of going in and out of ketosis can help you avoid dealing with the "forbidden fruit" (no pun intended). Plus, depending on your lifestyle, it may help you navigate your day-to-day with more ease and peace of mind.
Because ultimately, a successful diet—whether it’s ketosis or otherwise—shouldn’t leave you feeling restricted in any way. Ideally, you understand the benefits of your particular diet of choice, and see your way of eating as a deliberate act for your health, rather than a diet meant to "punish" yourself.
Practicing Cyclical Keto: A Practical Guide
Chronic, long-term ketosis may not be a desirable goal—for physical, social, and mental reasons. That said, ketosis does offer clear health benefits and as a metabolic state it certainly is worth dipping into sometimes. In order to practice cyclical ketosis effectively, consider these suggestions:
- Try intermittent fasting: going without food for at least 16 to 24 hours at a time can induce ketosis even without having to make any other changes to your diet (but talk to your doctor first before trying this).
- Break your ketogenic diet on the weekends: this way is more "fun" and more likely to coincide with your social life. Even just once or twice a month may be enough to keep you motivated and on track the rest of the time.
- Limit your increased carb-intake to a specific timeframe: if you decide to indulge in more carbs than usual, try to limit your increased consumption to a 24 hour window (like a Saturday morning to Sunday morning) and see if you can consume most of your carbs after a workout; such temporal restrictions will help you re-enter ketosis more quickly.
- Tread lightly on the consumption of junk carbs: yes, many of us enjoy sweets, bread, and desserts from time to time, but if you go overboard you may end up feeling pretty rough; introduce your "treats" in moderation, and aim to make a bulk of your higher carb intake come from quality sources like fruit and sweet potatoes.
Got questions about how you can maximize your ketogenic lifestyle? Check out the rest of our website for helpful tips, and be sure to share this article with your other keto pals.
About the Author Nate Arnold
I started this website because it was hard to find trustworthy, evidence-based information about the ketogenic diet. Information that was published and peer reviewed by respected scientific journals. After years of research, I'm sure you'll achieve great results in a healthy way following my advice. I do my best to translate scientific research jargon into plain English. Remember, it's always a good idea to consult a doctor before starting a new diet!