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Carb Cycling vs the Ketogenic Diet
After all these years, barely a week goes by in which I don’t get asked about ketogenic dieting or carb cycling (usually both). So to settle all debate, let’s look at the main benefits and drawbacks of each.
Before we go into all that, let me just state that it’s a scientific fact that some people don’t have to worry as much about the types of carbs they eat, and don’t have to have severely low carb intakes to lose fat. This characteristic—insulin function/sensitivity—is highly genetically based . You can get tested for this and other genes via FitnessGenes (aka MuscleGenes), or you can pay careful attention and use long-term trial and error to determine your carb sensitivity.
Let’s start with a carb-cycling diet first, which will enhance our discussion on keto later. First, a definition: Carb cycling could be anything from having two or three cheat/reward meals per week during a carb-restricted diet to having two or three very low carb days per week and eating a normal amount of carbs on other days. Carb cycling works best in people who are able to maintain a high degree of compliance, don’t succumb to cravings, and don’t have huge appetites. The reason for this is that it’s difficult to implement—you have to plan your meals fairly carefully. For most people, outside of hardcore gym-goers and competitors, this makes the compliance rate poor.
The second problem is that some people, when they get that whiff of “cheat” food, can’t stop and go off on a bender, also throwing a monkey wrench into their attempts at compliance.
If either of these is you, then stick to a consistent diet in which you adjust your carbs very gradually; or, if you do carb cycle, stick to foods that you know won’t push the “binge” button!
For those who can plan accordingly, carb cycling can be useful. Eating higher carb meals after intense, glycogen-depleting workouts virtually assures that none of the calories from that meal are likely to be stored as fat because the body’s primary aim at that time will be repleting glycogen. Also, for those who diet hard and like to know that there’s light at the end of the tunnel, your high-carb meals/high-carb days can actually make you feel like you have a normal life for one to five meals/days per week! Finally, since consistent, excessive calorie restriction lowers metabolic rate and evidence suggests that you can acutely (or even chronically) maintain a higher metabolic rate by adding in larger meals in some circumstances, cycling carbs/calories is probably superior to constant restriction.
Now for keto dieting, my thoughts are thus: I don’t see the point. Of course, substituting carbs with protein in the diet certainly works, but you don’t have to go ketogenic. There’s no good evidence that taking carbs that low causes better fat loss than just taking carbs down to a reasonable level. No evidence! What there is evidence of is that a keto diet will limit your muscular endurance if you’re doing the type of training that’s best for building muscle for most people. I’m not taking anything away from guys like Dr. Volek, Lyle McDonald, or Dr. Atkins, who are the stalwarts of these diets, because they forced us to consider the many facets of carb restriction (and we owe them a lot for this), but carb cycling or just a moderate-carb diet work just as well and don’t impair exercise performance as much.
For another article about Ketogenic diets from Muscle Diet's Mark Gilbert, click here!