Are Cheat Days on Keto OK?
It's a valid question, and it has a two-part answer. For the keto beginner, the answer is NO -- not if you want to actually get into and stay in ketosis. For the fat-adapted Keto veteran, the answer is (a tentative) YES.
Give Not Into Temptation
The temptation to cheat, unfortunately, can be quite strong at first. Beginners beware: Carbs, like a recent ex, can haunt your every waking moment for a good while after you decide to separate. It's fairly common knowledge that carbs and sugars are highly addictive; coming off of them creates withdrawal reactions in the brain and strong cravings that are similar to those of quitting a substance like nicotine!
At the initiation of keto, it's important to not give in to the cravings. Don't call the ex. Don't pick up the drug. There was a good reason you quit them. Keep your reasons in mind, and focus on the goals you've set for yourself. Eating carbs leads directly to craving more carbs, so it's much better to stay hydrated and stick to keto religiously.
Overcoming the Urge to Cheat
Remember carb cravings are a form of physical and psychological withdrawal. Here, we can borrow some helpful tactics from what we know about addiction recovery, and one of the most important ones is finding a support network.
It's likely you'll find encouragement from friends and family as you go keto. If it proves hard to find someone who relates IRL, support groups for keto dieters are all over the internet! It can be empowering to know you're quitting carbs with other people; it can be inspiring to share your experience and read about others' success stories.
Mindfulness is a powerful tool that helps overcome negative urges. Put simply, it's the practice of calming the mind and existing in a "here-and-now" state without anxious mental chatter. People tend to gravitate toward their old, once comforting habits (carbs!) in times of anxiety and stress, only to regret it later. Some easy ways to overcome stress and be mindful in the moment are:
- Breathing slowly and deliberately into the lower belly
- Paying attention to the sensations in your body
- Paying attention to your sensory environment (smells, sounds, colors, etc.) to break out of an anxious mental monologue
- Refusing to indulge judgmental thoughts; only recognize them, then let them go
Distractions are also a great tool for your diet toolbox. Some like to drink a glass of water with lemon or lime and commit to waiting ten minutes for the craving to pass. A bit of light exercise, like a walk around the block while listening to some good music, can make you forget about it.
Listing all that you've accomplished so far, and remembering how important it is to be healthy, can help fight it, too. Hop online and read about ketosis, and visualize your body learning how to be a fat-burning powerhouse. The greater your commitment, the sooner it'll happen.
Finally, planning meals ahead of time can bring order to the chaos of everyday existence. It takes away the stress of trying to throw together spur-of-the-moment meals and snacks, and it ensures you'll have an abundance of keto-friendly eats at your disposal for when you do get hungry. Keto treats exist, they are amazing, and they're better than anything with carbs.
What Happens if You Do Cheat?
If you cheat on keto by eating above your carb limit, you WILL get knocked out of ketosis.
This means your body will return to metabolizing sugars and carbs (the ones you've just eaten) instead of your body's own fat stores. It means the sugars and carbs you just ate will get converted to glucose, which may cause a huge spike in blood sugar. It also means excess carbs can and will get stored as additional body fat. In short, it will stop ketosis in its tracks and might cause you to gain weight.
The speed at which the body returns to ketosis depends on a few factors. It will take longer to return to ketosis if you ate way over your limit. If you've only been following the keto diet for a short time (less than a month), it takes longer to readjust. If you're more sedentary than active, your recovery time increases, too.
Most people enter ketosis in 2 - 7 days after resuming eating strict keto. However, there is a happy exception: Fat adaptation. If you're fat adapted, the No Cheating Rule doesn't apply as strictly. The NO becomes a YES, with caution!
Long-Term Keto and Cheat Days
Staying in continuous ketosis for 4 - 12 weeks means your body is considered fat adapted. Essentially, you've successfully made the full transition from carb-burning to fat-burning.
One of the best bits of news about this state: You don't have to be in ketosis all the time in order to remain fat adapted. Your body will burn its own glucose and fat for energy, even if ketone levels in the blood are allowed to fluctuate slightly.
If you eat a slice of cake on your birthday or enjoy a sugary cocktail, it's important to get back into ketosis again to resume making progress -- so get back on the keto diet as soon as possible. You can, however, eat over your carb limit occasionally, and it'll take only about a day to get back into ketosis.
Even though the recovery time is delightfully fast, cheat days will still affect your weight loss progress and could stall it indefinitely if you're a repeat offender. So, the YES comes with a caveat: Do it as little as possible. The best way to go is to replace carb-laden treats with keto-friendly ones, so even when you're "cheating," you're still on track.