The Ketogenic diet has taken the industry by storm in recent years, with it now being one of the most popular dieting methods in North America today. But as it's quite restrictive you may be wondering if you can have a keto cheat day and what it will do to you.
The "keto" way of eating has actually been practiced for a long time, with the Atkins diet being the first example of its adoption into mainstream weight loss techniques.
There are some variations of the keto diet, but as we covered in Keto 101, they all center on limiting or eliminating carb intake so that most or all of your calories come from healthy fats and protein. With all of that info on the table, keto might sound like a simple concept at first thought, but this diet can end up being extremely difficult -- especially if you're used to eating bread, rice, grains, and other sugary, high-carb foods.
This leads many new dieters to wonder if cheat days are permissible on the keto diet, but the answer isn't so straight forward as a simple yes or no.
What is a Cheat Day?
To put it simply, a cheat day is a day on which you forget all about your diet and eat whatever you want. At least, that's the approach some people choose to take.
Ideally, while your "cheat" day might mean you don't count calories or you eat a little more than usual, it shouldn't mean all your healthy habits go out the window. In fact, most professionals recommend skipping cheat days altogether as they can lead to binging and regression. Instead, if you want to treat yourself, have a “treat” meal. Cheating implies you are doing something wrong. Which can cause feelings of guilt and make you feel worse about yourself. So rather than “cheating” have a “treat”. Something you enjoy to eat/drink and enjoy it for what it is. A sometimes food.
Are Keto Cheat Days Okay?
If you think the idea of a cheat day or treat meal would help you on your diet, you have the option of working one into your keto lifestyle, but you need to be careful. Unlike other diets, like traditional calorie restriction, people doing keto may experience more long-term effects from their cheat meal.
That's because the whole idea behind keto is to get into a state of ketosis, which is the state in which your body has depleted all stores of glucose (i.e., sugar) and begins to use your body's stored fat as fuel by converting it into ketones using your liver. That means, if you were to have a cheat meal or cheat day that involves a lot of carbs (carbs = glucose), you'll leave ketosis.
Will A Cheat Meal Take Me Out of Ketosis?
If your treat meal or cheat day means eating more carbs than you typically do on your keto diet, there's a very good chance that it could knock you out of ketosis. Your body is designed to use glucose as a quick source of energy whenever it's available, so your body will stop converting fat into ketones (alternative energy) and go back to burning glucose again.
Of course, this process will only last for as long as there is glucose available. Once depleted, you'll restart the transition into ketosis, which should be easier the second time around, meaning you may not experience a "keto flu" on your next transition or it may not be as bad. However, as found in one small study, it may have more dangerous health impacts such as damaging blood vessels and the long term impact of Keto Cycling, cheat days and Keto in general is yet to be studied.
With all of this in mind, you can avoid being removed from ketosis just by having a "treat meal" that's smart on carbs. Alternatively, you can do as athletes do, planning a carb-rich cheat meal so that it falls right before a big workout. In this case, your body will exhaust your glucose stores much more rapidly as it uses it to fuel your strenuous exercise.
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The benefits of a Keto-Friendly Cheat Day
If you determine that being knocked out of ketosis isn't worth it, way to go! There are countless other benefits that go along with sticking to the keto rules and avoiding carbs even as you treat yourself to a "cheat" meal, which may include a low-carb alternative to your favorite foods -- like a pint of Halo Top ice cream in place of Ben & Jerry's.
Besides from helping you stay on track and in ketosis, a keto-friendly treat will also help you avoid disrupting your palate. Many people find that it takes time to get used to the strange aftertaste of non-sugar sweeteners, and that aftertaste eventually goes away once you eat them for awhile. What you may not realize is that sugar has an after-taste, too, you're just used to it!
When you eat sugar again, you may not enjoy it as much as you used to, but you'll also find that it can reset your palate so that the next time you eat a sugar alternative, like stevia or erythritol, you'll taste the difference. That means a cheat day can lead to a little mini-transition all over again as your taste buds go from no carb, to carb, and back again.
Therefore, by continuing to avoid carbs and sugar even on your cheat days, you'll make things easy on yourself so that you can continue with your low-carb lifestyle.
Is it healthy to cheat regularly?
Many dieters have successfully lost weight by incorporating a regular cheat day into their plan. You can do the same on keto, if you wish, but there are some best practices to follow.
First and foremost, every professional would agree that things go the smoothest if you actually have a plan for your cheat day or cheat meal. That means sitting down, looking at your schedule (perhaps checking for upcoming celebrations or social outings, too) and planning your cheat accordingly. This will help your cheat coincide with events where you may be most compelled to exceed the restrictions of your diet.
Secondly, when you do have a cheat treat, be sure you keep it under control. So, don't go blindly binging on everything in the cabinets. Instead, practice portion control even if you don't want to count calories and remember that eating too many carbs (generally more than 20 grams, but for some more than 50) in a day will knock you right out of ketosis and it can take several days to get back in.
Finally, realize that "treat" meals can be a good tool and even reward on occasion, but you shouldn't be having one every other day. Have one per week, tops, and remember that you don't have to have one every week. If you don't see the need for a cheat day this week, this month, or ever, don't feel pressured to incorporate one. They should be seen as optional and occasional, not a regular habit.
Like always speak to your medical professional before you make any changes to your diet.