How to Have a Responsible Keto Cheat Day
As a #1 international best-selling author in the Ketogenic Diet space, and co-author with Dr. Josh Axe on the new Keto360 nutrition plan, I get this question a lot. Can you have a keto cheat day once a week? Or once a month? Are cheat days on keto even allowed? We’re going to dive into these questions in this article, but first I want you to know that I can relate to where you are.
Is It Really Possible to Have a Keto Cheat Day?
I remember the first time I followed a ketogenic diet, I felt like I was robbed of joy. I thought to myself, “Only disciplined people that don’t like to have any fun would be the ones eating this regimented. It’s so impractical.”
If you read in ketosis forums and facebook groups you will typically see a lot of posts where people are frustrated or upset. Here are some of the questions they ask and maybe you can relate:
- Are there any strategies to curb sugar cravings?
- Can you eat any keto friendly desserts that actually taste good?
- I’m sick of eating protein, vegetables and fat. Are there guidelines to having a keto cheat day that will either keep me in ketosis, or only mildly take me out?
- Will one cheat day ruin ketosis?
- What can I eat that is fun, without causing weight gain?
What if you could strategically create a keto cheat day in a way that helps you burn more fat? What if cheating on keto wasn’t a bad thing, but it actually helped you optimize energy, promote hormone regulation and improve micronutrient levels in your body? Maybe it wouldn’t really feel like cheating then, right?
For the last 10 years I’ve experimented with the ketogenic lifestyle, going in and out of ketosis, and working with hundreds of clients to do the same. Here’s what I’ve discovered:
- Having a keto cheat day every now and then IS an actual strategy that can improve your results.
- When it comes to keto for women, often times a modified ketogenic diet is best. For female clients on keto, we adjust our strategy a bit and also integrate keto cheat days to maximize their results.
- Customizing keto based on genetic predisposition and lifestyle habits is good way to go. We’ll discuss how to create a keto cheat day that actually helps you burn even more fat and enhance the benefits of the keto diet.
- Your current body physiology and activity level plays a big role in understanding how to customize cheat days on keto in a way that will work for you.
If you don’t understand these important points, then you may find yourself very disappointed, with your weight continuing to fluctuate and an inability to get into the fat burning state of ketosis.
Keto Cheat Days Can Help You Overcome Common Keto Issues
The keto diet is powerful, but it’s not perfect. Many people struggle with common issues and symptoms that are a natural result of becoming keto adapted. Oddly enough, adding in a keto cheat day can actually help combat many of these issues. Here are just a few common deficiencies and challenges that people can run into on the keto diet. These are found in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition:
- Sodium, Potassium, and Magnesium Deficiencies (1)
When you lose weight from going keto, in the first week you lose ½ of your weight in body fat and the other half from sodium and water loss. When you lose sodium you also lose potassium and magnesium.
- Vitamins B7, Vitamin D, Vitamin E, Chromium, Iron, Iodine and Molybdenum (1)
These micronutrients were considered either low or non-existent in low carbohydrate and keto focused diets. These are essential vitamins and nutrients that keep the body functioning at optimal levels.
- Increased Hormone Dysregulation
There are many keto blogs that argue that the ketogenic diet doesn’t cause hormone dysregulation and actually helps with it. While this is true for the majority of people, don’t assume that everyone’s physiology and needs are the same. You will learn in this article how a keto cheat day can actually help balance your hormones, promote weight loss, increase energy and optimize brain function.
When you add in cheat days on keto you can actually improve micronutrient absorption and supply the body with vitamins that are low or non-existent within the body.
There Are Two Ways to Approach Cheating on Keto
Not all keto cheat days are created equal. Before we really dive into the concept of how to create a keto cheat day, we need to really understand the distinction between two types of cheating: clean keto cheating and dirty keto cheating.
- Clean Cheating aka “Ketogenic Cheating”
This type of cheating incorporates clean, whole food sources of carbs and can include starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes or butternut squash. It can also incorporate foods like quinoa, rice and berries or other low sugar fruits. This may help you lose weight faster, increase energy, increase serotonin levels, and for many people will supply their body with nutrients that are often deficient on the keto diet. When you get really strategic with integrating these cheat days it’s called keto carb cycling.
- Dirty Cheating aka “Relapse Cheating”
This is when you go off the rails by adding carbs from processed food sources like potato chips, cookies and baked goods, even salads with loads of sugary dressing. This often triggers addictive behaviors and relapses which will cause you to yo-yo diet and typically gain all the weight back over time and then some.
For the purpose of this article we will focus on why, how and when you can create a clean keto cheat day that helps you overcome the issues associated with low carb living while helping you lose weight.
Understanding Your Keto Persona
Before we get into the strategies and tips for creating the perfect keto cheat day, first you have to determine what “keto persona” you are. This will help to determine guidelines for cheating on keto.
- The Athlete
You may not be active in sports, but you go to the gym regularly and in general live a very active lifestyle. Your hobbies may include outdoorsy activities like hiking, cycling, mountain biking or rock climbing. You generally enjoy movement and exercise and you would consider yourself to be above average in terms of fitness level.
- The Couch Potato
You live more of a sedentary lifestyle. You may work a desk job but in general you find that your days aren’t filled with much physical activity. You may sit for more than 6 hours per day, watch tv quite often and eat a more conventional diet. You may struggle with low energy and fatigue on a regular basis and you probably have weight to lose.
- The Health Nut
You may not be as active as you would like, but you’re really into eating natural and organic foods and you take care of yourself quite a bit. You’re all about keeping stress levels low and you’re aware of your well-being. You probably value a holistic lifestyle approach and you’re always looking to learn more.
- The Addict
You have a sweet tooth – or a salty tooth. In general you have a really hard time staying away from carbs. This can be sugary foods or the starchy, high carb foods that really “hit the spot.” You probably eat these types of foods daily or on a regular basis (multiple times a week). If you were to be honest, you are addicted to carbs and sugar.
- Basic Intermittent Fasting
Eat all of your meals in a day within a 6-8 hour time frame. An example would be 10 am to 6 pm and fasting for 16 hours between.
- Advanced Intermittent Fasting
Eat one regular sized meal or whole food smoothie in the middle of the day OR have 2 small to medium sized meals or whole food smoothies in one day. Do these low calorie Intermittent Fasting days no more then 2-3 times per week and be sure to be taking multi-vitamins and minerals while you’re implementing this. Using this strategy or even fasting the entire day can significantly boost immune system function, improve insulin sensitivity (2), increase weight loss results (3) and skyrocket human growth hormone.
- Consume Exogenous Ketones
By eating and drinking liquids, powders and proteins with exogenous ketones from short chain fatty acids, you can increase ketones in your blood and train your metabolism to transition over faster. Exogenous ketones are most commonly found in keto friendly dietary supplements and protein powders.
You may be a hybrid of one or more of the above, but one thing is for certain, whatever your “keto persona” is will determine the keto cheat day strategy.
The Athlete can often consume higher levels of carbs while still maintaining a state of ketosis. I’ve had Health Participants eat 40-50 grams of net carbs and have an alpha keto buturate level of 2-4 mM. This isn’t always the case, but as a general rule, the more active you are, the more you can have moderate cheat days on keto and still stay in ketosis. During a keto cheat day the athlete can eat higher levels of carbs to replete their body of glycogen stores and reset their hormones and neurotransmitters.
The Couch Potato
Because of a more sedentary lifestyle, the couch potato naturally has higher levels of cortisol and insulin in their body. It typically takes them a longer period of time to get into ketosis. Typically 3-6 weeks versus the 2-3 that the athlete would take to become keto-adapted. Ketogenic cheat meals don’t work well for this individual because even the slightest elevation in insulin can take them on a physiological tail spin back to where they were before. Keto cheat days may help them if they don’t overdo the carbs. Eating 50-100 grams of carbs on their clean cheat day can help them reset their body after at least 6 weeks of clean keto eating.
The Health Nut
The Health Nut is sometimes all over the map. I work with some health nuts that look great from the outside but have insulin resistance on the inside. We will call them “health nut #1”. For instance, many of the vegans I work with often eat a lot of dates and dried fruit. Even though it’s better than processed food, it can still bring the body into a state of insulin resistance. This can create a similar challenge to what the couch potato deals with.
Then there is health nut #2, who consumes a healthy diet of proteins, carbs and fats without any blood sugar problems. Their internal physiology more closely resembles that of the Athlete, and they can follow similar guidelines.
The Addict is someone that shouldn’t be adding in any cheat days on keto until the addictive behavior is broken. You can’t start adding in extra carbs and sugar if your keto persona is more addictive. It can really send you off the rails if you haven’t established new eating habits for a solid amount of time. I’d say at least 6 weeks of clean eating. At that time you can start to experiment with clean keto cheat days.
If you have a dirty cheat day, the likelihood that you will relapse is very high. It’s important to follow the clean cheat day strategies and minimize over stimulating your brain with too much sweetness and sugar. Some may find that it’s better not to even to have a clean cheat day, as even that can cause issues with their eating patterns and addictive tendencies.
Top Tips for Creating a Clean Keto Cheat Day
Before we get into my favorite tips, first it’s important to define what ketosis is. Ketosis is defined as a metabolic state where ketones are raised in the blood and body tissue as a source of fuel for your cells.
People can either be in a healthy state of ketosis or a pathological state of ketosis. The healthy state of ketosis is called nutritional ketosis, where your ketone levels are between 0.4 and 5 mM. The pathological state of ketosis is called ketoacidosis, which is where ketones are formed due to insulin resistance often seen in severe cases of diabetes where your blood ketone levels are 5 mM and above.
For the purpose of this article and the keto diet in general, we are always talking about getting into a healthy state of ketosis. Here’s the top tips for doing that within the framework of cheating on keto.
Give your body the chance to get into ketosis before experimenting with a keto cheat day.
I get asked a lot: “Dr. Jones, how long does it take to enter ketosis?” It takes the average person 2-4 weeks, sometimes up to 6 weeks to get into ketosis/become keto adapted. I hate to break it to you, but if you’re following the standard strategy of consuming 8-12 tablespoons of healthy fat, healthy protein and less than 20-30 grams of net carbs, then it will take your body 2-6 weeks to transition from it’s typical “sugar burner” state where your body gets energy from sugar, to the “fat burner” state – otherwise known as ketosis – where your body gets energy from fat. Tip 2 will give solutions on how to achieve ketosis quickly.
Note that a small percentage of my clients – which I call Health Participants – will follow the ketogenic diet to a T and they are still not be able to get into ketosis. What I’ve found is that adding in a clean keto cheat day here and there actually helps them to become keto adapted much faster.
But I’ll say it again because it bears repeating: It’s very important to give your body a chance to become keto adapted following the basic keto guidelines before you start cheating on keto.
Specific lifestyle strategies can get help you become keto adapted fast. At that point you can experiment with cheating on keto.
Here are some of my favorite lifestyle strategies to speed up the process of keto adaptation:
Follow a clean keto cheat day and don’t go off the rails.
One of my clients named Marcus and his wife Jessica had great success on a popular diet program in the early 2000s called “Body for Life”. They lost a lot of weight on the program because it allows for you to eat clean during the weekdays and then on the weekends you “don’t leave a stone unturned” and can eat whatever you want.
This is a very popular recommended way of eating amongst personal trainers and people in the fitness space. Why? Because it works to a certain degree. Who wants to deprive themselves day in and day out?
The problem with Marcus and Jessica, like many of my Health Participants (my word for clients) that have tried this style of eating, is they gain a lot of the weight back. Many people have engaged in working with us at Elevays because they are so sick of yo yo dieting.
So how can we prevent this same thing from happening when you create a keto cheat day?
Here’s the secret: You can’t fall into the dirty cheat day trap. Dirty cheat days are what caused Marcus and Jessica to fall back into their “old ways.” It’s when you re-engage in eating chemically processed toxic foods that hit your amygdala (the pleasure center of your brain) that problems occur.
These foods are addictive! And they are meant to be that way so that we eat more and buy more. The problem is that these processed types of food also make it super easy to become desensitized to the taste of healthy, ketogenic food, making the keto diet undesirable and very hard to stick with after you’ve “cheated.”
A dirty keto cheat day also rips you out of ketosis making it very difficult to become keto adapted again. Some people are also genetically programmed to relapse much harder than others.
The other thing is, that you can’t overindulge on a keto cheat day. The goal is not to stuff yourself with as many carbs as you can find (whether they are clean carbs or not). You’re adding in healthy, whole food sources of carbs (in a reasonable amount) to support your results on the keto diet. So be sure that you don’t go off the rails.
Save your cheat days for when your activity level is higher.
If you want to have a keto cheat day, do it on a day where you are going to be more active if you can. When you’re going to the gym or incorporating some form of exercise at a moderate to high level (whatever that looks like for you) that’s the best day. This is ideal but not 100% necessary. When you save your keto cheat day for a more active day, it can decrease the impact of the carbs and may make it easier to get into ketosis after the fact.
Use keto supplements to help your body get back into ketosis.
Exogenous ketones found in supplements and protein powders can also be a huge help when you are bouncing back after a clean keto cheat day.
In summary, a clean keto cheat day, done the right way can help you burn more fat by resetting fat burning hormones in your body such as leptin. It can also help you get into ketosis faster if you’re having a hard time becoming keto adapted.
If you’re already in ketosis, having a keto cheat day can help you reset neurotransmitters, hormones and glycogen stores to speed up the fat burning process.
More Benefits of a Keto Cheat Day
We’ve touched on some of the benefits of adding in cheat days on keto, but we’ll get into more of the specifics here:
- Adding in healthy carbs found in fruit, rice, potatoes and berries will trigger your adipose cells to increase leptin levels (your fat burning hormone) which will continue to dissolve fat in unwanted areas.
- A healthy amount of carbs can increase insulin which helps optimize muscle tissue health and muscle building capabilities. Carbs also increase cell signaling related to muscle growth post workout.
- Eating healthy carbohydrates also boosts serotonin levels which can promote a healthy emotional state.
- Cheating on keto can also increase melatonin for a deeper sleep at night.
- Researchers at the University of North Carolina found that a keto cheat day can also help to reduce cortisol levels.
- Clean keto cheat days also replenish glycogen stores in your muscles so that you can train harder throughout the week when you’re on the keto diet.
- Adding in cheat days on keto gives you the opportunity to consume foods that are high in micronutrients that become depleted on a ketogenic diet. This can improve your overall health and wellbeing in the long run.
The Anatomy of a Clean Keto Cheat Day
So what does a clean cheat day look like? Ideally, it will include foods that resupply the body with nutrients that are often deficient on the keto diet. Ex: Fruit is a great source of potassium. Here are just some examples of foods to add in on your clean keto cheat days:
- Fruit smoothies
- Non-gluten grains such as rice or quinoa (if you are dealing with gut problems, stay away).
- Desserts in moderation made with honey, cane sugar, maple syrup (think ½ a cup of dessert)
Notice there is no mention of processed foods, restaurant style food and takeout. So your keto cheat days will not include trips to Pizza Hut or Krispy Kreme. We’re talking about including carbs from whole food sources that can enhance your results on the keto diet.
The athlete and Health Nut #2 can consume all the of above (except the processed junk I mentioned) without much consideration. As long as they are foods on the “clean list”. Often times these two keto personas can dip into a little bit of the “dirty cheat meals” on their keto cheat days and still be fine… although this is definitely not recommended.
The Couch Potato, Health Nut #1 and The Addict can do all of the above, except anything that is extremely sweet. So if you are going to have dessert, eat a fruit salad or dessert made from stevia and monk fruit versus sugar. Why? Because of the genetic predispositions you may have along with the fact your body is still going through the healing process. As a general rule, consuming 50-100 grams of net carbs would be ideal for the above 3 keto personas.
Will One Cheat Day Ruin Ketosis?
Yes – for a short time, but it also depends on what keto persona you are. If you are the Couch Potato, The Addict or the Health Nut #1, if you go off the rails (even with a clean cheat meal) you can trigger insulin resistance and addiction pathways that will take you into a tailspin. It can take weeks before you get back into ketosis.
If you don’t go overboard then you can get back into ketosis in 1-3 days, especially if you use my keto cheat recovery tips below. If you are Health Nut #2 or the Athlete, typically you can get back into ketosis the next day or the day after.
Keto Cheat Day Recovery Tips
- The day after a keto cheat day consume less than 10 grams of net carbs to encourage your body to get back into ketosis.
- Do HITT (High Intensity Interval Training) and/or a leg workout on the day after a keto cheat day (or any physical activity that pushes your body hard).
- Experiment with either basic or advanced intermittent fasting post ketogenic cheat days.
I hope that all of these tips give you some great insight (and hope!) that the ketogenic diet can work for you. If you’ve been eating strict keto for 6 or more weeks and you’re now keto adapted (but bored of the diet), you can experiment with keto cheat days to stick with the nutrition plan and add some variety. If you’ve been eating strict keto for 6 or more weeks and you’re still having trouble getting into ketosis, you may want to try experimenting with keto cheat days as well. Just use the above tips and guidelines as a rule of thumb and always listen to your body!
Now that you understand the best tips for creating the perfect keto cheat day, what are your thoughts? Have you experimented cheat days on keto? If so, how did it go for you? Do you feel that it helped you on your journey or did it just set you back? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!
- Prevalence of micronutrient deficiency in popular diet plans. Journal of International Society Sports Nutrition. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2905334/
- Fasting for three days can regenerate the entire immune system, study finds. The Telegraph. https://nutritionandmetabolism.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1743-7075-2-31
- Carbohydrate restriction improves the features of metabolic syndrome. BMC. https://nutritionandmetabolism.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1743-7075-2-31
- Sodium, Potassium, and Magnesium Deficiencies (1)
Great article, found it because I thought I screwed up. I had a hot chocolate instead of my normal decaf with cream one night (don’t ask, total brain lapse in the drive thru), realized the carbs when I get the sugar rush, looked it up and found I had just consumed 101 grams of carbs. Basically said screw it, knew it would be 3 days to get back into keto, ate. Poutine and 2 daves originals at Wendy’s, and tested the next morning for the heck of it. No idea how but I was still in ketosis. I eat 5 grams of carbs a day or less, had been in stable ketosis for months. Only thing I can think is the carbs went straight into the muscles as backloading. Was really odd. Anyways, very useful info even though I love keto and don’t intend to have cheat days 🙂
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Since when are berries classed as a keto cheat? They are low as # in carbs. 50 Blueberries has ten grams of carbs – 50 of them!! How many berries are you going to eat?!