Are you following a low-carb or ketogenic diet? While this way of shifting macronutrients has tremendous health benefits, there will come a time when you need to consider reintroducing carbs. Why? Because for most people, a ketogenic diet is not a forever way of eating.
Did I ruffle your feathers there a bit? That’s OK. As someone who recommends low-carb dieting and occasionally follows a lower carb approach, I’m on your side. But I also want to make sure people who are following a low-carb or ketogenic diet are supported and informed if and when that style of eating stops working for them.
And based on the number of questions I get about this, this is a topic that doesn’t get enough conversation or consideration. You can find 1,001 articles with tips for getting started on keto, but none for how to eat carbs again after following a low-carb or keto diet.
Today, I want to change that. Consider this your guide to carbs after keto!
Why Reintroduce Carbs?
Ketogenic diets (or a low carb way of eating) can be a really powerful short-term intervention.
In fact, the vast majority of research on the benefits of keto focuses on it as a short term intervention.
A new research study published in the journal Nature Metabolism in January 2020 put mice on a ketogenic diet and found that initially diabetes risk and inflammation were both reduced, and metabolism was improved. But, those benefits declined over time.
Research in the journal Cell Metabolism pointed to the danger of “starving” our microbiome a diet low in microbiota-accessible carbohydrates (MACs or the food our gut bacteria need to survive and thrive). MACs are found in fiber-rich carbs such as fruits, veggies, and tubers, all of which may be heavily restricted on a low-carb keto diet.
More research is still needed to understand all the impacts of keto long-term in humans, but in my own experience and in my time working with clients, I have found keto has an “expiration date.”
This doesn’t mean keto is always bad, a total lie, or just a fad. It just means it’s a tool you use for a period of time throughout your life. So how do you know when to move on?
Signs It’s Time To Reintroduce Carbs
Keto usually starts off with a bang. You’re excited about a totally new way of eating and encouraged by positive results and newfound energy. Trying new recipes and thinking outside the box with meals feels fun, not like a chore.
But along the way, you might notice that enthusiasm starts to wane a bit. The results aren’t as impressive anymore or things stall. Maybe your health begins to decline. You miss bananas.
While those are all perfectly acceptable reasons to shift to eating more carbohydrates after keto, look out for any of these “low carb red flags”:
#1 Stalled weight loss or weight gain (if weight loss was your goal)
I personally don’t recommend keto for weight loss alone, but I do know it’s the most common reason people try keto. If you stop losing weight (while in a caloric deficit) or start gaining weight, it can be a sign of chronic stress/cortisol output, and inflammation.
#2 Missing/Irregular period or other signs of hormone imbalance
Following a ketogenic diet long-term can put a strain on your body’s endocrine system, especially if you’re continuing to do exercise or high intensity training. Losing or having an irregular period is NOT a warning sign to ignore. If you track your cycle, you also want to be sure you’re actually ovulating each month, not just bleeding. And if you’re pregnant, you definitely don’t want to be following very low-carb or keto unless you’re under the close supervision of a medical professional you work with one-on-one.
#3 Adrenal fatigue or HPA-Axis dysfunction
Any signs of “adrenal fatigue” are a big red flag that your low-carb diet may not be the best option for you anymore. Read my comprehensive post: The Adrenal Fatigue Myth: What’s Really Going On and How to Treat it.
#4 You’re super active (but feeling constant fatigue)
The more active you are, the more likely you are to need more carbs to thrive. Yes, some people can become “fat adapted athletes”, but most people, especially women of child-bearing years, will do better eating more carbohydrates. If you’re really active and feeling sluggish, or even regressing on a low-carb diet, it’s time to bring in the sweet potato, stat!
#5 Psychological distress
No matter what anyone else tries to tell you, keto or very low-carb is a very restrictive style of eating. If you’ve had prior experience with disordered eating behaviors or a poor relationship with your body and food, this can trigger those thoughts again. If you find yourself isolated, stressed, or preoccupied with your food or diet, avoiding social situations, or engaging in disordered behaviors (like binging) these are major red flags it may be time to back off keto and introduce a more balanced diet.
#6 Your gut is in distress
Because of the potential negative impact a very low carb or keto diet can have on the microbiome, I consider gut issues a major red flag. Bloating, constipation, diarrhea, new food intolerances are all signs your microbiome could be suffering from a lack of MACs (food for your gut bacteria).
How to Introduce Carbs Again After Low-Carb Dieting
If you feel like it’s time to eat carbs again after low-carb dieting, trust your intuition. While there’s no one proven way to reintroduce carbs, I do have some suggestions that have worked for myself and my clients.
The most important tip I can share with you? Go slow.
If you’ve been in ketosis or following low carb for a long time, you’re going to feel bad physically if you suddenly eat a whole loaf of bread or pan of brownies. Your digestive system won’t react positively, and your blood sugar will spike, leaving you feeling terrible.
When introducing carbs for the first time, start super small. I like to start with a low-FODMAP carb, too (find a list of lower-FODMAP foods here). Why? Low-FODMAP carbohydrates are more easily digested and less likely to cause gas and bloating.
For reference, I recommend starting with 15-20 grams of carbohydrates on day 1, and doubling the amount each day or every other day thereafter until you’ve reached a threshold you’re comfortable with.
For reference, a cup of blueberries is about 21 grams of carbohydrates. A medium sweet potato is about 26 grams of carbs. (But who am I kidding—you know that already!)
The Elephant In The Room: Your Mindset
I just made reintroducing carbs sound pretty simple, didn’t I? Just eat a little today, and a little more tomorrow. But the truth is that that simple explanation glosses over the real issues most people face when trying to reintroduce carbs: a deep seated fear of eating carbs.
Fear of carbs might sound silly, but I assure you it’s very real, and can be incredibly hard to shake. After all, most of us start reducing carbs because of a belief that the carbs we were eating were harming us in some way, and that eliminating them will fix the problem.
That fear keeps our body in a sympathetic state (aka flight or fight), and when you eat in a sympathetic state, you will experience very real digestive distress. You’re likely not going to be able to successfully reintroduce carbs until you can work through the fear and get into a parasympathetic state (rest and digest).
For some people, this means traditional talk therapy. For others, it will take a combination of different types of therapy to shift the nervous system, such as prayer, meditation, vagal nerve stimulation, and tapping.
Ultimately, you have to work past the belief that carbs are harming you in one way or another. For some people, just slow and steady exposure is enough, and by that I mean continuing to eat carbs, even when it feels scary.
Troubleshooting Common Problems When Bringing Back Carbs After Keto
While you may experience joy and happiness eating carbs again, especially if it involves my Paleo Chocolate Chip Cookie Brownies, there are some potential pitfalls to watch out for.
If any of these happen to you—it doesn’t you must cut back on carbs again. It’s a sign that something has changed with your physiology, and it’s something to explore and work through.
#1 Blood sugar spikes & swings
Following a ketogenic or very low carb diet can lead to physiological insulin resistance where fasting glucose is high. This isn’t a bad thing necessarily and is actually an adaptation your body makes to give the brain as much sugar (it’s preferred fuel source) as possible while you’re eating low carb.
But, when you start eating carbs again after keto, you may experience bigger blood sugar spikes than you did when eating the same foods before keto.
The good news is—this will resolve on its own with time. The best thing to do is just continue slowly introducing high quality carbohydrates.
One more note: if you’re trying to test your carb tolerance by tracking blood sugar, you won’t get good data immediately following a very low carb diet because of physiological insulin resistance. I prefer to have people fully reintegrate carbs before testing for individual carb tolerance on specific foods.
#2 Digestive symptoms
Your microbiome is adaptive, which means it changes based on what you eat and don’t eat. And if you haven’t been eating much in the way of carbs, your gut flora has likely changed. This means you might experience some mild bloating, gas, diarrhea or constipation when reintroducing carbs.
As long as symptoms are mild, this isn’t anything to worry about. Your gut flora will adapt over time. In the meantime, eating low-FODMAP carbs can help manage symptoms, as they contain less fermentable carbohydrates. It also may be helpful to introduce probiotic foods, and a high quality probiotic like Gut Pro, and digestive enzymes like BiOptimizers MassZymes. (Use code WELLFED10 for 10% OFF BiOptimizers products.)
If your digestive issues are severe or do not resolve, I highly recommend working on root causes and checking for co-infections, dysbiosis, and/or SIBO with a GI-MAP stool test and a SIBO breath test. You can get both of these tests done by working with a functional medicine practitioner. Rest assured, you are NOT alone and many people experience loss of tolerance with foods after restrictive protocols like keto. You can find resolution with the right practitioner!
# 3 Mind traps
As you go through the process of reintroducing carbs, continually remind yourself that there is no such thing as “good” and “bad” foods because food does not have morality. Your morality and worth has nothing to do with whether you eat carbs or not, and you can live a long and healthy life while including nourishing carbohydrates in your diet.
There is no one diet that works for everyone, and what works for you may change from season to season and year to year. Give yourself the flexibility to figure that out, and work with your body as your life circumstances change.
Bring In The Carbs!
No matter why you stopped eating carbs—or why you’ve decided to bring them back—I hope this information supports you in moving forward.
Having done everything from low-carb Paleo to what felt like an all-fruit and potato diet while breastfeeding, I know firsthand that what your body needs to thrive changes over time. Right now, I’m eating low-to-moderate carbs, but I know that might change again.
The world isn’t static. Your body isn’t static. Your diet shouldn’t be static. Embrace the change and let carbs be a part of that.
Got questions about how to bring back carbs after keto or low carb dieting? Ask below!