If you’re on the keto diet, you might be wondering if you get a pass here and there to enjoy your favorite carb-y foods. I mean, cake, candy and boozy cocktails are hard to pass up—especially in the fall and winter.
Is it possible to take an occasional cheat day on your keto diet to splurge on some high-carb foods? Will one cheat day knock you out of ketosis and wreck all your progress?
Here’s what you need to know if you’re on the keto diet, but are looking to take a few hours off.
Will a cheat day throw me out of ketosis?
There’s no getting around this one: Yes, you will fall out of fat burning mode.
Here’s a little refresher on ketosis, which is when your body burns fat for energy instead of carbohydrates—its preferred source.
Usually, our bodies run on glucose in the form of foods like flour, grains, vegetables, and fruit. But dramatically reducing your carb intake forces your body to burn stored fat, instead. Your liver uses fat to make acids called ketones. These are released into your bloodstream and are used for energy.
“As soon as you introduce carbohydrates to your system, the body will use them preferentially for fuel,” says Ginger Hultin, MS, RDN, CSO, Seattle-based dietitian and Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
It’ll stay that way until you begin your keto regimen again.
“You’ll have to return to the ketogenic diet the next day and stay committed to the macronutrient ratios in order to get back into ketosis,” she explains. That means you really can’t forego your keto diet for a temporary binge—unless you want to start all over again when you’re done.
What’s more, it doesn’t matter if you eat half a piece of pie or just take a few bites. “It’s anything that pushes you over your net carbs,” she says. “Even one bite could do it, depending on what it was. Juice, soda, candy will meet that limit in small amounts.”
How long does it take to get back into ketosis?
The amount of time it takes to get back into that coveted fat-burning zone will vary based on the person, but it generally takes one to three days. “Getting back in is likely different for each person, and it depends on the level of carb restriction you choose to do,” Hultin says.
If you’re used to restricting to a maximum—and then suddenly introduce carbs—it could take longer to get back into ketosis. Likewise, if you eat a ton of carbs on a cheat day—rather than just a few extra grams—it may also take a little extra time.
“The body stores blood sugar as energy in the blood, liver and muscles,” she explains. “The more you have stored, the longer it will take the body to burn through it and get back into ketosis.”
And don’t forget, everyone’s metabolism is a little different, so there’s variation in when and how each person gets into in ketosis.
You may go through the keto flu again.
“When you go back to a ketogenic diet after being off it for a day or a period of time, you can easily get back to the diet the next day—but it will take a couple days to get the body back into the state of ketosis,” Hultin says.
You may experience “keto flu” symptoms again, depending on your metabolism and what kind of keto break you took. You might also have headaches, nausea, fatigue, stomach pain and body aches, brain fog, and mood swings. These should go away quickly as long as you don’t bump yourself out of ketosis.
Ugh—perhaps that cheating spree isn’t worth it after all.
So should you cheat?
It depends on various factors, including whether your keto diet is doctor-mandated.
“Many people are using the ketogenic diet for a medical treatment, and so they need to be on it all the time with no breaks,” Hultin explains.” Doctors and dietitians can guide each individual on if it’s safe or not to take breaks.”
Many dietitians advise against “cheat meals” as they imply that foods are good or bad. In turn, this can lead to guilt and an unhealthy relationship with food. Instead, Chris Mohr, PhD, R.D., says you should think of “cheat meals” as conscience indulgences
In any case, it’s important to determine whether a specific diet fits your lifestyle. And you’ll want to move forward without guilt after you veer of the planned diet.
“Some people do well with taking breaks from a restrictive diet, while others have a hard time getting back into it,” Hultin says. “If you are finding yourself needing to take breaks or having trouble getting back into it, I’d raise the question, as a dietitian: Is this the right diet for you? Is it too restrictive?”
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