Unless you’re training for a very specific fitness goal or trying to meet a weight marker for a life event like a wedding or reunion, most long-term diets allow a little bit of wiggle room. Why? Because variety is the spice of life, and while sticking to a healthy diet for the majority of your week is good for you, sometimes you want to break the mold a little and calorie-splurge on food that’s fun. For a diet like keto however, the goal is to stay in a state of ketosis, and a few too many cheat meals could knock you out and cause you to experience keto flu all over again as you climb back in. So come with us as we explore the pros and cons of keto cheat days. We’ve also got cheat meal ideas that will help you cut a few corners without getting kicked out of ketosis.
With a high-fat, moderate-protein, low-carb diet like the ketogenic diet, you know what cheating means: carbs. It’s the one macronutrient you need to keep a tight leash on, and therefore it’s probably the only one you wish you could consume more of, more carbs and more sugars.
Once you reach ketosis and are enjoying the dramatic weight loss you’ve been looking for, you might start thinking, “What’s the harm in a cheat day here or there? How much of a difference can it actually make?” A ton if it’s the wrong kind of cheat meal!
You may already suspect that any form of cheating isn’t above-board, and you are right. Not cheating at all is the only way to get an unimpeachable A+, while even a little bit of cheating could put your grades at risk, right? The same goes for keto dieting, and what follows are the cons of what might happen if you start adopting keto cheat days.
The one way to get to a state of ketosis is to deny your body carbohydrates, so if one Saturday you decide to order a pizza and dip those big, fluffy crusts in some garlic butter, your body will happily latch onto the quick sugars from carbs once again. Keeping your body in a state of ketosis is like keeping an exuberant puppy under control: if you let any slack into the leash, that puppy is likely to take off like a rocket. Knowing that, if you have even one cheat day, one lax moment while holding the reigns, you may be in for way more trouble than it’s worth.
That being said, if you’re out eating with friends and the best option on the menu is a little too carb heavy, but you eat it just to be polite and write it off as a cheat? It’s not the end of the world. The thing to take into account is that every cheat needs to be paid for later. Consider using ketone test strips to monitor how meals like this affect your ketone levels, that way you don’t have to waste time feeling bad about one quick shortcut the next day, you can just concentrate on getting your keto diet back on track.
One of the best aspects of keto is that without carbs and the simple sugars they contain, you’re way less likely to spike your blood sugar levels. Not only does this make it less likely that you’ll develop type 2 diabetes, but if you are diabetic already, ketogenic dieting could be a way to help you manage your blood sugar levels without medication (consult with a doctor before discontinuing any prescribed medications).
Cheating on keto means bringing back those blood sugar spikes, and this time your body’s not used to them anymore. This can destabilize your blood glucose levels and may affect your insulin production, two health impacts that probably aren’t worth that bagel at brunch.
As quickly as you can lose weight with ketosis, is about how quickly it can come back if you fall out of ketosis. It’s so much easier for your body to get energy from sugar, and it wants to: as an evolved machine, your body’s goals are to store long-term fat in case of famine and use fast-acting sugar (glucose) for daily energy if it can.
There’s no need to be mad at your body for this; it’s what kept our ancient ancestors alive and what could still help each of us survive if we’re ever in dire circumstances. However, the dire circumstances that actually cause premature death in a modern, First World context are metabolic disease like diabetes, obesity, and heart disease, which is the top cause of death worldwide. Our ancient ancestors didn’t have corn syrup and refined sugar gumming up their foods and their arteries.
So that means if you let your body access quick sugars again, the fat-burning engine you built up by getting into ketosis is abandoned, and your body will happily start gaining weight once more. It thinks it’s insulating you, when really it’s putting you at greater risk of cardiovascular disease and all the dangerous side effects that come from carrying around too much body fat.
Quitting carbs and sugar can often mean going through sugar detox, and its symptoms are as real as quitting any other addictive substance. One of those symptoms is maddening cravings for foods like bread and ice cream that your body knows has the chemicals it’s after. If you slip and eat a few high-carb foods here and there, your body may say “hello darkness, my old friend” and start craving them again.
You may well remember the fatigue, brain fog, and keto breath symptoms of keto flu. Well, if you drop out of the habit of eating a strict keto meal plan in favor of a few cheat meals, you may have to experience those symptoms again as you get back to ketosis. The positive impacts of a low-carb, high-fat diet like keto are definitely worth the trouble once or twice, but a few too many cheat days upping your net carbs can make dealing with persistent keto flu symptoms a nightmare.
Alright that’s enough scolding: just because you’re on a keto diet doesn’t mean you can never have carbs or sweets again, it’s a low-carb diet, not a no-carb diet, because that would be unhealthy too. So how can you cheat a little without failing the grade here? The key is to cheat smart, to treat yourself so that you don’t become discouraged by the keto diet, but without taking a sugar hit that could knock you out of ketosis.
A cyclical ketogenic diet (CKD) means you spend the majority of your week eating strict low-carbohydrate keto meals, and then eating higher-carb meals on the other days, like your weekends. The trick is to think of your macronutrients as weekly goals instead of daily goals, and while there is still a chance you might overdo it and get kicked out of ketosis, this is a practice you can make perfect over time. It could also help you better preserve your lean muscle mass, and might make a long-term keto diet a little bit easier to maintain practically.
You can cheat with junk food or you can cheat with more keto-friendly foods, but at the end of the day, the road you choose could make all the difference. If you miss mashed potatoes, you can trick yourself by gorging on Cauliflower Mashed Potatoes. Craving bread? Get what you want by baking Keto Cloud Bread. Battling a sweet tooth? Make a Low-Carb Keto Cheesecake and go nuts on that instead of a store-bought cake full of white flour and refined sugar.
If you want to cheat the smart way, consider cheating around your exercise routine. If you know you’re going to eat some carbs, do so just before or directly after a workout, that way the glucose energy gets burned up fast and isn’t stored by your body to defer later fat burning. If you’re doing high-intensity interval training (HIIT) or cardiovascular workouts, you can time your cheat meal so that it makes less of an impact on your ability to stay in ketosis.
At the end of the day, it’s still better not to cheat on your keto diet, but if you know yourself well enough, then you know what you want, what you can handle, and for how long before you get frustrated. Cheating, when it comes to keto, is certainly better than quitting altogether. Use your keto cheat days more like a crutch: if it helps you walk, then it’s okay to lean on!