Going on a weight-loss diet can play havoc with your emotional attachment to food, so it’s common to feel a strong urge to cheat now and then, even though it might kick you out of ketosis.
Carbohydrate restriction and especially ketogenic diets on a budget require you to drastically change your lifestyle.
This change can be difficult and challenging for those used to eating sweets or a lot of processed foods.
Even so, your success on keto is directly related to how well you stick to your diet.
Since keto is specifically designed to get you into the state of ketosis and have you stay there, it’s best to not even think about cheating on keto until after you’re fat adapted.
However, giving in to temptation and eating something that doesn’t normally fit into your weight-loss goals, isn’t the only way to cheat.
Along with planning ahead for the holidays or giving yourself permission to enjoy a little something extra for a special occasion, there’s a well-structured form of cheating that is beneficial for those who have been dieting for a while.
This is because energy restriction and fat loss will affect your body’s hormone condition, which can be reset or boosted by eating a few extra carbs.
Correcting hormonal imbalances can help you break through a stall, eliminate hunger, and get your body back to burning fat at a fast clip.
But the decision of whether to cheat or not isn’t always an easy one to make.
In this ultimate guide to cheat meals on the keto diet, we’ll share why you might want to cheat constructively, what to eat during a planned cheat, and the consequences for doing so.
We’ll also explain how cheating affects ketosis and how quickly you’ll be able to recover if you decide to give a free meal or refeed a try.
What is Cheating on a Diet?
Most weight-loss diets come with specific rules or dietary guidelines that you need to stick to in order to get the results you want.
These rules and guidelines are specifically designed to help you lose body fat; one being the keto food pyramid.
Cheating is any time that you decide to break one of these rules or guidelines and eat something that isn’t allowed on the plan that you’re following.
This is why it’s wise to read the book associated with your low-carb diet of choice, so you have a good understanding of the principles involved.
There isn’t just one ketogenic diet.
There are a variety of keto diets, and each plan comes with a different set of rules, principles, and guidelines you need to follow.
Stray too far away from the rules, principles, and guidelines for your particular keto diet, and you’ll be cheating on that particular diet, but not necessarily on all keto diets.
For example, there are cyclical ketogenic diets (CKD) that use higher carbs days, refeed windows, or strategically placed cheat meals to achieve specific results.
Sometimes, these meals are for mental and emotional gratification, making it easier to stay on plan, and sometimes, these meals are used to help raise the concentration of leptin in the bloodstream.
The Role of Leptin in Hunger and Weight Loss
Leptin is a hormone that is produced by adipose tissue in proportion to the number of fat cells you have.
However, leptin is also a multifunctional hormone, so it is also secreted by the stomach, kidneys, and other organs.
When leptin is secreted into the bloodstream, it crosses over the blood-brain barrier and attaches itself to leptin receptors in the brain.
The presence of leptin in the brain alerts the hypothalamus to the amount of body fat you have, and the brain responds by diminishing your drive to eat.
This reaction makes leptin a satiety hormone.
Any lack of leptin in the brain is interpreted by the hypothalamus to be a lack of body fat, resulting in an increase in hunger and an insatiable drive to eat.
Calorie restriction is one way in which leptin levels in the blood are decreased, which is why a low-calorie diet can make you ravenous.
A reduction in body fat is another.
As you lose body fat, your overall leptin level will go down, and if the level falls below your personal threshold for comfort, your body will begin to struggle to refill your fat stores.
In fact, anytime your body senses starvation, it will defend its fat stores.
In addition to satiety, leptin is also responsible for overseeing insulin secretion to keep blood glucose steady.
It keeps an eye on the gluconeogenesis going on in the liver and oversees fat metabolism.
Of special interest to keto dieters is that studies have shown that leptin is increased most in men by eating a meal of 81 percent carbohydrates, rather than 79 percent fats.
Even fasting doesn’t increase leptin as much as carbs do.
Women tend to have problems with leptin utilization, which makes them more prone to leptin resistance than a lack of leptin.
The leptin is there, but the brain isn’t able to see it, so the brain reacts the same as if leptin was too low.
Dieting, however, is always seen by the body as starvation, so if you have a huge amount of body fat to shed, leptin levels can fall pretty low before you reach goal weight.
You’ll know if that happens because your hunger will dramatically increase and you’ll suddenly be preoccupied with food.
If that happens, you might want to consider adding some strategic keto cheating to your weight-loss program.
Keto Cheating: Why Do It?
If cheating can kick you out of ketosis, then why do it?
In addition to bumping up the production of leptin, there are positive and negative reasons to cheat on keto.
The most dangerous reason is an impulsive reaction to temptation because you find a sugary treat impossible to pass up.
Random cheating can sabotage your ketogenic diet.
Without staying mindful of what you’re eating, and why, you can trigger food sensitivities or suddenly begin to manifest binge behavior.
In fact, even deliberate cheating can cause you to eat off plan for several weeks, long enough to gain back part of what you’ve lost so far.
Other dieters find planned cheats to be essential to their weight-loss strategy.
This type of cheat can work well if you see keto as a long-term commitment.
Being flexible with keto can help you stay on plan and give you practice for the special times when you’ll want to eat a few extra carbs on maintenance.
These are occasional, deliberate cheat meals.
They aren’t a result of inadequate planning.
Although life can throw you a curve ball once in a while that you will need to adapt to, these are meals you do know full well what is going to happen as a result.
You decide to take full responsibility for the consequences.
Strategic cheating is something you implement when your leptin levels fall too low.
This form of keto cheating will be more consistent and regular than an occasional meal that is higher in carbs.
As you get nearer to ideal weight, the satiety you experienced at the beginning of your low-carb diet may begin to disappear.
When and if it does, you’ll need to find a way to increase your leptin, and one of those ways is by incorporating strategic cheating.
The most popular form of strategic cheating is known as a refeed. This is when you eat a higher amount of carbs within a certain time frame.
A refeed isn’t a mindless feast, however.
The more carbs you eat during that feeding window, the less fat you can have.
While bumping up leptin is your main concern, you don’t want to backslide and accidentally store too much body fat.
Benefits of Cheating on Keto
If you’re experiencing what’s known as a leptin crash, your hunger will drastically increase and weight loss will slow down to a crawl.
Having a cheat meal or refeed once a week can help calm down your hunger and get the scales moving again.
Raising leptin will also help you maintain your muscle mass, the closer you get to goal weight.
Other benefits include being able to participate in social gatherings, having that one special dish that a relative only makes for Thanksgiving, or indulge in a rare opportunity while on vacation or traveling.
Cheating can help make a keto lifestyle feel more normal and satisfying, but will also teach you how to have a certain degree of self-discipline and control over what you eat.
It will eliminate the tendency to fall into the trap of being afraid of carbs, and will also work to make the keto diet sustainable and more enjoyable than other weight-loss plans.
What Food to Eat on Keto Cheat Meals
What you eat depends on your reason for cheating.
If you’re having a planned cheat, which you only indulge in once or twice a year, then have whatever it is that you’re craving, even if that’s a thick-crust pizza.
Since the purpose of a single free meal is psychological, keep occasional one-of-a-kind treats in the special category.
Taking the kids to the zoo? Fine.
Buy a burger, toss the bun, and munch on a few fries. Going to a movie for your anniversary?
Share a bag of popcorn with your partner and stick with the diet soda or bottled water.
If your cheats are coming closer together, however, like once a month or even once every other week, you’ll need to be more selective with what you eat on cheat meals to make sure that you don’t ruin your current progress.
Just because you’re calling it a cheat meal, that doesn’t mean that everything you eat at those meals must be high in carbs.
Pick something you’ve been wanting for a while and eat just that, along with your typical low-carb meal.
Have a soft-and-fluffy dinner roll with your meat and salad for dinner or go out to a nice restaurant and have some garlic-cheese bread or 1/2 cup rice with your chicken or fish entree and steamed vegetables.
Why not serve your low-carb chicken Alfredo over a bit of pasta at home or add a few noodles to your chicken-vegetable soup on a cold, and rainy winter day.
Enjoy a baked sweet potato with that nice steak dinner or order the spicy chicken and vegetable combo at your favorite oriental restaurant and skip the rice.
The same goes for refeeds.
Just because you’re having carbs, that doesn’t mean you have to load up on junk food. In fact, if you’re trying to bump up your leptin level, it’s better if you don’t.
Since refeeds are typically a once-a-week event, reach for mostly healthy carbohydrate foods that are low in fat more often:
- brown rice
- fresh summer fruits
- whole-grain bagels
- winter squash
- sweet potatoes
For the best refeed, you want to keep your sugar consumption at a very low level, or skip it all together, and choose nutrient-dense low-fat carby foods that will digest more slowly than highly refined carbs.
Side Effects of Cheating on Keto
The consequence of getting kicked out of ketosis can often be enough to keep you on the straight and narrow.
But if you haven’t tried using this tool before, here’s what you can expect if you have a full-blown cheat meal.
People who cheat can be divided into three groups:
- Those who get sick to some degree after eating carbs and regret doing so;
- Those who can’t stop eating carbs, so carbs trigger binge behavior;
- Those who feel better eating carbs and glad they cheated.
Which group you fall into depends on whether you have any food sensitivities or allergies to what you’re about to eat.
Wheat sensitivities are quite common within the low-carb community, especially among those who have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten intolerance and don’t know it until they cheat.
Common symptoms of food sensitivity, allergies, or gluten intolerance include:
- nasal congestion
- increased hunger and cravings
- stomach aches
- severe cramping
- irritable bowel syndrome episodes
- flu-like symptoms
- nausea and vomiting
- hives and keto rashes
In addition to food sensitivities or binge behaviors, digesting carbohydrate takes special enzymes designed to break them down into glucose during the digestion process.
When you eliminate most carbs from your diet, your body will make fewer enzymes, just enough to digest the amount of carbohydrate you consistently eat.
Upping the number of enzymes you need to digest a huge carbohydrate meal will take a couple of days.
In the meantime, if you go from very low carb to a very high-carb meal, you can have severe digestive problems.
You’re also likely to gain weight.
Even though weight gain on keto will be mostly water and a little bit of glycogen, seeing the number on the scale go up instead of down can be quite frustrating.
Don’t forget that the extra weight is not body fat.
It takes around 3,500 extra calories to gain a pound of body fat. Don’t panic.
Just get your mindset back in the game and feed any increased hunger or cravings with lots of protein and fat until everything returns to normal.
Also, be aware, that if you have blood glucose problems, suddenly increasing your carbs will affect the amount of insulin you have stored (first phase insulin release), so you might see a blood glucose spike after cheating.
This won’t harm you if it’s an occasional spike.
But if you’re consistently cheating, and you have insulin resistance or have been diagnosed with pre-diabetes or diabetes, you’ll need to pick treats that will help your blood glucose stay within a safe range.
Also, consider that depending on how many carbs you eat during your cheat meal and how empty your glycogen stores already are, you might get kicked out of ketosis.
How Cheating Affects Ketosis and Weight Loss
Ketosis is driven by carbohydrate restriction and the state of your glycogen stores.
The fuller your glycogen stores are at the time you cheat, the more likely it is that you’ll get kicked out of ketosis.
But not always.
Your liver can hold about 80 to 100 carbs worth of glycogen, at any one time, so if your liver glycogen is half full — say 40 carbs — and you only have a treat that’s 20 carbs, or less, you won’t get kicked out of ketosis because 40 plus 20 is a total of 60 carbs.
Sixty carbs worth of glycogen is less than what your liver can hold, so none of those extra carbs will be converted to body fat.
However, your ketone testing strips might stop turning pick and your weight loss slow down because you’ll have to burn though those extra 20 carbs before the body will go back to using ketones and fat to fulfill your energy needs.
If you have a carby treat that causes you to go over what both your liver and muscles can hold, about a total of about 300 carbs combined, then those extra carbs might be converted to body fat.
It depends on what your liver decides to do with the extra calories you’re giving it.
Some people oxidize extra calories more easily than others. Your activity level plays a huge factor here.
The more active you are, the more carbohydrates you can eat during a free meal without getting kicked out of ketosis.
How Fast Can You Get Back Into Ketosis After Cheating?
Ketosis is triggered when your liver glycogen reserves fall to about halfway.
When you eat a few extra carbs, the body converts those carbs into glycogen and stores them in your liver and muscles.
Ketosis is temporarily put on hold until all of the sources of potential glucose have been exhausted.
Your glycogen stores have to fall to about halfway again before the body will go back to using a combination of ketones and fatty acids.
However, keep in mind that 20 extra carbs of glycogen only represents about 80 calories worth of energy.
It won’t take the body very long to use those carbs, provided you’re spacing out your cheats.
You can rush the process a bit by cutting way back on carbs, which you might want to do if you had a much larger treat than the above example.
But even if you did, most people will be back in ketosis and easily burning fatty acids for fuel in less than one day after cheating.
This will be much easier for your body to do if you are already fat adapted because your body will be proficient at burning fatty acids and will prefer to do so.
Don’t even think about cheating if you haven’t been doing low carb for at least 3 or 4 months and you’ve adjusted to carbohydrate restriction.
Doing so can interfere with becoming fat adapted.
You need to give your body time to adapt to the state of ketosis and become proficient at burning ketones and all of those fatty acids for fuel.
Once you’re fat adapted and you’ve mentally and emotionally made the transition to a ketogenic lifestyle, you might then consider having a cheat meal to help yourself stay compliant or bump up your leptin levels to keep the pounds effortlessly coming off.
Since keto is a lifestyle change, rather than just a weight-loss diet, cheat meals can be a good tool to help you feel less deprived, and keep your metabolism running smoothly.
But the option must be weighed against what happens physically, mentally, and emotionally when you cheat.
Can you mentally handle the consequences of starting over?
How disturbing will it be to gain a little water weight?
Does cheating trigger hunger and cravings?
Do you binge?
These are all questions that you need to address before you cheat.
If you can handle the side effects and consequences, and you feel that cheat meal is worth the cost of gaining a pound or two, go for it.
Enjoy your meal and then get yourself right back on keto.