Keto is not like other diets. Instead of limiting the amount of food you eat, keto limits the type of food. Specifically, when you go keto, you eat lots of fat, moderate amounts of protein, and next-to-no carbs – usually only 20-30 grams per day.
Also, unlike many diets, most keto diets do not allow cheat days. To be successful, you need to stick to your diet 24/7; there are no keto cheat days. Cheating on keto could not just slow your progress but derail it altogether. It takes time for your body to adapt to eating less carbohydrate, and those changes are reversed if you reintroduce carbs – even in the form of a cheat meal.
But, despite this, cheating on keto is still a hot topic. Many people view diet cheat days as a necessary part of the weight loss process. They believe that cheat meals make it easier to stick to a strict diet. Cheat days can also happen by accident. It’s all-too-easy to inadvertently eat some hidden carbs or find yourself left with no choice but to eat carbs, e.g. a well-meaning gift of birthday cake. Holidays also make it hard to stick to your keto diet; a lot of holiday foods are far from keto friendly.
In this article, we’ll lift the lid on cheat days on keto so that you can continue losing weight even if you do break your diet.
What is a cheat meal?
From a dietary perspective, cheat meals are meals during which you break your diet. For example, if you usually follow something like the Paleo diet, a cheat meal could be something like a fast food burger, fries, and a milkshake. These foods are clearly not Paleo – your hunter/gatherer ancestors didn’t have access to burger takeout joints!
A lot of diets include cheat meals, and these cheats are supposed to have both a physiological and psychological effect.
Physiologically, cheat days are thought to prevent your metabolism from slowing down. This is a common worry on very low-calorie diets. When you cut your calorie intake to the bone, your metabolism slows down to preserve your valuable body fat stores. During a low-calorie diet, your body doesn’t realize you are eating less on purpose. It just knows you aren’t eating enough.
To make sure you don’t starve, your body reduces your metabolism. From an evolutionary standpoint, this is a useful function. However, for fat loss, it’s a problem. Cheat meals are thought to let your body know that everything is okay and that there is no need to slow your metabolism down to a crawl.
Psychologically, cheat meals make strict dieting more palatable. Most weight loss diets limit the amount and type of food you can eat. You’ll feel hungry and deprived of your favorite foods. Diets can be tough!
Cheat meals give you something to look forward to, and that means you should be able to find the willpower to stick to your diet – at least for a few more days. A weekly cheat meal means that your diet adherence will be rewarded; there is light at the end of the tunnel!
Of course, while there are a few advantages to cheat meals, there are plenty of disadvantages too.
The disadvantages of cheat meals
Cheat meals are common, but they are also a problem. In fact, cheat meals are one of the main reasons that so many people fail to lose weight, especially on regular low-calorie diets. There are several reasons for this.
1) Cheating undoes your progress – with a regular low-calorie diet, you eat a little (or a lot!) less than usual. This creates a calorie deficit. For example, if you eat 500 calories less than normal per day, you will “save” 3,500 calories per week. This should add up to about a pound of weight loss per week. It’s simple mathematics; one pound of fat is worth around 3,500 calories.
However, if you go overboard at your weekly cheat meal, you could easily consume more calories in one sitting than you saved all week. The result? No weight loss!
2) Unhealthy eating mindset – cheat meals reward dietary adherence with unhealthy food. This is illogical and borderline unhealthy. Most people gain weight because of poor nutritional choices. Diets generally prescribe healthy foods which are lower in calories and higher in essential nutrients.
It makes no sense to reward good dietary behavior with the very food that caused the problem in the first place! Treating unhealthy food as a reward will do nothing to change food attitudes, and that is what is needed for long-term weight management.
3) Cheating tests your willpower – most diets prescribe small, occasional cheats. Maybe one meal per week. However, many dieters lack the willpower to limit themselves to that one, small cheat meal. A slice of pizza becomes the whole pie plus ice cream. A single candy bar becomes three bars plus a family-sized bag of chips. One beer becomes an all-night bender.
You need cast iron willpower to stop your cheat meal turning into an all-out binge. And, let’s be honest here, if you had the willpower to resist junk food, you wouldn’t be on a diet in the first place.
4) Cheating may be bad for you – studies suggest that consuming 75-100 grams of carbs on a low carb, high-fat diet could be bad for your health, damaging your blood vessels in the process. That’s about one bowl of pasta or a couple of candy bars. While the study quoted only had a small cohort of nine people, the results should give you a reason to think twice when considering a cheat day.
In many ways, diets that prescribe cheat meals are admitting that they aren’t good plans to follow. If you need to eat cheat meals to boost your metabolism or satisfy regular cravings, the diet was too strict and unsustainable in the first place. Cheat meals are often used to make extreme diets more tolerable. They are like a carrot for a donkey.
Can you cheat on keto?
As you know, keto works differently to other diets. It’s not all about calorie restriction for weight loss. Instead, by reducing your carb intake to less than 50 grams per day, you force your body to use more fat for fuel. Your brain cannot use fat directly for energy, and so your body has to make a substance called ketones, something your brain can use for fuel. It takes a lot of fat to make a relatively small number of ketones. The result? You lose fat faster.
Of course, eating so few carbs can be tough – initially at least. You may experience cravings, and you’ll also have to overcome something called the keto flu. Keto flu is the collective term for the side effects and symptoms commonly associated with making the switch from using carbs for energy to using fat and ketones. It can last a few days to a couple of weeks.
The good news is that, once you have completed your keto induction, keto flu will cease to be an issue, and all your symptoms will vanish. Once that happens, you feel great! Your energy levels will return, you’ll have more focus, you’ll have no more cravings, and you’ll start burning fat like a furnace.
Cheating on keto invariably means eating or drinking carbs. After all, that is the only thing you are not allowed to do on keto. Eating carbs will kick you out of ketosis, and that means you’ll lose your fat burning advantage. Because keto diets do not tend to be very low in calories, this means you will stop losing weight, and will probably gain weight almost overnight.
With carbs back in your body, you’ll have to go through glucose depletion all over again to get back into ketosis. Depending on how many carbohydrates you ate, this could take a day or two, or even up to a week. You may also fall back in love with carbs and never get back to keto.
If this all sounds a little alarmist, that’s because even a keto cheats day once per week will effectively derail your diet. Unlike low-calorie diets, where you can get back on track at your very next meal, a cheat on keto will disrupt ketosis and put the brakes on your progress. In short, cheating on the keto diet is not recommend!
How to avoid cheating in the first place
Cheating on your keto diet is often avoidable. There are lots of things you can do to strengthen your willpower or stop putting yourself in a position where you feel like you have no option but to cheat on your keto diet.
If you really want to stop cheating on keto, make sure you put the following five tips into practice:
1) Make your home a cheat-free zone – clear your kitchen cupboards, fridge, and freezer of all cheat foods. If you don’t have them, you can’t eat them! Once your house is a cheat-free zone, make sure you keep it that way by not buying more cheat foods when you go grocery shopping.
2) Avoid situations where you’ll be tempted to cheat – if you are determined not to cheat, make sure you avoid places and situations where you may find your willpower under attack. This is akin to alcoholic steering clear of bars. If you know there are donuts in the breakroom at work, stay out and go for a walk instead. Avoidance is often your best policy.
3) Don’t worry about being polite – just because someone offers you a non-keto treat does not mean you need to accept it! Explain that your diet doesn’t allow you to eat the offered treat, say thanks, and then move on. Breaking your diet just to be polite is just crazy!
4) Plan your snacks in advance – the temptation to cheat often comes because you are hungry. Avoid this problem by planning your snacks in advance. Knowing you have something keto-friendly to eat may be all you need to avoid cheating on your diet.
5) Take ten – cheating is often an impulsive reaction. You see a candy bar, you grab the candy bar, you eat the candy bar! Afterward, you feel remorseful and wonder why you did such a thing. Now you’ll have to work extra hard to get back into ketosis. The next time you feel like cheating on your diet, take a look at your watch and resist for ten minutes. In a lot of instances, you find that the temptation to cheat disappears.
How to get back into ketosis following a cheat?
Cheating on the keto diet is a bad idea, but it can happen anyway. After all, willpower is a limited resource, and sometimes we all give in to our desires to eat the foods we know we shouldn’t. It’s human nature to want what we cannot have.
Try this: don’t think about elephants. What image just popped into your mind? Probably a big, grey elephant, right? Diets like keto often have the same effect. With keto, all carbs like bread, rice, pasta, potatoes, and breakfast cereals are off the menu. You also have to give up sugary treats like candy, cookies, cake, and soda. Just knowing you can’t have these foods may mean you want them even if you didn’t before.
Because of this, you may find that the pull of carbs is too great to resist. If your willpower takes a dive, you could end up cheating even though you know you shouldn’t.
You may also make the conscious decision to cheat because eating carbs is all-but unavoidable. For example, while you could have a low-carb Thanksgiving, if you are eating with your non-keto dieting family, that might be impractical. And why not enjoy some carbs from time to time? Food is, after all, one of life’s pleasures!
But if you do cheat (by accident or design), you should do your best to get back to keto as soon as you can. The longer you are out of ketosis, the longer it will be before you get back to burning fat and losing weight. A few lost days are no problem, but if you want to make the best possible progress and save yourself from another lengthy bout of keto flu, time is of the essence.
Here are eight tips for getting back on track after cheating on keto.
1) Don’t panic! – the first thing to remember is that panicking or punishing yourself for cheating is not a good idea. Whether you cheated on purpose or by accident, don’t beat yourself up or worry about what you have done; it’s in the past now. Instead, focus on getting back on track and moving forward. Don’t punish yourself or get angry. Just get back on your diet. Within a few days, everything will be back to normal, and you’ll be burning fat like a fiend!
2) Get back on your low carb diet – don’t delay, get back on your diet ASAP! Reduce your carb intake and get back to 20-30 grams of carbs per day. Use a food tracking app to make sure you aren’t inadvertently delaying your descent into ketosis by eating hidden carbs or just eating more carbs than you should. You’ll get back into ketosis faster is you follow a strict keto diet.
3) Exercise away the glucose – after a high-carb cheat meal, your muscle glycogen stores will be at least partially restored. The sooner you use that glycogen, the sooner you’ll be back in ketosis. Glycogen is energy for your muscles, so put your muscles to work by doing some exercise. Any kind of workout will help, but intense workouts like lifting weights or interval training are best. Try exercising on an empty stomach to speed up glycogen depletion.
4) Use glucose dispersal agents – glucose dispersal agents help you use glucose more quickly and easily. The sooner you use your newly-acquired glucose stores, the sooner you’ll be back in ketosis. Good options include:
- Alpha lipoic acid (ALA)
- Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA)
5) Try fasting – fasting will help you get into ketosis faster. Skipping a meal or two means your body has no choice but to use your recently replenished carb stores for energy. On rising, miss breakfast and then skip your usual mid-morning snack. Instead, break your fast with a low-carb lunch and eat normally after that. This will accelerate your descent into ketosis.
6) Use exogenous ketones – taking exogenous ketones tells your body it should be using ketones for fuel and not carbs. Using an exogenous ketone supplement may help you enter ketosis faster and will also help alleviate any returning keto flu symptoms.
7) Consume MCT oil – short for medium chain triglycerides, MCT oil is a supplement that will help you get back into ketosis faster. MCT oil is easily digested and turned into ketones. Limit yourself to 50-100 grams per day to avoid stomach upsets.
8) Use apple cider vinegar – apple cider vinegar is the keto dieter’s friend. It will not only help to lower your blood sugar; it will improve digestion, and it helps your body to create more ketone bodies. Take one tablespoon three times per day to get back into ketosis faster.
Keto cheat meal options
It’s clear that cheating on keto is not something you should do on a regular basis, but it may also be something that can be hard to avoid. Luckily, there are ways you can cheat on keto without exiting ketosis. Think of this as smart cheating.
With smart cheating, you treat yourself with foods that seem like cheats but, in actuality, are still low in carbs. That way, you appease your cravings without derailing your diet. You may need to make or buy these foods in advance, but your efforts will be rewarded by maintaining ketosis and staying true to your diet.
Good options include:
- Sugar-free Jell-O and whipping cream
- High-fat cheesecake made with stevia and crushed pecan base
- Avocado dark chocolate mousse
- Keto fat bombs
- Cookies and cakes made with almond or coconut flour
- Dark chocolate – 70% cocoa solids
- Natural peanut butter – no added sugar
- Dark chocolate-covered brazil nuts
- Carb-free protein bars (some even taste like Mars and Snickers bars!)
There are lots of keto-friendly treats and cheats to try. Just use Google for hundreds of great ideas and easy to make recipes.
Cheats never prosper, or so the saying goes. Cheating on the keto diet is no exception. While you can cheat and continue to lose weight on a low-calorie diet, cheating on keto will kick you out of ketosis and put the brakes on your progress. Keto diet is an amazing fat loss diet, but that effectiveness comes at a cost.
Consuming even a small serving of forbidden carbs will be enough to undo the benefits of ketosis. If you are prepared to accept these consequences, you can cheat on keto. Does that mean you should? Probably not!
If you can’t help yourself from cheating on keto, maybe the keto diet is not for you. After all, keto will only work if you stick to it. But, if you can resist the allure of cheat foods, keto will help you lose fat faster and easier than ever before.