Are you wondering what happens when you fall off the keto wagon? It is less to lose weight while having cheat meals in a keto diet.
But how drastic and often you have a cheat day can affect your keto goals. And you might end up undoing a lot of hard work if you aren’t careful.
Here is everything you need to know about keto cheat days, including what occurs when you cheat and how to enjoy “forbidden” cheat meals the right way.
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It’s okay to admit that you get tempted. This guide will help you think through low-carb cheating and how you can do it smarter.
Understanding Cheating in Keto Diet
In truth, we dislike the term “cheating.” Nonetheless, we use it since many people relate to it. But what does it mean?
Does it indicate that you are “running away with something?” Are you unfairly gaining something?
What it implies is that you are just cheating on yourself. That’s why we prefer the term “going off-plan.”
That shows we have a plan, we are moving towards a goal, and sometimes we go off plan. And sometimes that’s okay.
However, since “cheat” is a commonly used term that many people relate to, we frequently use it in this guide.
If you’re on the keto diet, you might be wondering if you get a pass here and there to enjoy your favorite carb-laden foods.
Is it possible to take a particular cheat day on your keto diet to splurge on some high-carb foods? Will one cheat day tap you out of ketosis and wreck all your progress?
Here’s what you need to know if you’re on the keto diet and would want to take a day-off:
Can You Have a Cheat Day on Keto?
If your main goal is to lose weight, cheating on your keto diet from time to time will not destroy your progress even if it kicks you out of ketosis.
Yes, you heard that right. If you couldn’t resist that slice of cake or pasta dinner and chose to spoil in a few extra carbs, don’t stress. This cheat meal isn’t a reason to lose your entire diet out the window.
Ketosis could have some potential health benefits, but it’s likely not the main reason you are losing weight – calorie control is. So as long as you aren’t going overboard with the cheat days and maintaining calorie control, all those carbs will not ruin your hard work.
Of course, if your goal is staying in ketosis for other purposes (not weight loss), cheating on a ketogenic diet might not be the best idea.
In one small study, researchers discovered keto cheat days could increase heart health risks. More so, if you have diabetes who follow a keto diet to manage your blood sugar levels.
While more research is required, these initial findings show cheat days may not be ideal for everyone on a keto diet.
What Happens When You Cheat?
Here are all the things that can happen when you add carbs back into your meal for a day:
- Your blood sugar will spike, making an abundance of quick energy available and causing your body to switch back to glucose as a source of fuel.
- Ketone production will stop.
- A majority of the sugars you eat will likely be used to replenish glycogen stores. This may cause a momentary gain in water weight.
- Your body will continue to use up available glucose and glycogen stores until you run out.
- Ketone production will resume.
Going off a keto diet is likely not harmful. Simply because you start eating carbs again, mainly just for one day, doesn’t mean you will store a pack of body fat.
Carbs do not cause weight gain or increased body fat. Only eating too many calories can do this.
And while you may have a slight adjustment period, you shouldn’t end gaining weight when you control your calorie intake.
Because of the blood sugar spike, it is normal for some people to notice an extreme sugar crash after cheating with a carb-heavy meal.
And depending on how long you’ve been cutting carbs, you might also notice some repeat symptoms of “keto flu” when resuming your keto diet.
Here’s a little refresher on ketosis: It happens when your body burns fat for energy instead of carbohydrates.
Usually, our bodies run on glucose in the form of foods like flour, grains, vegetables, and fruit. But drastically reducing your carb intake pushes your body to burn stored fat, instead. Your liver utilizes fat to make acids called ketones. These are released into your bloodstream and are used for energy.
“For as soon as you incorporate carbohydrates to your system, the body will manage them specifically as fuel,” says Ginger Hultin, MS, RDN, CSO, Seattle-based dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
“You’ll have to return to the ketogenic diet the next day and stay active to the macronutrient ratios to get back into ketosis,” she explains.
That means you really can’t forego your keto diet for a quick binge—unless you want to start all over again.
What’s more, it doesn’t signify if you eat half a piece of pie or take a few bites. “It’s anything that pushes you over your net carbs,” she says. “Still one bite could do it, depending on what it was. Juice, soda, candy will meet that border in small amounts.”
Going Through Keto Flu Again
“When you go back to a ketogenic diet after being off it for a day or a period, you can easily get back to the diet the next day—but it will take several days to get the body back into the state of ketosis,” Hultin says.
You may encounter “keto flu” symptoms again, depending on your metabolism and what kind of keto break you took. You might also have headaches, nausea, fatigue, stomach pain and body aches, brain fog, and mood swings.
These should quickly go away as long as you don’t kick yourself out of ketosis.
How Many Grams of Carbs Will Kick You Out of Ketosis?
The number of carbs needed to kick you out of ketosis can depend on the person and how long you’ve been doing keto.
But, it’s safe to assume that any high carb meal over your recommended daily carb limit will do the trick. And the effect is pretty quick.
For example: If you need to eat less than 20 grams of carbs per day, a cheat meal with 20 or more grams of carbohydrates can cause you to fall off the wagon.
It might take you a little while to switch back once you get back to your keto meal plan. And it can take anywhere from one day to a week to get into ketosis in the first place.
But for most people, this process happens much quicker the second time around.
How long you’ve been keto, and your ketone levels can also have an impact on how much a splurge is going to affect you.
If you have been on keto for more than 3 to 6 weeks, you are possibly getting 70% of your energy from fat. This means that you can get back to ketosis quicker than someone who is not wholly fat adjusted.
Cheating on a Ketogenic Diet the Right Way
Cheat days have become a popular theme with many diets and for a good reason. Many experts have included diet cheats as a way to teach a more balanced approach to healthy eating.
Besides, we’re just humans. It can feel pretty impossible to stick to your keto diet perfectly, and research says there may be some benefits to going off your diet.
Including a strategic diet, cheat may have some psychological advantages. This includes reduced cravings and sticking to your meal plan better.
When done right, cheating while on a keto diet can help you stay motivated. It also teaches you to have moderation to build sustainable long-term health habits. Plus, who doesn’t want to have their cake?
Here’s how to include cheats without going off the rails:
Look for Keto Approved Cheat Meals
Arguably, the best approach to cheat days is to not do it at all. Instead, splurge on keto-friendly substitutes to curb your cravings.
You can obtain a keto-fied recipe of just about any popular meal you can think of to keep you on course. Plus, there is an endless supply of packaged keto snacks and “cheat foods” available in the market nowadays.
So if it’s an option to grab one of these instead, this should be your first line of defense.
Have Cheat Meals Not Cheat Days
If you are going to go off your diet, it is way easier to stay on top of your overall nutrition and calories with cheat meals than entire keto cheat days.
One large cheat meal can add 1,000 or more calories to your day, while a whole cheat day will add much more and possibly undo all your hard work from the week.
Have a Plan
The easiest way to secure your diet cheats don’t ruin your progress is to plan for them. Choose which meals you’re going to cheat and budget some calories and carbs in advance if you can.
You can also ensure your cheat meals are worth it by prioritizing certain events or favorite foods over random temptations.
For example, if you know there is a social event coming up on the weekend, have a rough idea of how you will plan to cheat and enjoy it without going overboard.
You might also want to plan smaller cheats around exercise to help keep you in ketosis since you are using up the extra carbs quickly.
If your goal is calorie control, strive to cheat no more than once or twice a week. But if ketosis is essential for your progress, consider cheating much less often, like once a month.
And if you are new to a keto diet, wait at least a few weeks to get some pace going before even considering cheats.
Track Your Daily Intake
Don’t neglect to track your calories and daily macros. If your cheats are failing your weekly nutrition goals out of the water, you might end up gaining weight.
Use a macro-friendly app so you can monitor your macros.
Do’s and Don’ts of Cheating
Don’t Cheat Because You Want to Fit In
It can be fleeting to be affected when people are surprised that you swap potatoes for leafy greens. Nonetheless, don’t overplay others’ interest or investment in your personal dietary choices.
Remember, people are usually wrapped up in their own experience and quickly move on from yours. However, some people do get overly curious about your food choices.
When that happens, be ready with a line like, “I’m sorry, I have a sensitive stomach.”
Don’t be Impulsive
An impulsive reach into that bowl of candy is an unsatisfying cheat. A last-minute decision to eat a few of those cold French fries on your kid’s plate is rarely that satisfying.
Planned cheating can empower. Random cheating undermines.
Don’t lie to yourself and stick with your plan.
Do Plan Ahead
Grabbing a carb-laden sandwich from a gas station is a useless way of spending a cheat meal. Anything worth cheating on yourself for is, by translation, delicious. That stale sandwich is not.
Keep quality low-carb emergency food in your car, purse, or briefcase, so you never cheat because you are craving.
Do Stick With Your Chosen Lifestyle
A low-carb lifestyle lasts forever. If you go back to your old ways, the unwanted illness or pounds will creep back into your life.
Although it appears counter-intuitive, occasional, deliberate cheating can help some people stick with their low-carb lifestyle. Here’s how:
- Knowing you can cheat occasionally reduces the feeling of deprivation.
- Planned exceptions can help keep you from feeling deprived of a favorite indulgence.
- Deliberate cheating gives your diet a bit more variety and makes you more flexible.
Most of us don’t have to be perfect. Cheat consciously and then quickly return to the healthy low-carb lifestyle you love.
However, some of us will have a more difficult time getting back on plan after a temporary detour.
Which camp are you in?
You may have to experiment to find out, but the resulting knowledge is empowering and will help you decide if planned diversions will work or not.
Do Take Advantage of Rare Opportunities
Your favorite dessert – pumpkin pie – made just once a year by a dear family friend could mean that you have to make an exception.
Another example could be having a taste of spiced couscous pyramid, served with stewed meat on your trip to Morocco.
Cutting yourself some slack to savor unique moments or unique flavors is probably a fair use of your “cheating allowance.”
But keep in mind that birthday cake in the break room is not a rare or special occasion.
Side effects of cheating
Hunger and cravings
Many carbs make you hungry. You know this if you have given them up for any meaningful time.
Cheating means potentially encouraging hunger and cravings back into your life. Proceed with caution.
Cheating nearly always leads to immediate weight gain.
First, too many carbs can cause your body to store fats. Second, carbs can lead to hunger and cravings; hence you eat more. Third, the water weight incorporated with high-carb diets returns.
Want to look and feel your best? Cheat rarely and carefully.
Blood sugar spikes
If you have diabetes, cheating is generally a bad idea.
When you eat too many or the wrong type of carbs, your blood sugar can spike to dangerously high levels. Thus, increasing the risk of long-term complications like blindness, dementia, and amputations.
On the other hand, every time you manage to avoid a cheat, you’re one step closer to reversing your type 2 diabetes.
For those with diabetes or prediabetes, the price of cheating may be too high.
Sickness and acne
For some of us, cheating can lead to dramatic and fairly immediate setbacks:
- Stomach upset
- Even seizures (if you have epilepsy)
Some people get acne and other types of skin trouble, too. If this happens to you, is cheating worth it?
One of the most annoying effects of cheating is that you often don’t feel great after cheating.
In addition to weight gain, blood sugar spikes, and more, your mood can suffer. And this can be challenging.
For those of you who are sugar (or carb) addicts, it’s potentially perilous to cheat. Sugar addiction is likely real.
Even though it’s debatable, many scientists agree that sugar is psychoactive. It triggers the reward centers in your brain, much like a drug.
Do you encounter a loss of control when you eat, especially sugary and processed foods?
What can happen when an alcoholic grabs just one drink? The same can happen to a sugar addict, and you may end up going off the rails.
Moderation is not an option for some, and the only safe choice may be complete abstinence.
Keto Cheat Day Recovery Tips
The amount of time it takes to get back into ketosis will differ based on the person, but it generally takes one to three days.
“Getting back in is likely different for each person, and it relies on the level of carb limitation you choose to do,” Hultin says.
If you’re used to restricting to a maximum—and then suddenly introduce carbs—it could take longer to get back into ketosis.
Likewise, if you eat a ton of carbs on a cheat day—rather than just a few extra grams—it may also take a few spare times.
“The body stores blood sugar as energy in the blood, liver, and muscles,” she explains. “The more you have stored, the harder it will use the body to burn through it and get back into ketosis.”
Remember: Our metabolism is unique to our own. So, getting into ketosis varies from one person to another.
So, Should You Cheat?
It depends on several factors, including whether your keto diet is doctor-mandated.
“Many people are using the ketogenic diet for medical treatment, and so they need to be on it all the time with no breaks,” Hultin explains.” Doctors and dietitians can guide each individual on if it’s safe or not take breaks.”
Many dietitians advocate against “cheat meals” as they imply that foods are good or bad. In turn, this can lead to guilt and an unhealthy relationship with food.
Instead, Chris Mohr, Ph.D., R.D., says you should think of “cheat meals” as conscience indulgences.
In any case, it’s crucial to define whether a specific diet fits your lifestyle. And you’ll want to move forward without guilt after you veer off the planned diet.
Remember: Cheating is a tool. Like any tool, it can help, or it can harm.
Maybe cheating isn’t right for you. Maybe it is. But if you do decide to cheat, do it smartly.
Develop great habits with deliberate exceptions. And if you do decide it’s time for an exception, then enjoy every bite!