Keto Cheat Days: Friend or Foe?
We’ve all enjoyed a cheat day or two without giving it much thought. A holiday from healthy eating allows for some indulgences or in the case of keto, maybe just a piece of crusty bakery bread!
But keto isn’t just any diet, it’s a lifestyle that takes some getting used to. The initial phase is no walk in the park (ahem, keto flu anyone?) but once you hit that fat-burning mode the energy is endless.
So with all that hard work and the payoff of feeling great, is it worth it to have a cheat day? Is it going to throw you out of ketosis? Will you have to start all over again?
If you’re reading this after some holiday cheat days (or weeks), you’re probably also wondering how you can get back on the wagon fast to crush your New Year's goals.
I’m here to tell you, it’s not as hard as you might think.
How often can you have a cheat day on keto?
Whether cheat days work for you depends on your character. Some people who give up cigarettes can have one or two at a party and not touch another for months. For others, it would signal the end of all the hard work they put in to give up in the first place, and so they simply revert back to their previous behavior. So you need to know that you’ll stick to your one “naughty” day and then get back to your diet the day after.
But keto is not like other diets. The whole point of keto is to get your body into ketosis so that it burns fat for energy, not carbs and sugars. You have to train your body by removing carbohydrates so that it turns to fats to supply the energy you need. As anyone who has done this will understand, it takes time and you have to be strict. The problem with a cheat day is that a sudden input of carbs will throw your system out of ketosis, and once more, your body will turn to carbohydrates for fuel.
So, how often can you have cheat days if you are on a keto diet? As little as possible. On many diets, you can cheat once a week and you’ll likely continue to see the benefits, but one seriously carb-heavy day a week could mean you’re almost never in ketosis, and so there’s little point doing the diet in the first place.
That really leaves you with two options:
- Cheat just a little by sticking to keto-friendly foods, perhaps eating more of them than you would normally allow yourself to, or
- Keep your cheat days for holidays, perhaps once a quarter.
Remember that even a Big Mac with medium fries and a medium Coca-Cola contains 144g of carbs and 65g of sugar – that’s more sugar than you’re normally allowed carbs for the day! Do that for lunch and dinner and you’ll have blown your keto diet out of the water.
If you do want to incorporate a cheat day, then it’s best to cheat “close” to your keto diet. If you want to head to McDonalds, get them to prepare you a keto-friendly burger (or just chuck the bread), forego the fries, and grab a coke zero. It’s still cheating, because it’s not 100% keto-friendly, but you’ll feel like it’s a treat.
Getting out of Ketosis
First things first, having a cheat day will probably throw you out of ketosis. But it really depends on what’s included in your day - this includes foods, beverages, and exercise.
Basically, carbs are what will kick you out of ketosis. As soon as you eat bread or drink sugary soda your body is biologically programmed to revert back to burning sugar for fuel. When it comes to keto and carbs - how much you put in, determines how far you’ll get kicked out.
If your cheat is drinking beer after running a 10k it's not going to impact you as much as eating half a pizza while binge-watching Netflix on your couch for eight hours straight.
But how will I know if I’m out of ketosis? Ketosis is hard to mistake, you’ll know when you’re in it and chances are, you’ll know when you’ve been kicked out. Some signs you’re not in ketosis anymore may include:
- Sugar and carb cravings
- Frequent hunger
- Spikes and dips in energy
- Brain fog or fuzzy thinking
Is going in and out of ketosis bad?
On many diets, a little backsliding is really not much of a problem. Eat more one day, then have less the next: crisis avoided. It is not so straightforward if you are on a ketogenic diet.
Cheating and keto don’t really go together. The extra carbs make you feel hungrier faster and you will have to cope with sudden blood sugar spikes. The last is not a game-changer if you have chosen keto as a means of weight control. But if, however, you are one of the many people living with diabetes and are on a keto diet to help control it, a sugar spike is something that needs avoiding.
Cheating on a keto diet inevitably leads to your body ceasing to burn fat for energy. That has consequences. A day of ramping up those carbs, or even a moment, will take you out of ketosis. To get back into your fat-burning zone will likely take up to three days, depending on your individual physiology. If you’ve had a real blow-out, then it might be longer before your body is, once again, using fat as your fuel source. If you have chosen to be keto because of a medical condition, then any interruption could be detrimental to your health.
Then there is the discomfort of going through the various keto flu symptoms: nausea, headaches, fatigue, to name a few. All while continuing to crave carbs.
Going in and out of ketosis isn’t “bad” for you, but it is uncomfortable. It’s best avoided unless it’s really worth it for you. If you find you want to cheat on your keto diet every few days, you need to consider if planning your meals and snacks better can help, or if you need to reconsider your dedication to your goals.
How Long Will it Take to Get Back into Ketosis?
After a cheat day, it may take a day or two to get back into ketosis but the length of time varies based on a few factors:
- How long you’ve been on the keto diet. The longer you’ve been in ketosis, the better. Your body is more fat-adapted and will more easily shift back into fat burning mode.
- Cheat day or cheat meal? Generally speaking, the higher the total amount of carbs, the longer it will take you to get back into ketosis. As a result, a meal is a lot easier to recover from than an entire day.
- Hitting the gym. Exercise can help use up circulating sugar (aka carbs) to get you back into fat-burning mode faster.
- Fasting after a cheat meal or cheat day forces your body to use any carbs you’ve eaten as fuel. In the absence of food, you’ll also plow through any carbs that might be stored. This will get you back to fat burning a bit faster.
How to Get Back Into Ketosis Quickly After Cheating
If you’ve dropped the ball, don’t panic – and definitely don’t give up hope. Two days of cheating in a row is definitely a no-no, so get back to your diet as soon as you can.
Don’t try to punish yourself for making a couple of bad decisions, regret and guilt can actually lead you to cheat again. If you cheated on purpose, then you know what to do: get back on your low-carb diet and keep your head down.
If you made a mistake, it’s okay – again, just get back to your diet and continue as if it didn’t happen. You won’t see a major blip from a cheat day unless you do it often. One accident is fine, but more will undo your hard work.
Something else to keep in mind is that sometimes intermittent fasting can help get back to ketosis faster than otherwise, so that may be beneficial for you.
Regular exercise will help deplete your body’s glycogen stores faster, so consider going for a hike or run. Just don’t be too extreme!
Cheating can seem a good idea at the time but often leads to feelings of disappointment after. Keto is not an easy diet to cheat, so it’s best to cheat in a controlled way, not simply when it’s “too hard” to do or you don’t feel like it. This diet can have unique health benefits and is well-proven to help with weight control. Think carefully before cheating if you are on a ketogenic diet, and consider simply choosing better and more delicious keto-friendly snacks and meals!
Keto Flu Take Two
If you have an all-out cheat day (or a few days) it is possible you’ll have another date with the keto flu. This all-star of the keto diet comes with some not so pleasant side effects including:
- Feeling sluggish
- Achy muscles
- Muscle cramps
- Sugar cravings
- Difficulty concentrating
Think of it as a cheat day hangover. While the keto flu is not imminent after a cheat day, it's better to be prepared with some electrolytes, a plan for mild exercise and catching plenty of zzz’s.
Just like you might consider how you’ll feel after an evening of binge drinking, you might remind yourself of the keto flu before a full-fledged cheating spree. For some, this may be motivation enough to save non keto meals or treats for truly special occasions.
Health Impact of Cheat Days
Cheat days may come with a heftier price tag than a day or two of feeling tired and cranky. Recent research has shown that cheat days from low carb diets spike blood sugar and damage the lining of blood vessels. While this latest study was small, it is consistent with an earlier study showing even one high fat, high carb junk food meal also wreaks havoc on the walls of blood vessels.
This is concerning because blood vessel damage has long term consequences. When damaged, elevated blood pressure and plaque build-up are more likely.
Is it good to have cheat days on keto?
This depends how disciplined you are and how likely you are to just drop the diet when it gets too hard.
The problem is you don’t have much wiggle room on a keto diet. If you do go overboard on a cheat day, you will come out of ketosis, and it will take time to get back into it. You might well experience the unpleasant symptoms of keto flu again, as well, which is well worth avoiding.
If you feel like not eating full meals on family holidays will ruin the day for you, then it may be worth leaving ketosis for a day or two and start the process over again after. It really depends on you, your body, and your goals.
If you can, choose keto-friendly foods that feel like a cheat. There are so many keto-friendly versions of non-keto foods today that you can really feel like you’re cheating, with just a little planning.
Pizzas, noodles, fries, Chocolate Chip Mini Cookies – all have delicious low-carb alternatives. Some may need to be ordered online a few days before, but you’ll have a great “cheat day” while staying in ketosis. It’s a win-win situation!
Cheat days aren’t without merit. Keto is easier to follow now more than ever but it is still by definition a restrictive diet. Allowing for some flexibility may make it easier to follow and reap the long term benefits.
So can you have your cake and eat it too? Sure you can, but you’ll need to cheat wisely.
#1 Add some variety to your keto meal plan so you won’t feel the need to go off course frequently.
#2 Identify specific food cravings and find some everyday keto friendly foods to fill the void.
- Bubbly beverage → Try sparkling water or stevia based sodas like Virgils or Zevia.
- Crunch & salty → Kale or brussels sprout chips or cheese crunch
- Pizza → Frozen cauliflower pizza crusts or DIY pizza
- Pancakes or Waffles → Try almond flour based pancake mix
- Lasagna → Zucchini or eggplant instead of pasta
- Candy & confections → super dark sugar-free chocolate
- Sweet coffee drink → ketofied Starbucks beverage
#3 Splurge only when the occasion and the food are a top-notch treat. Newsflash, if you have more than a handful of friends or family members, there is always a special occasion to celebrate. Birthdays, anniversaries, starting a new job, retiring, baby showers, wedding showers, Halloween, Christmas, Easter, Valentines Day - we could go on forever.
Celebrate without sending your pancreas into overdrive and pick the occasions with greatest significance to indulge in champagne or cake or whatever the thing is that you don’t normally have.
Similarly, don’t eat a donut in the break room just because it's there. Eat a donut when you’re at the award-winning donut shop you’ve never been to.
#4 Plan to hit the pavement and sweat a little on your cheat day. Exercise will help use up circulating sugar resulting from a higher carb meal. Think of it as a buffer to minimize the impact and get you back into ketosis faster. We could debate the best kinds of exercise to serve this purpose but chances are you might not feel your best after a cheat day and so the best type of exercise is going to be the type you’ll actually do.
#5 Follow your cheat with a fast. A gentle overnight fast that extends into mid-morning the following day (approximately 12-14 hours) or something a little more aggressive like a 16 hour fast will force your body into using most of the circulating and stored carbs for fuel with minimal effort. As the carbs are used up the body will shift back into using primarily fat and back into ketosis, you’ll go.
#6 Check-in and adjust your game plan. If you find yourself cheating frequently you’ll want to assess what’s missing from your keto plan. Do you have enough variety? Are you eating enough fat? Remember, fat is fuel on keto. Are you drinking enough water? And finally, are you eating for reasons other than hunger?
Sleep, stress, and medications can all impact appetite and food cravings. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep (around 8 hours), take some time to de-stress with meditation or whatever gets you feeling zen and talk to your doctor about medications that may affect appetite.
An alternative to frequent cheating is cycling in and out of keto but maintaining healthy food choices in both phases. This tends to be a good option for those who’d like a more balanced approach to eating and want to stick with healthful food choices most of the time.
Keto Cheat Meal Ideas
The real answer to having a cheat meal on keto is to make sure your keto diet is varied, stimulating, and full of flavor, every meal, every day. Then, rather than cheating with carbs, allow yourself a keto-friendly “cheat” days. Here are a few ideas that will keep you on the keto straight and narrow:
- How about Valentine’s menu that starts with prosciutto-wrapped asparagus, has taco meatza for mains, and finishes with a crunchy berry mousse?
- Beef stew is always a treat, like the one from Low Carb Maven, perhaps followed by Luscious Lemon Cheesecake as suggested by I Breath, I’m Hungry.
- No meal is more special than Cafe Delites’ One Pan Lemon Garlic Baked Salmon with Asparagus, with No-Churn Vanilla Cheesecake Ice Cream from Pure Wow.
- Grab a bunch of our cookies and keep an eye on your carbs. You could also make up a batch of our keto-friendly pancakes and stack them sky-high!
- Go to your favorite fast-food burger place and throw out the buns – we’ve got some great suggestions here in our Best Keto Fast Food Options.
Cheat days on keto can be both friend and foe. It comes down to the execution of “cheating” and what works best for you personally.
The bottom line is, you’re probably going to cheat from time to time on keto and that’s okay. Give yourself permission to enjoy the foods you really love without throwing away your hard work or beating yourself up over it.
Cheat smart and check in every once in a while to make sure your game plan is working for you. If not, a simple course correction will get you back on track.
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