The keto diet is a high-fat, low-carb diet that emphasizes weight loss by burning fat. But if you stray from the regimen and indulge in a cheat day, how would it affect your weight-loss regimen?
The theory behind the keto diet is that you can shed pounds by slashing the carbs you eat and filling up on fats instead to get your body into ketosis.
Ketosis is a state your body goes into when it uses fat to create molecules called ketones.
“This happens when there is not much sugar around for your body to use as energy,” says Lisa Jones, a registered dietitian based in Philadelphia. “If you eat less than 50 grams of carbs per day, your body will use up its glycogen stores for energy. Ketones are a type of energy that the body can use when there aren’t enough carbohydrates available.”
In ketosis, your body relies primarily on fat instead of sugar for energy. How long it takes to reach this state varies per individual. The keto diet calls for limiting yourself to 20 to 50 grams of carbs per day. Under that regimen, you may achieve the state of ketosis in two to four days.
[Read: Low-Carb Diets vs. Keto Diet: What’s the Difference?]
What Is the Keto Diet?
The keto diet originated as a strict, medically supervised regimen to help reduce seizures in patients — particularly children — with epilepsy.
Over time, the keto diet became a popular regimen among those who wanted to lose weight quickly. In fact, the keto diet is ranked No. 1 of 24 diets in the 2023 U.S. News Best Fast Weight-Loss Diets rankings.
People on the keto diet follow an eating regimen that is based on very low carbohydrates, high fat and moderate protein, specifically:
— 60% of your daily calories from fat.
— 30% to 35% of your calories from protein.
— 5% to 10% of your calories in the form of carbohydrates.
If you follow a keto diet, a single food item may account for your daily allotment of carbs. For example, a medium bagel contains about 50 grams of carbs, so it’s best to avoid those food items on this diet.
Proponents of the keto diet say it’s an effective and healthy way to lose weight. But many health experts don’t recommend the keto diet for long-term weight maintenance and management because it is highly restrictive and unsustainable.
Some research suggests that for long-term weight loss, the keto diet is no better than other, more conventional eating regimens. For example, a 2021 study, published in Frontiers in Nutrition, found that the ketogenic diet may reduce body weight, but it was not more effective than other dietary approaches over a long period of time. Furthermore, researchers note that ketogenic diets have been linked to an increased risk of chronic kidney disease, cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease due the decreased intake of “protective foods” such as vegetables, fruits, legumes and whole grains.
As a result, the keto regimen is ranked No. 21 in the 2023 U.S. News Best Weight-Loss Diets and No. 20 in the Best Diets Overall.
[See: Favorite Keto Recipes From America’s Test Kitchen.]
Why Have a Cheat Day on Keto?
On most diets, many people look forward to a cheat day to loosen the restrictions and enjoy some of their favorite meals. For the keto diet, its highly restrictive nature of only eating a specific ratio of protein, fats and carbs day in and day out can be tough to follow — making the idea of a cheat day all the more alluring.
“On a keto diet, which essentially eliminates sugar and carbs, cravings for sweets, bread and pasta are definitely the toughest to tame, which is why keto dieters may look forward to a cheat day to indulge in a huge category of comfort foods that they’ve eliminated,” says Lolita Carrico, a certified nutritionist based in Los Angeles and founder of the keto-based lifestyle website Ketology.
A cheat day can be a welcomed break from the diet, but it’s not without its drawbacks, specifically interfering with your state of ketosis.
What Disrupts Ketosis?
Choosing a day to indulge in foods that are prohibited under a strict keto regimen would mean indulging in items such as:
— Any food that puts your carb intake above 50 grams for the day.
— Baked goods.
— Fruit (aside from berries).
— Starchy vegetables.
— Sugar-sweetened beverages.
— Sugar-sweetened yogurt.
— Sugar, honey, maple syrup or other sweeteners.
“Something as minimal as a banana with 30 grams of carbs, plus two slices of toast with 15 grams of carbs per slice, could qualify as cheating the keto diet,” says Kaylee Jacks, a registered dietitian with Texas Health Sports Medicine in Dallas. “This would put the person out of ketosis.”
Other experts agree that indulging in cheat days on the keto diet could derail your attempt to drop pounds.
“I find that when patients cheat and get out of ketosis, it can be harder to get back into ketosis,” says Kate Patton, a registered dietitian with Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Human Nutrition.
There’s no hard and fast rule regarding how long it will take to reestablish a state of ketosis. The amount of time will be different for each individual. However, research published in the journal PeerJ in 2018 suggests it could take two to 10 days to reach ketosis.
[SEE: Keto Diet Meal Delivery Services.]
Best Foods to Eat on the Keto Diet
On the other hand, here are foods you can eat on the keto diet:
— Animal fats.
— Avocado butter.
— Coconut oil.
— Cottage cheese.
— Cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, kale).
— Dark chocolate.
— Nuts and nut butters.
— Plain Greek yogurt.
— Red meat.
— Seeds and seed butters.
While not all people will be able to sustain a highly restrictive diet like keto, individuals who are on such a regimen and are seeing weight-loss results are less likely to want a cheat day if they are enjoying the foods they are eating, Patton says. And if you are on the keto diet, there are plenty of tasty alternatives to the types of high-carb treats people might want to consume on a cheat day.
“For patients who love bread, there are keto breads and wraps,” Patton says. “If pizza is your favorite, try cauliflower crust, use a portobello mushroom or low-carb tortilla.”
She recommends chocolate-flavored protein shakes or protein bars to help satisfy a sweet tooth. If salty, crunchy snacks are your jam, reach for nuts, seeds, pickles or dried cheese snacks.
How to Enjoy a Cheat Meal on the Keto Diet
A full cheat day of consuming sugar, bread and pasta will take your body out of ketosis, which may take days to recover from. That’s why Carrico suggests a cheat meal every now and then instead. You’ll likely consume a lower number of carbs than you would on a full cheat day. Plus, in many cases, a single cheat meal won’t take you out of a state of ketosis.
“It won’t have as much of a negative impact,” Carrico says. “For example, if you want pancakes for breakfast with syrup, enjoy it, but focus on keeping the other meals in the day low-carb and higher in protein and fats.”
Keto dieters should keep in mind that following the eating regimen is part of a lifestyle change. Rather than having a cheat day, Jones suggests making keto-friendly pizza, desserts and other comfort foods to satisfy the craving without impeding your diet.
“Another alternative is the cyclical ketogenic diet, which is a way of eating where you only eat keto for five days within a seven-day period,” Jones says. “Many people choose to eat a keto diet during the weekdays and then have a high-carb meal on the weekends.”
Following a cyclical ketogenic diet may be more manageable for some people than the classic keto diet.
Ultimately, the reality is that highly restrictive diets for many people may be successful in the short term but are difficult to sustain in the long run, many registered dietitians say. It’s important to take a moderate approach when it comes to healthy eating to avoid going overboard or becoming frustrated due to feeling overly restricted.
“Not only will this help individuals from feeling overwhelmed, it can also help them make sustainable lifestyle changes that lead to better overall health outcomes,” Jones says. “Taking the time to identify which healthy eating habits work for you — such as portion control, adding more vegetables and fiber-rich fruits and cutting back on processed foods — can help you find a balanced diet that will work for the long run.”
If you’re struggling with a highly restrictive diet, Jones suggests seeking guidance from a registered dietitian.
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The Benefits and Risks of Cheat Days on the Keto Diet originally appeared on usnews.com
Update 02/03/23: This story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.