Food Freedom Friday Edition 108 - Carb Up

Sometimes you may feel that your Ketogenic diet has ‘stopped’ working.

Quite often I will be consulting with a client or receive a message from a desperate reader who feels they have been doing extremely well on a ketogenic diet (they lost lots of weight; they were feeling great etc. etc) for weeks and months on end only to have suddenly hit a wall. Did their keto plan stop being effective? The weight loss stalls or worse might reverse, the energy starts to flag, stress starts to spiral and by the time we are communicating, despair had set in. WHAT IS UP!?

The complete answer could fill a book, and I have written about some things that may get in the way of a ketogenic diet or any nutrition goals for that matter. One of the aspects contributing to appeared thwarted or halted goals may also be as simple as not taking a break. Unless you are using the Ketogenic Diet to deal with a chronic neurodegenerative disease, epilepsy or certain types of cancer you would probably be best served by adopting a cyclical ketogenic diet. This is exactly what it sounds like. You cycle in and out of Ketosis.

What!? I hear you proclaiming. What is this??? Do you now have permission to binge on donuts, cookies, cakes, pasta, and pizza? Clearly I must have lost my mind.  Thankfully, (and maybe sadly), neither is the case. Stalling is one of the side effects that can suddenly appear if you stay on a ketogenic diet for too long without taking a break. The key lies in how to structure those breaks without undoing all the great work that you have done up until this moment.

You can do this in a multitude of ways depending on your goals, how adapted you are at burning fat as a fuel source and how easily your body flips in an out of ketosis:

·         Eat a strictly ketogenic protocol for 5-6 days a week and increase your carbohydrates while decreasing fat (and in some cases restricting protein to 15g a day) on the other one or two. The fat restriction must take place simultaneously to carbohydrate increase for optimal effectiveness. This works well for people whose bodies are metabolically flexible and can slide in and out of a ketogenic state quite easily.

·         Follow your ketogenic diet for a few weeks (anywhere from 6-12) and then eat a healthy moderate to low carbohydrate, moderate fat and higher protein diet for 1-2 weeks. This works really well for people who are at or nearing their target weight and are reasonably insulin sensitive.

·         Follow your ketogenic plan for 2-3 weeks, load up on extra carbohydrates for 2-3 days and then go back in.

The variations are endless but the principles remain the same: you need to mix it up to get the best results. For most people who are insulin resistant (this applies to you if you are one of those folks who seem to gain weight just by looking at carbohydrate heavy foods), you probably need to stay in ketosis for a longer period of time, a couple of weeks or more initially before you choose to relax the carbohydrate restriction for a couple of days.

Nutrient density and food quality are still pivotal to the success of ‘carb-up’ protocols.  Yes, you will be increasing your carbohydrate load, but the carbohydrates you choose need to be good ones. Eating that entire box of donut hole, the extra large pizza to yourself, the giant bowl of potato chips or nachos is not what this process is about. Please do not misunderstand me, there will be times when you choose to indulge in certain foods for the sheer pleasure and enjoyment of them and for a healthy, metabolically flexible individual this will do no permanent damage. This is perfectly okay on occasion. However, if your carbohydrate loaded day(s) involve insulin spiking, processed and unhealthy foods it could take your body days if not weeks to recover. Furthermore, if you venture too deeply and/or too often into your trigger foods, those foods that you cannot stop eating, it could take you weeks to get back on track and get your cravings back under control.

My best advice for what to eat on these days is essentially to follow a real food based or Paleo/Primal type eating that involves a reasonable amount of root vegetables (sweet potatoes, turnips, parsnips, carrots, beets), some extra fruit, even the odd compliant baked good or treat. Feel free to consume up to approximately 200g of carbohydrate, some people can go even higher, but as a precaution, if you are able, do your best to time at least some of these after a workout or a nice long walk outside. You could even try a serving of white rice with your dinner, especially if you just plan on an early bedtime.  Rice is great to induce sleep as it promotes the production of GABA a calming neurotransmitter. I would keep these higher carbohydrate days to one day, maybe two and if you want to take a longer break from your ketogenic plan, eat low carbohydrate and higher protein for the rest of the week. You will no longer be in ketosis but you will also avoid losing too many of your hard won gains. 

I also recommend following higher carbohydrate days with a longer fast (be it a time-restricted eating window or a full day fast) and/or some exercise to allow the body to become adapted to and deal effectively with the higher/fuller glucose stores.

If using exogenous ketones is part of your plan, then using these supplements on the carbohydrate re-feed days, will not prevent you from still keeping ketones in your system to continue getting the great benefits that they can bring you. There is also some evidence that using ketones during these times might actually help with insulin sensitivity supporting your body in processing those extra carbohydrates a little better. They can also help with controlling cravings and hunger once you get back on track, especially if you have ventured a little far up the carbohydrate path and find yourself challenged to recommit to a ketogenic plan.

As with everything nutrition, it is important to determine what works for YOU, what your body needs and how you respond to whatever changes you are making. Do your best not to force the issue or assign blame, especially to yourself, if something is not working as well or effectively as you had hoped (or as well or effectively as it may seem to be working for someone else). Carbohydrate re-feeding is just another tool in your nutrition arsenal to keep your metabolism strong, flexible and humming along as you want it to!

Michal Ofer