Can you have a cheat day on Keto? Is it a good idea?
If you’re like most people eating a low-carb diet, these questions have probably crossed your mind. The Keto diet can be fairly restrictive, and it’s natural to crave forbidden, carby foods—especially if these foods are your favorite foods.
A cheat meal on Keto can be something to look forward to. A tasty reward for all your hard work.
But is the reward really worth the cost? Read on to find out if a cheat day might be right for you.
Cheating On Your Diet
There’s something strange about the concept of “cheating” on your diet.
To cheat, according to the dictionary, means to deprive or influence someone through deceit or fraud.[*]
But diets aren’t people. They don’t have feelings, and they can’t be deceived.
When you eat a bowl of pasta on Keto, you aren’t fooling anybody. (Except yourself, perhaps). You’re making a conscious decision about what to eat.
It’s you, not the Keto diet, that lives with the consequences of your food choices. If you’re honest about that, you can make better decisions about food.
Why Do People Take Cheat Days?
No matter how you slice it, everyone is searching for a path to greater happiness. This basic principle explains why people take cheat days.
If you take a cheat day on Keto, you believe it will bring you more satisfaction than adhering to your normal regimen. It’s that simple.
This logic applies to most any Keto cheating scenario. Here are four examples:
- Eating a piece of cake at a family gathering to be polite. (Underlying reason: Not wanting to feel the discomfort of saying no to relatives).
- Impulsively snacking on chocolate covered almonds. (Underlying reason: To relieve stress).
- Stopping at a fast-food joint because you didn’t pack anything Keto-friendly. (Underlying reason: To alleviate hunger).
- Planning out a full-day of pizza, pasta, and bread indulgence. (Underlying reason: You believe eating those foods will bring you happiness).
But just because you intend to increase your happiness (or decrease your discomfort), it doesn’t mean the net result of cheating will be positive. The net result on your health, happiness, and overall well being depends on the actual consequences of the cheat meal or cheat day.
So let’s examine the consequences—both good and bad—of taking cheat days on Keto.
Pros of Cheating on Keto
The most popular argument for cheating on Keto is the long-term argument. The claim is: If you give yourself the flexibility to cheat occasionally, you’re more likely to stay Keto for the long haul.
Is it true? Unfortunately, we don’t have good data to answer that question.
It depends on the mental and physical state of the dieter. Some folks can take meals, days, or weeks off Keto and come back easily. Others, however, fall off the wagon and stay off.
You probably know which group you’re in. If you can smoothly return to your diet after taking a break—by all means, go for it.
But if not, consider adjusting your strategy. More on that soon.
Cons of Cheating on Keto
Your eating habits have consequences. Good and bad.
Here are some negative consequences of eating high-carb, high-sugar foods on Keto:
Eat too many carbs and you’ll kick yourself out of ketosis. (Carbs raise blood sugar and insulin levels, spelling an end to fat-burning and ketone production).[*]Unfortunately, this could interfere with your weight loss, fat loss, and other Keto-related goals.
How many grams of carbs will kick you out of ketosis? That depends on your carb tolerance. Some people can eat 100 grams of carbs and keep burning fat, while others have an upper daily limit of 10 to 20 grams of carbs. Big variance.
More Energy Swings
A cheat meal, assuming it’s high in carbs, will raise blood sugar levels more than a low-carb meal. When blood sugar inevitably falls, energy falls along with it. It’s called the blood sugar rollercoaster for a reason, and refined carbohydrates are your ticket to ride.
Along with stabilizing blood sugar, low-carb diets also stabilize hunger hormones like ghrelin and neuropeptide Y.[*]This lets you cruise through the day without feeling hungry all the time.
When you bring back the carbs, you may bring back the hunger too.
Carb and sugar cravings aren’t just in your head. They can be signs of addiction.
Believe it or not, researchers have compared sugar addiction to cocaine addiction.[*]Sugar may even be more rewarding!
Cheating can strengthen these pathways, making it harder to avoid sugary treats in the future.
Guilt is an often-overlooked consequence of Keto cheating. Ask yourself: If you’re going to feel bad later, is the cheat meal worth it?
The Wrong Way To Keto Cheat
Some departures from the Keto diet have worse consequences than others. Let’s look at the worst possible scenario.
One feature of this scenario would be binging (or overeating) on a cheat day. Even if you pick healthy cheat foods, overeating can lead to weight gain and digestive issues.
In one study on 248 young adults, cheat meal frequency was positively correlated with overeating episodes.[*]he more we cheat, the more we overeat.
The other main factor is food quality. A simple rule is: The more refined sugar consumed during a cheat day, the worse the health consequences.
Better to eat high-quality carbs like yams or potatoes. Or you can “cheat” with low-carb substitutes. (Which isn’t actually cheating at all).
Tips To Do Cheat Days Right
If you’re planning a Keto cheat day, keep your health on track by minding these tips:
- Swap in Keto-friendly foods. Instead of eating chocolate chip cookies, eat Keto chocolate chip cookies. Instead of eating wheat pasta, eat low-carb zucchini pasta. You get the idea...
- Keep portions small. This will prevent overeating. Instead of relying on willpower, make sure seconds aren’t within easy reach.
- Make it rare. Cheat days aren’t a daily thing. Space them out generously. The less you cheat, the less likely you’ll form bad eating habits.
- Make it count. Don’t waste your cheat meal on a handful of stale tortilla chips. Eat the foods you miss most, like that special holiday dessert.
- Avoid sugar. Sugary cheat meals will fuel sugar addiction and drive future cravings. Think long-term by using keto-friendly sweeteners like erythritol, stevia, and monk fruit.
- Cheat close to exercise. Exercise increases insulin sensitivity (your ability to handle carbs), so you can get back into ketosis faster. [*]
- Return to eating Keto quickly. The longer you avoid your low-carb routine, the harder it will be to get back on track.
Finally, don’t beat yourself up if you cheat on Keto. What you do today is important, not what you did yesterday.
Get back to eating healthy in the present, and the future will be bright.