After doing a more strict keto diet for around 3 months, I decided to try incorporating carb-ups, also known as "carb re-feeds" or "cyclical ketosis" into my ketogenic lifestyle. I had read about them online, about their benefits and drawbacks and decided it was something I wanted to try out, to see how it affected me. These are not the same thing as cheat days in which people eat whatever they want, however much they want. It is a feeding strategy in which one periodically has a meal, a day or a couple of days in which they increase their carbs and reduce their fat intake in order to get some of the body and mind benefits that carbs can bring.
The Controversy Around Carb-Ups and the Keto Lifestyle
The strategy of working carb-ups, or doing "cyclical keto" into a keto lifestyle is somewhat controversial in the keto community. Some keto proponents, like Dr. Eric Berg, say that you never have to carb-up because your body gets all the carbs it needs because it becomes so efficient at using what little amounts you get and by synthesizing them from your protein as necessary. Others, like Leanne Vogel, a nutrition educator who focuses on helping women on their keto journeys, says that carb-ups are helpful for balancing hormones, helping to heal thyroid issues, preventing the body from developing food sensitivities or for breaking through weight loss plateaus by shocking the body with a flipped eating pattern occasionally. If you're on a therapeutic ketogenic diet for treating epilepsy, cancer, dementia or other health issues, however, carb-ups are not even on the table as people doing it as a prescriptive measure for treating an illness need to stick to their doctor's recommendations. (*For the record, I am not a medical professional, so anything I'm sharing here is purely my own experience and not necessarily going to work for you or any other person. Every person's body is different and what works for some doesn't for others.) Here's a great video from Thomas DeLaurer outlining some of the benefits of carb-ups and some ideas as to how to approach them:
My Reasons for Incorporating Carb-ups Into My Keto Lifestyle
While more and more studies are being done on the effects of the keto diet, there is still not a lot of research on how it affects the body over the longterm. While becoming adapted to using fat as my primary fuel source has brought me many benefits, I believe that carb-ups can be helpful for a number of different reasons.
1. Higher Micronutrient Adequacy
Nutritionally, diversity in food is associated with higher micronutrient adequacy of diets. If you're always restricting carb intake, you are leaving out a wide variety of fruits, grains, legumes, tubers, even some vegetables that have unique nutritional profiles that may be lacking in a high fat, low carb-diet. [Read this article on food biodiversity and nutritional quality of diets] (http://www.pnas.org/content/115/1/127)
2. Staying "Regular"
Some people find that they become more constipated on the keto diet. This isn't the case with me, but there are other things I want to make sure stay "regular." For many women, eating high fat, low carb can cause drops in the hormones that regulate reproduction and menstrual cycles, especially for lean women like myself. While I'm not planning on having children, I believe that healthy menstrual cycles and fertility are signs that a woman's body is healthy and getting everything it needs to do what it's supposed to do. Read this article for more info on the effects of high fat, low carb diets on women's reproductive systems.
3. Keeping My Body Guessing
In so many things related to the body, I read about how controlled stress or shock is good for the body. This is the basis for things like temperature shock (i.e. exposing the body to hot and/or cold temperatures), changing up physical workouts either through changes in intensity or type, or even fasting as a way of encouraging cell regeneration, as well as increased mental and physical acuity. Changing your body's fuel source by having the occasional carb refeed is associated with resetting leptin levels to keep your body's metabolism on point, which can help with weight loss stalls or prevent you from regaining weight from having a metabolism that has become too efficient. Here is a medical abstract that covers this in a bit more detail.
4. Enjoying Different Foods
There are certain types of food that just don't have a place in a standard keto diet, foods that don't have a keto swap that properly emulates what I like about that particular food. I like to be able to have these foods occasionally purely for enjoyment. For me, it's foods like sushi, sweet potatoes, congee, high-carb fruits (i.e. apples, oranges, mangoes, grapes, etc), oatmeal, quinoa, legumes, etc. I do try to focus more on healthy carbs from whole foods over carbs from refined sugars and flours for the most part, I will very occasionally indulge in high quality freshly baked breads and pizza dough (Fathead pizza dough just isn't the same).
How I Do Carb-Ups
As a general rule, I try to do a carb-up day once a week or so. I usually do a whole day of flipping my macros: 70% carbs, 20% protein and 10% fat. I prefer to limit my carb-ups to a single day rather than doing evening carb-ups multiple times a week because I prefer to limit breaks from ketosis to once a week. This is purely because I prefer the way my body and mind functions when I'm in ketosis. Because I'm so well fat-adapted, and because I practice intermittent fasting, I don't find I get keto flu symptoms after a carb-up, but I usually do feel foggier in the brain and a bit more sluggish in the body immediately after a carb refeed. As such, I try to get all my main mental and physical work done for the day before I start carbing up, and have more chill activities planned for rest of the day while my body absorbs the carbs.
While most of my recipes focus around keto macros, it's good to have a few go-to carb-up recipes focused around healthy carb choices. For the most part, I prefer the high-fat, low-carb foods that are normal on my keto days. Fat just has so much more flavour than straight high-carb. That’s why it’s important to have a few healthy go-to recipes that pack in the nutritional properties you might miss out on in keto, as well as foods you simply enjoy like dishes focused around higher carb foods like apples, beets, carrots, sweet potatoes, quinoa, oats, etc. Here are a few of my favourites:
I will continue to add carb-up recipes as I continue to blog, so keep checking the the complete list of Carb-Up Recipes on this site.
Now over to you. Do you do carb-ups/carb-refeeds while on the keto diet? If so, which approach do you use? Do you have any favourite go-to dishes for carb-ups? Please share your thoughts and ideas in the comments. :)