Pitfalls of the Keto Diet and Why Carb Cycling Is Better
By: Courtney Sperlazza, MPH
February 26, 2018
- The keto diet involves getting the majority of your calories from fat, less from protein, and very few (5% or less) from carbs. There are modifications to the full keto diet, including carb cycling and overall increased carbohydrates.
- Although people are in it for the weight loss, science shows keto has a ton of other benefits, like lowering inflammation, helping your brain work more efficiently, and keeping hunger crashes and cravings at bay.
- While your body is shifting from burning sugar and carbs to burning fat for fuel, you experience a range of symptoms for a few days up to two weeks, called “keto flu.” It should level out, but if restricting carbs causes symptoms longer than a couple weeks, your body might be asking you for more carbohydrates.
- If this sounds like you, you might benefit from carb cycling or a modified keto diet.
What you eat on the keto diet varies depending on who you ask, but most generally it means getting the majority of your calories from fat, less from protein, and very few (5% or less) from carbs. Ketosis is a powerful way to melt body fat and dial in your mental focus. Without glucose from carbs, your body burns dietary and stored fat as its main fuel source. The fat you eat and your stored fat breaks down into ketones, smaller molecules that fuel your brain and suppress hunger, while keeping you lean.
Research on ketosis used to center around its benefits for epilepsy patients, but scientists are looking at its effects on the rest of the body, too. Scientists continue to discover amazing benefits of keto, like:
- Keto curbs inflammation. Using fat as your fuel source creates far less inflammation than burning sugar does, and ketones themselves quiet the inflammatory response.
- Ketosis upgrades your brain. When your brain uses ketones for energy, it makes more mitochondria, the battery packs of your cells. When you have more mitochondria, your cells generate more energy. More energy in your cells means sharper focus to help you do the things you need to do, and stronger willpower to help you cut out the things you don’t want to do.
- A ketogenic diet keeps you full and burns fat. Ketones regulate ghrelin and cholecystokinin (CCK), the hormones that control feelings of hunger and satiety.When you’re in full ketosis, hunger becomes less of an obsession and more of a background thought. You’ll find that fasting comes easily, and your body readily burns fat stores to keep you going.
- You’ll eat better than you ever have. Sure, extra fat could spell trouble, if you reach for things like packaged snacks with trans fat, or fried anything. Because you’ll be consuming so much fat, you need to be extra vigilant of the types of fat you eat in order to stay healthy. If you do it right, you’ll enjoy delicious foods that feed your brain and body, like grass-fed steak, butter, bacon, pastured eggs, and avocado.
Chances are, you’re ready to dive in. Before you cut out all of your carbohydrates, you need to know a few things. The full keto diet isn’t perfect for everyone, and you may need to tweak it a little, depending on your individual biology. Keep reading to find out what snags you could run into while in ketosis, and what variations might work better with your system.
Ketogenic diet or exogenous ketones?
You can get into ketosis a couple different ways.
Cap your carbs. One way is nutritional ketosis, in which you limit the available glucose that your body has to use for fuel. It depends on your individual biology, but people generally achieve ketosis after limiting carbs to less than 50 grams a day.
Consume ketones. The other way is to use exogenous ketones, which are ketones you ingest. Exogenous ketones are most effective when you use them alongside a keto diet. If you choose to use exogenous ketones, you have a few different options:
- Ketone salts. Not all of the ketones in ketone salts are bioidentical, which means the body may not be able to use them. What’s more is that they’re a relatively new supplement, so there may be some undocumented adverse effects that show up down the road.
- Ketone esters. Ketone esters are more effective than ketone salts but they taste like something you would find in a hospital antiseptic closet. Plus, they’re expensive to buy and not widely available for purchase. Ketone esters also carry the issue that there might be adverse effects that we don’t yet know about.
- Brain Octane Oil. Brain Octane Oil is the happy medium between pure nutritional ketosis and exogenous ketones. It is essentially caprylic acid, a medium-chain triglyceride that bypasses normal metabolism pathways and goes straight to energy you can use. A major advantage is that unlike taking ketones in ketone form, your body knows what to do with Brain Octane Oil because it’s a fat. Your body converts it to ketones you can use, and it raises ketones four times more efficiently than following a keto diet alone. So, your diet can get you into the comfy, zero-craving zone of ketosis faster if you boost your ketones with a teaspoon to a tablespoon of Brain Octane Oil.
Downsides to the keto diet
The first two weeks
When you first venture into cutting carbs and entering ketosis, you start what’s known as the “keto flu,” the period during which your body shifts from burning carbs and sugar for energy to burning fat. It takes anywhere from a few days to about two weeks for your metabolism to re-regulate the way it uses food and generates energy.
Related: How to Conquer the Keto Flu
Whether you call it keto flu, carb flu, carb withdrawal, or sugar crash, what you’re feeling is real. You’ll experience some combination of things like:
- Muscle soreness
- Poor focus
- Stomach pains
- Sugar cravings
- Brain fog
- Sore throat
- Dry eyes
- Signs of hormone imbalance
- Signs of adrenal issues
- Aches and pains
Beyond the two-week mark
Your symptoms of carb restriction should be temporary. Once your body fully adjusts to burning fat instead of sugar and carbs, you should feel better than you did before you started.
Your body will tell you if you’ve gone overboard with restricting carbs, or if you’ve gone too low for too long. Some of the negative symptoms of ketosis may include:
- Dry eyes. Carbs help your mucus membranes produce the mucus that lines your gut and nasal passages, and keeps your eyes hydrated. Some people notice that after long-term carb restriction to 50 grams per day or less, their eyes become irritated. This is a sign that other necessary mucus membranes aren’t working as well as they could be.
- Hormonal imbalances. Severe long-term carb restriction can cause your T3 thyroid hormone to drop, and this happens much more rapidly in women.
- Fatigue. Burning fat for fuel doesn’t work for everyone. Some people lack the genes that help us process fat, so they will not use it as efficiently. In the majority of people, adapting to fat burning ramps up the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which gives you more energy. In some people, long-term carb restriction stresses the HPA axis, which makes you feel tired all the time.
If you experience these symptoms, you don’t have to give up keto entirely. You can enjoy the amazing benefits you keep hearing about with some slight but high-impact modifications. If you’re past the two-week mark and you’re still having symptoms, you may want to add back in some carbohydrates or experiment with a cyclical ketogenic diet.
Increase your overall carb intake
You can experiment with adding more carbs into your day. To find the right carb balance, pay close attention and tune in to your body. Read this article to help you find your ideal carb intake.
If you’re going to increase your overall carbs, track yourself to see how your body responds.
The most effective way to get the carbs your body needs while staying within keto carb ranges is to choose one day per week to eat more high-quality carbs. On your carb re-feed day, you can add things like:
- Sweet potato
- White rice
- Roasted butternut squash
- Low-sugar berries (blackberries, strawberries, blueberries)
Carb cycling this way allows you to take advantage of all the keto benefits, like appetite suppression, fat burning, boundless energy, and laser focus, without wrecking the systems that need some amount of carbohydrates to function properly.
Carb cycling helps you to avoid the negative impact some people experience when they restrict carbs long-term. If you’re having symptoms, keep a detailed journal to see if carb cycling helps you feel better without derailing your keto diet.
Around the internet, you see success stories and anecdotes of everyone’s amazing results on their new diet plans. Typically, people put up their before-and-after progress pics with their stories about their experience within the first three months of starting a diet. During that time, your body systems can maintain through just about anything.
What happens past the first few months matters more for lasting change. Being able to maintain a lifestyle beyond the first few months matters much more than your first go at new habits. If something feels off, you’ll quit, but if you’re feeling amazing, you’ll stick with it. The keto diet can work long-term, but there are instances where you may need need to modify it just a little to get the maximum lasting benefit.