The holiday season is upon us, and grandma’s apple pie may or may not be something you’re looking forward to indulging in. Whether you stay strict keto, plan to have carbs, or accidentally slip up, the holidays are a time to enjoy and celebrate family, not stress over your diet. If you’re thinking about having a keto cheat day, follow these tips to easily get back on track and avoid feeling guilty.
The keto diet is a lifestyle, and to receive the optimal results it’s important to stay strict with the number of carbs you consume. That being said, “cheat” days happen. Whether it’s on purpose or an impulse, there will most likely be repercussions. Luckily, there are ways to mitigate the negative consequences of a carb-heavy meal (or day).
There are no Cheats on Keto
When someone “cheats” on their diet, it means they ate something they weren’t supposed to. Keto is a lifestyle, not a diet. As a result, there are no “cheats”. However, to be in a metabolic state of ketosis, you cannot consume excess carbohydrates. If you do, your body will be forced out of ketosis. Depending on the amount of time your body has been fat-adapted, and how many carbs you consume, returning to ketosis can take anywhere from several hours up to a week.
When I refer to “cheating” in this article, I’m simply speaking to the idea of eating excess carbs to the point of not being in a ketogenic state. This is not a game, it’s your life, and there’s no real “cheating”. Every decision you make about your food will have consequences, both positive and negative. It’s up to you to determine which path to take.
Consequences of Cheating
Consuming an excess of carbs is usually more difficult to handle mentally rather than physically. In the meals proceeding the cheat, you may feel more tempted to consume carbs. You will find it easier to talk yourself into “one more piece” of whatever you are indulging in. Overdoing the carbs is a slippery slope and it is difficult to get back on track without a plan.
What physical symptoms might you feel after eating excess carbs? Usually, your body will retain water, causing you to feel bloated. Also, you may have GI distress depending on the particular foods you consumed. If you have a carb-heavy meal in the morning, you will likely feel sluggish or in need of a nap later into the day. Brain fog and nausea are other common symptoms of eating too many carbs after becoming fat adapted. Your body is not used to using glucose as a fuel source anymore, so it has a difficult time adjusting to the change.
How to "Cheat" Successfully
The easiest way to “get away with” a “cheat” day is to not have carbs. So how is it a cheat then? Instead of consuming excess carbs, eat excess fat and protein. Keeping your carbs low will help prevent excess water retention and the mental fog you may feel. If I have a keto cheat day, it might be chicken wings for dinner, low carb ice cream for dessert, and a lot of snacks throughout the day like nuts and cheese. I can enjoy all of these foods occasionally and feel completely satisfied without feeling deprived of carbohydrates.
Another great way to deal with intense carbohydrate cravings on keto is to make substitute foods. This is especially useful with desserts. Nearly every dessert has a keto recipe online. If you’re wanting cheesecake, cookies, or brownies intensely enough, make them yourself! If you’re not wanting to put in that much effort, are you really craving the food that much? The same can be said for non-dessert foods like pasta, pizza, and pancakes.
When to Cheat
If there’s a special event coming up and you know a non-food will be served that you love, then decide if it’s worth it. If you’ve been fat-adapted for several months or years, your body has an easier time returning to its fat-burning state. On the other hand, if you’ve just started keto within the last few weeks or months, it is more harmful to your progress.
Fat adaptation is on a spectrum. If you imagine yourself on a ladder, eating a keto meal is one step up, and a high carb meal is two steps down. After several steps into your journey, two steps back won’t make a difference. In the beginning, however, two steps is a significant setback.
The best way to cheat with carbs is to plan for it. If you go into a situation with the knowledge that you will have high-carb foods, you can prepare for the consequences. At that meal, plan to eat lower fat if possible. The combination of high carb, high-fat meals is a recipe for disaster and a big part of the problem with the Standard American Diet. Before the meal, you can deplete your glycogen stores with a good workout. This will give a place for some of the glucose to go that you will be consuming.
Lastly, don’t overdo it. This is not the last time you will have carbs in your life, so don’t act like it. Have one piece of dessert, or serving of your favorite casserole, enjoy it, and move on.
After the Cheat
After the cheat, you may feel some symptoms like brain fog, nausea, or bloating. Electrolyte imbalance is the cause of a lot of these symptoms. Although your body will be holding onto water after eating carbs, it is important to rehydrate and consume sodium, potassium, and magnesium.
The best thing to do after consuming excess carbs is some type of physical activity. Take advantage of the glucose that your body will rapidly burn through. Sprinting intervals, heavy weightlifting, or having an intense game of tug of war with your dog are great ways to put the carbs to use.
It is common to have carb cravings after a cheat meal. You may also feel guilty for eating carbs, especially if it was unplanned. Eating a non-keto meal can be a slippery slope, what and when you eat after the meal is arguably the most critical part. Avoid punishing yourself by fasting or similar behavior. You may be hungry sooner than expected due to the drop in blood sugar. When this happens, prepare a delicious keto snack or meal and get right back into the lifestyle.
The longer you continue eating carbs after your cheat, the more difficult it will be to get back to a keto lifestyle. If this is the case, take a step back and ask yourself why you are eating carbs. What is your motivation for being keto? Is it a lifestyle for you, or just a diet? Each meal, be aware of why you are putting that food into your body. Is it to make you feel good at the moment, or to fuel your body well and improve your health in the long-term?
Recovering from a carb-heavy meal is easiest to do if keto is a lifestyle for you and not a diet. With a long-term mindset, occasional “cheats” will not have a significant impact on your overall health. You are not a failure for having carbs.
Bottom line, if you want to cheat, go at it with a plan. Decide before the holiday party if you are going to indulge in the non-keto foods. Consider sticking to a “keto cheat” instead and eat excess fat and protein, but stick to low carb foods.
I would not recommend eating excess carbs within the first six months of keto. It will slow your progress and make the lifestyle less sustainable. Occasionally introducing carbohydrates into your diet will be less stalling to your progress when you have given your body more time to become fat adapted.
The more your body is fat adapted, the less efficiently it will use glucose. As a result, the longer you are keto, the more intense the side effects will likely be when consuming carbs. In my experience, this makes it less enjoyable to have a carb cheat meal. Instead, I prefer to make keto versions of carb-heavy foods.
How to Avoid Temptations
It’s Thanksgiving and you’re surrounded by bread, casseroles, and pies. What do you do? It can be hard to not feel tempted by the high-carb foods, especially when everyone around you is eating them without a second thought. There are several ways to combat these cravings.
Always come prepared! Bring your favorite low-carb dish to share with everyone, and load up with that on your plate. If you’re having a movie night with friends, bring snacks like pork rinds or nuts to eat instead of popcorn. Check out my low carb snack guide for over 40 snacks to eat on keto.
If you know that you’ll be in a situation that might be tempting, eat a snack or small meal beforehand. Avoid being overly hungry, because that will make it more difficult to pass on the carb-heavy foods.
Moving your body is great in any situation, but especially before you are tempted with sugary foods. I know this might sound weird, but I find that having a solid workout improves my mental strength as well when it comes to resisting non-keto foods.
Get some ZZZ's
Do your best to get a good night of sleep before a holiday meal or something similar. Poor sleep can lead to fatigue, which causes excess hunger and cravings. Your body is trying to find more energy, especially in the form of glucose because that can be quickly used up.
It’s hard to stick to something if you don’t see the benefit, especially if you are feeling deprived. Why are you doing keto? For me, it’s the mental clarity, lack of dependence on food, and sustained energy. With these benefits, I see no reason to go back to eating a carb-heavy diet. If you want to stick to keto, identify your motivation. When you are tempted to eat non-keto foods, remind yourself why you started in the first place.
Know Your Motivation
Knowing your motivation also helps you get back on track if you do eat a high carb meal. If you’ve been fat-adapted for several months or years and you want to indulge in grandma’s homemade cinnamon rolls one morning, go for it! If you have a strong motivation to be keto, it will be easy to move on and eat a low carb meal. Be prepared to not feel optimal after eating the carbs, but use that as more motivation!