Wondering what happens when you fall off the keto wagon? It is entirely possible to include cheat meals on your keto diet and still lose weight. But how drastically and how often you have a keto diet cheat is certainly going to affect your progress in the long run, 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 happens when you cheat and how to enjoy "forbidden" cheat meals the right way.
Can You Have a Cheat Day on Keto?
Yes, you heard that right. If you just couldn't resist that slice of cake or pasta dinner and chose to indulge in a few extra carbs, don't stress. This cheat meal isn't a reason to throw 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 overall, all those carbs aren’t going to destroy all of your hard work.
Of course, if your goal is staying in ketosis for other reasons (not weight loss), cheating on a ketogenic diet might not be the best idea.
In one small study, researchers found keto cheat days could increase heart health risks among diabetics following a keto diet to manage blood sugar levels (1). While more research is needed, these initial findings indicate cheat days may not be ideal for everyone on a keto diet.
What Happens When You Cheat on a Keto Diet?
Here are all the things that go down when you add carbs back in with a ketogenic diet cheat 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 temporary 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 detrimental. Just because you start eating carbs again, especially just for one day, doesn't mean you will store a bunch 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 with blood sugar levels and water retention, as long as you are maintaining calorie control, you shouldn't end up gaining any weight.
Because of the blood sugar spike, it is common for some people to notice an intense 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.
How Many Grams of Carbs Will Take 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 say that any high carb meal over your recommended daily carb limit will do the trick. And the effect is pretty immediate (aka the same day).
For example: if you need to eat less than 20 grams of carbs per day to stay on keto, a cheat meal with 20 or more grams of carbohydrates will probably 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 since it takes 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 likely getting 70% of your energy from fat, and it will be much easier to go back into ketosis quickly, compared to someone who is not fully fat adapted.
How to Cheat on a Ketogenic Diet the Right Way
Cheat days have become a popular theme with many diets and for good reason. In fact, many experts have embraced diet cheats as a way to teach a more balanced approach to healthy eating.
Besides the fact that we are humans, not robots, and it can feel pretty impossible to stick to your keto diet perfectly, research says there may actually be some benefits to going off your diet. Including a strategic diet cheat may have some psychological benefits like reduced cravings and the ability to stick to your meal plan better overall (2).
Done right, cheating on your diet can help you stay motivated, and teach you how to have moderation as you build sustainable long-term health habits. Plus who doesn’t want to learn how to have their cake and eat it too?
Here’s how to include cheats without going off the rails.
Opt For Keto Approved Cheat Meals
Arguably, the best way to approach cheat days is by not cheating on your diet at all and splurging on keto-friendly substitutes to curb your cravings instead, saving true cheat meals as a last resort.
You can find a recipe a ketogenic version of just about any popular meal you can think of to keep you on course. not to mention the endless supply of packaged keto snacks and "cheat foods" hitting the market. 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, is way easier to stay on top of your overall nutrition and calories with cheat meals compared to 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 potentially undo all of your hard work from the week.
Have a Plan
The easiest way to ensure your diet cheats don’t ruin your progress is to plan for them. Pick 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 that will always be there.
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, aim to cheat no more than once or twice a week. But if ketosis is important 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 progress going before even considering cheats.
Track Your Daily Intake
Don't forget to track your calories and daily macros. If your cheats are blowing your weekly nutrition goals out of the water, you might end up gaining weight.
Use a popular macro-friendly app to see how much damage you are doing.
Keto Cheat Day Recovery Tips
The best way to recover from a keto cheat day is to resume your low carb keto lifestyle. As long as you are being smart about how much and how often you are cheating on your diet, you likely don’t need to take any new, special measures to keep getting results.
Just enjoy the short break and then move on!
If you're finding that you are cheating on keto too often and having a hard time sticking to your keto diet consistently, it might be time to revisit whether or not this diet is right for you. At the end of the day, the best diet for you is going to be one you can stick to!
Need help managing your ketogenic diet? Have fewer cheat days and stick to your goals with keto meal prep delivery. Our expert chefs and nutritionists will do the planning, shopping, and cooking for you, so that you can focus on other things.