In terms of the level of necessary compliance to achieve success, keto is one of the stricter diets out there, there’s no doubt about that.
After all, limiting net carbs to 20-25 g per day can be a rather challenging task, especially in the beginning, and is likely to be much, much lower than what you were used to.
Moreover, you need to keep an eye on your other macros and electrolytes, which makes the learning curve rather steep in the beginning. Rest assured, though, it gets much easier with time.
That’s why cheating is a topic that often comes up, especially given that many diets have some sort of “cheat meals” (or even “cheat days”) integrated into them, to alleviate the discomfort of constantly limiting yourself and counting calories (or avoiding certain foods).
But how strict do you actually need to be while doing keto?
Can you have cheat meals or cheat days?
What would be the consequences?
And what is considered cheating?
Let’s look into the details.
What is Cheating?
Unlike some other diets, cheating is not considered to be a part of keto and is not necessary or encouraged. Cheating on keto essentially means eating above (or way above) your carb limit and getting kicked out of ketosis.
It means that you eat foods that you shouldn’t be eating on keto. Unsure of what to eat on keto? Check this ketogenic food list!
It could be eating a slice of pizza (by the way, if you miss pizza, check out our recipes for fathead pizza – they are 100% keto compliant), eating a burger, having an ice-cream, or sushi, or a cookie, and so on.
Basically, anything that will get you above your carb limit is considered cheating.
Note: Intentionally going above your carb limit is called a “carb up” and is a part of a separate protocol, also known as cyclical ketogenic diet.
For more information on this, check out our article on carb ups.
Keep in mind that carb ups should be done only after you have significant experience with classical keto and that they’re definitely not for everyone.
Where is your carb limit, though?
How Many Carbs Are Too Many?
Truth is, it depends.
It depends on your own metabolism, on whether you are already fat adapted, on how insulin sensitive you are, on how much physical activity you get in a day, and so on.
Eating under 20-25 g net carbs per day is a kind of a safety net, as it will be sufficiently low for everyone to be in ketosis if they stick to this carbs limit and follow their macros.
Although your limit might be slightly higher, we do not recommend experimenting with it too much, and especially not during the adaptation phase.
Getting kicked out of ketosis during that phase will slow down your progress and might bring back the keto flu and stall you.
Once you are past the initial 4-6 weeks of keto, you might want to find out where it lies exactly (by upping your carbs by increments of 5 g daily, for example), however, keep in mind that this is far from necessary and might be rather difficult to determine.
When talking about cheating, it is generally considered that eating above 100 g net carbs on a given day will almost certainly kick you out of ketosis (unless you’re an endurance athlete), and for most people, the amount will be much lower.
This means that if you eat a serving of pasta, or rice, or bread, or a non-keto dessert, or too much fruit or starchy vegetables, or have a few beers, or indulge in any other carby dish, it is definitely cheating.
To find out your daily carb limit, read this article!
What Are The Consequences of Cheating on Keto?
Cheating can have a number of consequences. These are the common issues we have observed from the keto community:
- increased hunger
- carb cravings
- bloating and intestinal discomfort (gas, diarrhea, constipation, etc.)
- increased water retention and sudden gain of water weight (ranging from 1 to 5-6 pounds)
- fatigue and brain fog
- stalling your weight loss progress
- slowing down or reversing fat adaptation (if you’re not fat adapted yet)
- might risk the keto-flu again
The most common of them is increased hunger and carb cravings, along with some stomach discomfort and increased water retention.
They’ll vary for each person and will also depend on the type and amount of carbs that you ate.
The negative effects will usually subside in a day or two if you go back to keto right after cheating.
For some people, it can take up to a week to get rid of the water weight and to reverse their stall.
If you want to minimize the consequences of a cheat meal, you can do sports or go for a brisk walk to help your body burn off some of the glycogen that it has stored as a result of ingesting more carbs.
Beware, though, that the consequences of having a cheat meal during the adaptation phase will be different and more severe than if you cheat afterward.
Cheating before you’re fat adapted will be tougher on your body and mind, because the adaptation phase on its own is not easy, and by cheating, you’re undoing a big part of your progress towards adaptation.
During this adaptation phase, your body is struggling with switching from using mostly carbs for energy, to using mostly fat.
This is already a difficult task on its own, so your best bet is to help your body with it as much as possible, and do not sabotage it. There are also some ways to tell if you’re in ketosis.
Helping your body would mean taking your electrolytes, drinking enough water, accepting the fact that you might need to deal with some fatigue, and, most importantly, being strict with your carb limit.
The adaptation phase takes around 4 to 6 weeks, depending on your own metabolic flexibility and on your previous diet.
It will be different for each individual. Some will get the keto flu and feel very tired for a while, some will have almost no side effects.
Either way, cheating during that phase will slow your adaptation, so we recommend being consistently strict about your carb limit.
If you cheat once you’re already fully fat adapted, the consequences will be more manageable, although you might still feel them for a while.
Generally, if you cheat once you’re fat adapted you’ll be able to go back to keto without any major issues. However, it is still NOT recommended to do it, as it might slow your weight loss progress significantly and leave you feeling tired and hungry.
How Long Does It Take To Get Into Ketosis After Your Cheat Day?
We all know that cheat days are bad for you. What makes keto unique from the rest of other diets is that keto is a very specific way of eating that changes your metabolic state where your body uses ketones for fuel compared to other diets that keep your body using glucose.
This means when you have a cheat day, essentially you will be kicked out of ketosis and you’ll start over again.
It depends on many factors such as age, gender, activity levels, metabolism, how long you’ve been in ketosis, how much carbs and junk foods in the cheat meals, etc…, but usually, it could take anywhere from 2 days to a week to get back into ketosis.
Therefore, if you decide to have a cheat day or cheat days, you need to weigh the risk versus rewards and decide if it’s worth it for you to even consider having cheat days.
Now let’s talk about recovery and how to get back into ketosis after cheat meals.
How Do You Go Back to Keto After Cheating?
There is no real fix to get back into ketosis quickly after cheat days. You just simply start again like you were on day 1.
In short, just get back on track as soon as possible.
If you have had a carby meal, just make sure your next one is keto, and that you continue as usual.
Do not use an accidental slip-up serve as an excuse to gorge on all the carb-heavy foods that you haven’t had while doing keto. Thinking “well, I had a cookie, I might as well get some ice-cream now, and a muffin” is very counterproductive.
Do not let your cheat meal transform into a cheat day or a cheat week. You have cheated? The best thing to do is to just go back to keto.
Do not punish yourself either, or let guilt torture you. Just because you didn’t manage to follow your diet to the letter, doesn’t mean that all your progress is lost and that your efforts were in vain.
Again – thinking “well, I messed up anyway, I might as well have another slice of pizza and go back to keto tomorrow / next week / next month” is what is really detrimental to your success. Not the fact that you made a mistake once.
Can Cheating Be Helpful If My Weight Loss Has Stalled?
Not necessarily. Cheating won’t always restart weight loss, especially if you’re not yet very experienced with keto. It will most likely just make it more difficult for you to stick to your diet.
Keep in mind that weight loss stalls are a normal occurrence when dieting. Our bodies don’t like change and try to resist it.
Water retention, for example, often blunts fat loss and makes it difficult to notice, so you might think that you’re stalling while you’re actually still losing fat.
Stalls are defined by seeing no change in your weight or body measurements for 4 weeks or more.
So if you haven’t seen any changes in the past week or two, don’t automatically assume that you need a cheat day, and don’t use it as an excuse to eat tons of carbs. Instead, try to be patient and trust the process, and also make sure that you’re accurately tracking all the food you’re eating.
Now, carb ups (during which you intentionally eat more carbs than usual) as a part of a cyclical ketogenic diet could be a useful tool in your journey, but in order to do them successfully, you need to be 100% sure that you have the necessary self-control to go back to keto afterwards, and also that you’re already fat-adapted.
Carb ups aren’t an excuse for cheating. Instead, they’re a highly controlled method of eating more carbs in a given day, and are mostly used to improve your workout performance and muscle growth.
The additional carbs you eat for cyclical keto aren’t nearly as much as a cheat meal would imply, but might still provoke cravings and some side effects. So you need to make sure you know how to deal with those.
For that reason, we recommend them only to experienced ketoers, as they could otherwise mess with your progress and do more damage than good.
If you cheat on keto, you will likely experience some negative effects – use that experience to learn from it, and do not let yourself feel like a failure.
It happens to most of us, and feeling defeated and miserable if you cheat will only make keto seem more difficult than it actually is, and will prevent you from going back to it effortlessly.
Keep things simple and accept that mistakes are a part of human nature, and just get back on track as soon as possible. You’ll soon feel much better and your cravings will be gone in no time.
Getting healthier and feeling better is something that is achieved over the long term, so the most important thing to do is just to be consistent about it and not let yourself be discouraged and give everything up if you slip up once. The results will follow.
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