Do Keto Cheat Days Ruin Progress?
Learn about how you can safely indulge on a keto diet and how it may affect your weight loss progress.
Disclaimer: The information in this article is not intended to replace personalized medical advice. A low carb diet may not be suitable for you. Consult your health care provider before making any changes to your lifestyle or use this information at your own risk.
Cheat days are inevitable – no one is perfect! Some diets even encourage cheat days as a way to “train” your body to metabolize larger amounts of food. But does this apply to the ketogenic diet?
Unlike other diets and weight loss programs, the ketogenic diet involves a major transition as your body switches from a carb-burning (fat-storing) state into a fat-burning state. Not only do your hormones, metabolism, digestive system and cognitive functions change, but your lifestyle probably does in many ways, too! Suddenly, “cheat meals” are all around you and you have to be extra careful when buying or preparing your own food. For keto dieters, “cheating” could mean coming out of ketosis, which can have dangerous effects, especially if you are medically required to follow a low carb diet.
For those following a low carb or ketogenic diet simply to lose weight or cut bad habits, one question probably remains top of mind: will keto cheat days ruin your progress? In this article, we explain what happens to your body on a keto cheat day and provide advice for how you can cheat the “right” way.
Things to Consider Before A Keto Cheat Day
1. You could come out of ketosis.
Your body requires a very low intake of carbohydrates (less than 50g a day) in order to reach – and stay in – ketosis. This is about the equivalent of 2 slices of whole wheat bread or 1 cup of cooked brown rice. However, most people following a ketogenic diet won’t indulge in these high glycemic foods as they can raise blood sugar levels, and instead opt to get their carbs from things like vegetables, berries, and nuts, all of which contain few – but not zero – carbs.
If you choose to have a cheat meal on a ketogenic diet, it is very likely that you can easily come out of ketosis – especially if you don’t balance out your meals for the rest of the day. For example, if you attend a birthday party and grab a slice of cake, you will have probably reached your carb limit for the day – which means the rest of your day has to be well planned out in advance if you wish to remain in ketosis. And if you have an entire cheat day, you will likely surpass the 50g of carbs threshold very easily. You can always use ketone tests on cheat days to determine if you are in or out of ketosis.
So, what’s the big deal about coming out of ketosis, even just for one day? We discuss the possible ramifications in these next points.
2. Cheat days affect your fat adaptation.
“Fat adaptation” refers to your body’s ability to convert fat into ketones, an alternative source of energy to glucose from carbohydrates. Although our bodies have the mechanisms in place to allow you to burn fat instead of carbs to fuel your day, it’s sort of like a muscle that you have to exercise consistently.
In order to transition into a fat-burning metabolic state, the body alters your hormone levels and increases the production of certain enzymes. Any time you switch between carbs and fat, these levels have to be re-adjusted, which takes time and may produce some unpleasant physical side effects (explained later in this article). So, the longer you are following a ketogenic diet, the more efficient the body becomes at burning fat (i.e. it becomes “fat adapted”). Conversely, if you frequently switch between consuming carbs and fat without taking measures to help your body back into ketosis, it can be quite difficult to become properly fat adapted. As a result, you may not experience weight loss and other benefits of ketosis as quickly as you expected.
3. You may experience increased cravings after a cheat day.
Eating carbs and sugar sets off signals in our brains that make us want more. It becomes a never-ending cycle of cravings – once you have a little, instead of feeling satisfied, your body wants more!
We’ve all experienced this carb craving before – and it can be a hard one to break! It happens because glucose, the type of energy derived from carbohydrates, is used up very quickly by the body. Once the brain senses that its energy stores have been depleted, it sends out signals to get more – and this is what we call sugar cravings. On the other hand, fat is a longer-lasting fuel source and doesn’t cause sudden energy crashes. And, in general, eating a diet rich in healthy fats, lean protein and lots of veggies provides our bodies with enough energy and nutrients to keep us feeling satisfied. But as soon as we re-introduce those high carb, sugar-y foods that lack real nutrients, our bodies suddenly feel like they’re starving (even though we’ve consumed more than enough calories)!
If you are a strong-minded person, these cravings may not stop you from having a cheat day once in a while. However, sugar cravings often go beyond will power and come down to our biology; our brain’s reward systems are wired to crave those dopamine-inducing high carb foods. Check out this post for tips on how to manage sugar cravings.
4.You might suffer another case of the Keto Flu.
If you think back to when you first started a ketogenic diet, you probably remember some unpleasant symptoms lasting for the first 1-2 weeks! These are otherwise known as the “Keto Flu”, and symptoms can range from nausea and constipation to headaches, brain fog, irritability and trouble sleeping. It is also common to struggle with increased sugar cravings during this period – refer back to point #3!
Any time you come out of ketosis, it is reasonable to expect at least some of the symptoms of the Keto Flu to return. That said, the severity will can depend on how big of a cheat day you had and if it was just a cheat meal or an entire weekend of high carb indulgences! These symptoms can range from manageable to quite burdensome, so your threshold for physical discomfort will play a big role in whether or not you decide to take a cheat day.
In addition to the Keto Flu “symptoms” you might experience in the days following your cheat day, you may also experience some physical discomforts on the cheat day itself. These immediate symptoms may include bloating, upset stomach, and gas – especially if you choose to cheat with very large portions of fast food or junk food that normally cause these symptoms anyways! As your gut microbiome gets used to you consuming only healthy, low inflammatory foods, it’s reaction to unhealthy foods you once used to enjoy may not be the same.
5. It can be easy to gain weight.
Time to answer the burning question – will keto cheat days ruin your weight loss progress? The short answer is that yes, frequent cheat days will inevitably lead to weight gain. This happens for a few reasons, discussed below.
All physical nuances aside – one of the main effects of coming out of ketosis is that your body will no longer be burning fat. Instead, carbs that are not burned via your resting metabolism and exercise will be stored as fat. Plus, increased sugar cravings following a cheat day could cause you to consume higher amounts of food the following days, which can result in a caloric surplus (AKA more fat storage). And, remember all of that water weight that you lost when you started a ketogenic diet? It will return as soon as you consume high carb foods. This is because the body requires water to store glycogen (glucose molecules). However, you will likely lose this water weight again once you resume your low carb diet, unlike the more permanent weight gain that results from indulging in too many carbs!
Keto Cheat Days Done The “Right” Way
Despite the potential down sides of keto cheat days, the ketogenic diet is a big lifestyle change and cheat days will probably cross your mind. That said, there is a way to go about your cheat days that won’t completely ruin your progress.
One of the good things about the keto diet is that it teaches you to listen to your body. You have probably become more aware of how you feel after consuming certain foods, allowing you to make the best choices for your body. Plus, many people report decreased cravings for high-carb, sugar-y foods once they have gotten used to a ketogenic diet and broken the sugar addiction cycle. Appetite control is definitely a big bonus of the keto diet, because high fat, low carb foods are generally more filling and sustaining.
Here are some tips for how you can still enjoy cheat days on a ketogenic diet:
- Follow a cyclical ketogenic diet.
A cyclical ketogenic diet involves following a strict ketogenic diet (fewer than 5% of your daily calories from carbs) for five days, followed by two days of “carb loading” in which you can eat high carb foods – but still keep it healthy (think things like whole grains, more fruits, and root vegetables).
Typically, athletes will follow this kind of ketogenic diet as it allows them to obtain the benefits of a standard keto diet (such as fat burning, blood sugar control and better cognition) while giving them enough carbs to properly build muscle mass. In addition, it provides a nice structure whereby you might follow a stricter diet during the week and get to indulge more on the weekends!
One drawback of the cyclical ketogenic diet is that you will be kicked out of ketosis on carb loading days. So, if you choose to do a low carb diet for medical reasons, such as to manage diabetes or a neurological disorder, the cyclical keto diet is not recommended.
2. If you’re going to cheat, cheat before or after activity.
The reasoning for this is similar to why athletes partake in cyclical ketogenic diets. The least detrimental time to cheat is before or right after high intensity physical activity. This is because your body can use the carbs from your cheat meal to fuel or repair your muscles, instead of storing it as fat. However, don’t over-estimate the effects of your workout; there is more at play than just calories in vs. calories out. As the saying goes, “you can’t outrun a bad diet”!
3. Try keto-friendly desserts and comfort foods.
You don’t have to stray from your regular ketogenic diet to still enjoy yourself! Due to the popularity of low carb diets, there are tons of recipes and products out there that are compliant with keto, paleo and low carb diets and can still satisfy your cravings.
Check out these recipes for low carb versions of some popular comfort foods:
- 15-Minute Keto Pizza Crust
- Keto Crispy Chicken & Waffles
- Keto Fudge
- Keto Mini Donuts (No Frying!)
- Crispy Baked Keto Fries
- Loaded Keto Nachos
You can also find keto-friendly sweets and desserts on our website. Here are some of our favourites:
- Good Dee’s Bake Mixes – find indulgent low carb baking mixes including brownie, blondie, cookie, cake and frosting mixes!
- HighKey Foods Mini Low Carb Snickerdoodle Cookies
- Lily’s Sweets Sugar-Free Chocolate Bars, Baking Chocolate and Sweet Treats (hint: keto-friendly peanut butter cups!)
- Nutilight No Sugar Added Chocolate Hazelnut Spread
- Quick N Yummy Keto Mug Cake Mixes
- Ross Stevia-Sweetened Chocolates
- SmartSweets Stevia-Sweetened Gummies
- ThinSlim Bake Mixes and Pre-Packaged Pastries
We hope that you enjoyed reading this article and feel empowered to tackle keto cheat days in a way that works for you. If you have information or experience that you’d like to share with our community members, consider joining us on Facebook or Instagram. Also, let us know what you think of The Low Carb Grocery by leaving a Google Review. And remember, you can find the best sales and up-to-date keto news by subscribing to our email newsletter.