A keto diet essentially eliminates all carbohydrates from the diet, and it can be quite challenging to stick it 100% of the time.
However, people choose to adopt the ketogenic diet for various reasons and it is totally possible for many to enjoy the occasional carbohydrate indulgence without ruining your health goals.
This article explains what happens when you cheat on a keto diet, and how to healthfully divert from a strict keto diet while still maintaining an overall healthy keto lifestyle.
Can you cheat on a keto diet?
Cheating on a keto diet can be totally fine and likely will not knock you off track from meeting your health goals. Especially if your goal is weight loss, having a piece of pizza, a bowl of pasta, or cake, is absolutely something that can be added into your routine once in a while.
Introducing carbs can kick you out of ketosis but eating more carbs on a given meal or given day will not ruin any weight loss goals you have. After all, it is not carbohydrates that lead to weight gain, but excess calories that do.
If your wellness goals are improved athletic performance, cheating on a keto diet may have more profound effects mainly because it may leave you feeling sluggish and fatigued. Perhaps save your cheat meal for a time when you are not planning to have a big race or game.
If you are adopting the ketogenic diet on a more recreational basis, a cheat meal or day is unlikely to have any real effect on your health goals - whether that be weight loss, improved physical performance, or reduced inflammatory markers.
However, if your goals are specific to a certain condition or disease state, cheating on a keto diet may have greater effects. For example, research supports the adoption of a strict keto diet for epilepsy and even neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s Disease and Multiple Sclerosis (1).
Metabolic and inflammatory changes occur with the keto diet, which has been shown to reduce symptoms.
Therefore, if your reason for keeping a keto diet is for disease management – and you’re ideally under the supervision of a licensed healthcare provider – cheating on the keto diet may have more grand effects.
What happens when you have a cheat day on a keto diet?
When you add carbohydrates into your keto diet in a “cheat day” for example, the following physiological changes will likely occur:
Spike in blood sugar
Your blood sugar will spike as a result of introducing carbohydrates into your system. Blood sugar elevates and insulin will get pumped out from the pancreas to bring glucose to your muscles and tissues (2).
Glycogen stores will be replenished
During ketosis, your body becomes fat adapted and glycogen stores are depleted. With an introduction of carbohydrates, the glucose – if not used for energy – will be stored as glycogen in the body. This knocks the body out of a fat-adapted keto state.
Ketone production is halted
On a ketogenic diet, the body utilizes fat stores for energy and produces ketones. When enough carbohydrates are added to the diet to kick someone out of ketosis, ketone production stops and glucose is used for energy instead. After all, when given the option, the human body chooses carbohydrates as a source of energy rather than fat (3).
Cravings may increase
Once your body becomes used to a low-carb, high-fat diet, cravings are typically reduced. Once a carb-heavy meal or day is introduced, your body may crave more sugar and carbohydrates.
This is why “cheating” with a keto-friendly alternative might be a good idea (3).
You may experience the "keto flu"
When resuming your standard keto diet, you may experience symptoms of the “keto flu” which includes fatigue, headache, bloating, and overall low energy.
The same symptoms your body likely experienced when transitioning to a keto-adapted fat-burning state may occur again when you have to get your body back into ketosis.
Taking exogenous ketones may help diminish these symptoms and get you back into ketosis more quickly.
The right way to do cheat meals on keto
There are psychological benefits to having a cheat day. It is nearly impossible to stick to any diet “forever” so allowing yourself flexibility in a diet plan also makes it more likely that you will be able to stick to this plan of eating in the long run (4).
Integrating a regular “cheat day” can also help you become more motivated enabling your health plan to feel more realistic and sustainable. However, dedicating an entire day to eating essentially whatever you wish, may do more harm than good.
Perhaps integrating a cheat meal is a better choice. Cheat meals are important because you do not want to grow fearful of foods or develop a poor relationship with foods.
An entire day of eating all of the foods that you’re not “supposed’ eat on a keto diet may lead to you feeling sluggish.
However, if you integrate a cheat meal instead, this may be a healthier way to approach it. It is also easier to stay on top of your goals, and daily calorie targets with having just one fun meal rather than devoting an entire day to a “free for all”.
How long does it take to get back into ketosis?
Okay, so you indulged in a piece of cake at your friend’s birthday, or you had a slice of pizza (or two) the other night. You might be wondering how long it will take for your body to get back into ketosis.
It really depends on the individual how many carbs are needed to kick a person out of ketosis, and how long it takes to get back in. However, if you have been following a strict keto diet and exceed your daily carbohydrate limit, it is likely to bring you out of ketosis.
If your body requires less than 30 grams of carbs daily to remain in ketosis, a cheat meal with 50 grams will do the trick, kicking you out of ketosis.
However, if you are already fat-adapted and have been in ketosis for some weeks already, your body is likely to bounce back into ketosis much quicker than someone who is not producing ketones or if they have been in ketosis only for a short while.
Basically, if you follow a strict keto diet and cheat on occasion, your body will be quick to get back to ketosis.
How to healthfully incorporate a cheat meal
Start with a plan
Perhaps there is a social event coming up, or a date night at your favorite restaurant.
Let a meal at a time like this be something you splurge on. Choose ahead of time which meals will be keto cheats and plan ahead. Perhaps you choose to integrate a higher carbohydrate meal or snack close to exercise so the carbohydrates can be utilized quickly, getting you back into ketosis quicker as well.
How often you integrate cheat meals may depend on your goals
If your goal is to strictly stay in ketosis for inflammatory and cognitive benefits, having cheat meals few and far between maybe your best bet.
However, if your goal is weight loss, having a cheat meal once or twice each week is not going to keep you from reaching your goals. After all, it is an excess of calories that ultimately contributes to weight gain.
Choose keto-approved cheat meals
Perhaps one of the best ways to feel like you’re indulging on a keto diet is to opt for keto-approved cheat meals.
This way, your “cheat” doesn’t in fact have to take you “off track” at all. There are plenty of recipes for keto-approved meals and snacks that can satisfy your cravings.
For example, when you need a quick pick-me-up in the middle of the day, you can try our keto fat bombs made with healthy fats like MCT oil. You can also check our comprehensive keto foods list for other snack ideas.
Resume your low carb keto lifestyle after your indulgence
After indulging in a cheat meal, just get right back to your low-carb diet. After one higher carbohydrate meal or snack, it will likely not be too challenging to reset your body back into ketosis, especially if these indulgences occur on occasion.
The Bottom Line
Occasionally straying from your low-carb, keto lifestyle will likely not interrupt your health goals. In fact, the incorporation of a cheat meal or day can be motivating and enable the lifestyle to feel more sustainable.
However, keep in mind that if you are following a ketogenic diet, choosing a meal that kicks you out of ketosis will increase blood sugar, glycogen stores, and shift metabolism to using glucose as energy instead of ketones.
For weight loss purposes, this is unlikely to affect your goals, however, it may leave you feeling a bit sluggish. It is important to choose your cheat meals wisely, plan ahead and save them for occasions, as well as explore keto-friendly recipes that can satisfy your cravings.