I’m guessing the likelihood is good that you know a little about the keto diet if you are visiting this site? But what you might not know is that there are several versions of the keto diet - standard, cyclical and targeted. Let’s explore each version and perhaps you can identify which one may be right for you!
There are many documented health benefits to following a keto diet. However, individual differences in physiology will determine how you react to keto and how long it will take you to reach your personal health goals, all factors which play a role in which version might suit you.
For a seasoned clinical professional and science geek like myself, comparing the standard ketogenic diet with the cyclical and targeted variations can get a bit murky. While the standard keto diet is pretty well defined in both medical research and the online health community, there are no official protocols for the cyclical and targeted approaches to keto. There is, however, enough consistency among the available information to outline what they are, potential drawbacks and benefits. Ultimately, the proof is in the pudding! As with any diet change, you should listen to your body and follow the method that works best for you.
Now that I’ve made my official science nerd disclaimer - let’s kick off the comparison with a review of what we know about the standard ketogenic diet.
What is the Standard Ketogenic Diet?
A ketogenic (or keto) diet is a low carb pattern of eating that forces the body to switch from using carbs for fuel to using fat for fuel. In the standard ketogenic diet, carbohydrates are restricted to less than 10% of calories with fat and protein making up the difference. The typical breakdown of macronutrients (also known as macros) is:
The standard keto diet does not deviate from this formula of low carb, moderate protein and high fat. The diet mainly consists of leafy greens and other low carb vegetables, healthy fats like olive oil, avocados, nut butter and good protein sources like wild salmon, eggs and grass-fed beef.
Sugars and starches like bread, pasta, potatoes, and most fruits are avoided. Sugar substitutes like monk fruit, stevia, allulose, and erythritol are included without a problem.
Although keto has been around for almost a century, a recent surge in popularity has resulted in plenty of recipes online and in print to make a keto-friendly version of just about anything your carb loving heart desires.
The Benefits of a Standard Keto Diet
The health benefits of a keto diet can primarily be attributed to utilizing fat as an energy source. Fat supplies more calories (aka energy) per gram than carbs, and between dietary fat and stored body fat, there is usually enough to provide stable, consistent fuel for the body to run smoothly for hours on end. This results in improved energy and a number of other possible benefits including:
- Weight loss
- Improved body composition (less fat, more muscle)
- Better cognitive functioning
- Blood sugar and blood pressure control
- Potential for anti-inflammation activity
- Appetite control
The standard keto diet has the added benefit of simplicity. As you will see the cyclical and targeted versions of the keto diet promote eating patterns that change from day to day, the standard keto diet maintains the same type of plan day in and day out. For someone who appreciates consistency and wants to keep things simple, this is a benefit.
Potential Drawbacks of a Standard Keto Diet
All keto diets have the potential for some discomfort as you make the metabolic transition from burning carbs to burning fat for energy - this is knowns as the keto flu. However, there are ways to avoid the dreaded keto flu or at least minimize the symptoms which vary widely from person to person.
The standard keto diet is restrictive as is any diet that eliminates entire food groups.When compared to other diets where moderation is a key feature, keto requires 100% compliance to get into fat-burning mode - there is little margin for error, especially in the beginning stages.
Given that carbs are typically the preferred fuel source for exercise, especially activity that is intense or requires short bursts of effort like high-intensity interval training (HIIT), another potential drawback to the standard keto diet is that it may impact your exercise routine.
As your body is making the metabolic switch to fat-burning mode, unpleasant side effects are not uncommon including:
- Fruity breath
- Increased urination
These symptoms are completely normal and either resolve or are managed with some very basic lifestyle changes like increasing fiber, staying hydrated and adding some electrolytes
What is Cyclical Keto?
Cyclical keto, also referred to as keto cycling, involves alternating low carb keto eating five to six days a week with one to two days of higher carb eating. In this form of keto the body cycles in and out of ketosis, burning fat for energy during the low carb days and carbs on the higher carb days.
Keto cycling is different from following strict keto and then going off sporadically because you happened to pass by your favorite pizza place! The higher carb days are planned, sometimes to coincide with exercise (see below section on targeted keto). Ideally, good carbs are included on the higher carb days like fruit, sweet potatoes, and beans versus carb laden choices like French fries or ice cream.
The Benefits of Keto Cycling
All the same health benefits of the standard ketogenic diet apply to keto cycling like reductions in weight, blood sugar and improvements in energy and cognitive health. However, in theory it may take longer to see fat loss because there are fewer fat burning days on a cyclical keto schedule.
Keto cycling is less restrictive and does incorporate days that are more similar to Mediterranean or paleo style eating, adding foods like yams, beans and fruit to the mix. For someone who would like to have more variety in their week, this approach is a good fit.
Some research suggests that periods of higher carb eating can also restore leptin, your fat-burning hormone that also turns off appetite. Following restrictive diets for long periods of time can reduce leptin. If weight loss has stalled and hunger is an issue despite following the consistent keto food plan, the body may be confused and think it is in the middle of a famine. As a result, it will stall weight loss and hang on to body fat in case food continues to be scarce. Adding one or two higher carb days basically assures the body that starvation is not imminent and body fat burning can commence.
Keto Cycling Drawbacks
For someone new to keto, it may be difficult to get back into ketosis after eating carbs for a few days. This would be more likely an issue for those new to keto rather than someone whose body is fat adapted.
Because there are fewer keto fat burning days in the week, it may be difficult to reach health goals like weight loss or lowering body fat as quickly, especially if the carb days tend to be a free for all.
Who is Keto Cycling For?
Keto cycling is ideal for individuals who have followed the standard ketogenic diet for several weeks and are fat adapted - meaning their body uses fat for fuel regularly. Good signs you’re fat adapted:
- Appetite suppression
- Don’t need to eat as frequently
- High energy
- Losing body fat
If you’ve done keto for a while and ready to be in more of a maintenance or long term mode - cyclic keto may be a good choice for you. But remember, with keto cycling the goal is to include good carbs, as you can’t expect to feel good if you’re fueling your body with junk!
Onto our last stop, targeted keto.
What is Targeted Keto?
Consider targeted keto like a mini version of keto cycling. Rather than moderate carbohydrate DAYS, targeted keto matches carb rich meals or snacks with periods of higher activity - particularly intense activity. This is because the body’s preferred source of fuel for quick, intense activities is carbohydrate, not fat.
As a reminder, there is little or no research on targeted keto. However, proponents of this method suggest 25-50g of carbs roughly about 30 minutes before a workout with the goal of providing the muscle’s preferred fuel source for the activity.
Before you pick up that bagel, let's consider what 25-30g of carbs looks like:
- 1 cup of sweet potato
- 1 medium banana
- 2-3 rice cakes
- 8 oz of yogurt with ¼ cup blueberries
What are the Benefits of Targeted Keto?
Theoretically, following the targeted keto diet allows you to stay in ketosis most of the time. If this holds true (your body is the gauge here) then all the same benefits of standard keto apply like weight and body fat loss, suppression of appetite etc. The standard keto diet can impair energy and performance for exercise that requires glucose for fuel, this includes short bursts of intense activity. Targeted keto may be a solution to this problem - supplying carbs when they are most needed but otherwise restricting them to maintain the benefits of the keto diet.
Regardless of the potential for enhanced physical gains, targeted keto reduces the monotony of the standard keto diet and is likely more sustainable for the long term.
Individuality is key in this discussion, if you’ve experimented with targeted carbs and find a personal benefit to your energy, performance and/or muscle building capacity, that matters more than a study of 100 or even 1000 people that did not find benefit - your unique biology is a significant factor in optimizing diet.
What are the Downfalls of Targeted Keto?
Targeted keto does have some downfalls. If too many carbs are consumed or if the timing is off relative to the workout it may be difficult to actually get back into ketosis.
Similar to cyclical, there are some negatives to including foods with low nutritional value or worse, foods that actually harm your health like fried foods or those high in refined sugar.
Who is Targeted Keto For?
Targeted keto is an approach that may be beneficial for athletes or highly active individuals seeking to gain muscle mass or improve physiologic performance As with keto cycling, targeted will likely work best for those who are fat adapted.
Confused? Let's review the key takeaways:
- The ketogenic (keto) diet has a number of well documented health benefits
- Standard keto is high fat (60-70% of kcals), moderate protein (20-30% of kcals), low carb (<10% of kcals)
- Cyclical follows 5-6 keto days with 1-2 moderate carb days where carbs account for around 50% of calories
- Targeted keto pairs intense exercise with carbs to improve endurance, intensity and support muscle growth with a starting point of 25-30g of carbs prior to a workout
- Standard keto is a great place to start, cyclical and targeted variations are good modifications for long term maintenance and good health.
- Targeted keto may provide an advantage to athletes and active individuals
- Experiment to determine which approach provides the best results for you individually
Experiment and Adjust
The only way to know how to fuel your body for optimal health is to get started, take note of how you feel and your performance at the gym or in the office and adjust as needed. As long as you’re eating good, clean, healthy food you’ve done a lot of the hard work already.
Eating well evolves as you move through various stages of life, it's your job to determine what pattern of eating helps you feel your best and work to achieve that every day.