With almost any weight-loss diet, the inevitable question of whether you can have a cheat day comes up. A ketogenic diet makes it more complicated as it eliminates most of the foods that people would find themselves “cheating” with.
Which I guess is a good thing since they are typically calorie-rich, but nutrient-poor food choices that led to the extra weight in the first place.
Which still begs the question…
Can you have a cheat day on keto?
The answer is yes and no. It‘s not such a black and white subject no matter what diet you‘re on, keto or not. In fact, there are certain things at play even more so on a ketogenic diet you should be mindful of.
As with most answers, it usually depends…
Context is everything.
I‘ll preface this by saying I’m not a fan of cheat days on keto.
Let me rephrase that, I’m not a fan of cheat days on any “diet“ so I may be a little biased.
What‘s wrong with a keto cheat day you ask?
Personally, I think having a designated “cheat day” sets you up in the wrong mental space. Every day is inevitably spent looking forward to the infamous “cheat day.” Instead, live in the present and worry about what you should do THAT day to ensure you hit your goals.
Second, it leads down a rabbit hole of re-enforcing bad habits, possibly old ones that led you to gain weight in the first place, and binge cycles.
Can you have a cheat day on the keto diet?
There are certain named diets that allow for a “cheat day,” typically one day per week in which you‘re allowed to eat anything and everything. The thinking being, if you eat well on your diet six out of seven days a week, you‘re still ahead.
At first, this MAY sound like a good idea, but if you‘re like me and have fallen prey to this, then you know the truth.
Let me paint a picture for you.
Steven decides he wants to lose weight and goes on a diet. He sticks to the plan Monday thru Saturday and on Sunday he allows himself to eat whatever he‘s been craving all week.
Each cheat day he eats all the food he‘s been “missing out on,” and ends up eating himself sick and leading him to hating himself afterward. Eventually, he willingly abstains from cheating at all because he realized he didn‘t need it.
Yes, the Steven in the story is me, and yes… this is actually what I used to do.
Talk about insanity right? but I know many other people do this too, and it’s definitely not healthy. Not only is it not healthy physically, but mentally and emotionally it takes a toll.
But maybe you‘re not like me and can exercise a little restraint. For myself, and MANY others, once the floodgates have opened it’s game over.
You can undo a whole week of dieting, possibly even more, in a single day.
This leads me to how I typically like to characterize different individuals, You are an abstainer (like me) or a moderator.
Abstainer Vs. Moderator
The classic abstainer will usually have an all-or-nothing mentality. It’s far easier for these individuals to give something up altogether than to indulge moderately.
Trying to moderate for these individuals becomes an internal struggle of:
When can I?
It requires no self-control if you already know it‘s not a choice, whereas if you can do it sometimes… well that requires ENORMOUS self-control.
It might sound crazy on the surface, but it would surprise you how many individuals fit this mold…
You may be one.
ESPECIALLY since many of them resort to ketogenic diets.
Moderators do better when they avoid absolutes or strict rules. Having these black and white lines makes them feel trapped inside a box (metaphorically speaking).
These are your individuals that can take out a pint of ice cream and have one or two spoons before putting it back in. Those crazy guys and girls that can open a bag of Oreos and take out just one cookie instead of eating the whole sleeve.
3 things I recommend instead of having a cheat day on keto
While I wouldn’t recommend “cheat days” for the majority of people, I suggest some of the following instead:
Free meals (special occasions)
As the name implies, a free meal is a SINGLE meal of whatever you want, NOT an entire day. I would normally opt to save these for special occasions, 1 but you can also use it on your weekly date with the significant other.
Even better if you can keep it keto or save all those “keto-friendly ketofied junk food” treats for your free meal.
I almost guarantee you’ll feel better both physically and mentally by using this versus an all-out cheat day.
Refeed (cyclical ketogenic diet)
For the athletically inclined, a keto carb cycling approach or cyclical ketogenic diet may suit you both physically and mentally. This cyclical approach typically has you alternating between periods of strict keto days and days with a higher amount of carbs “refeed” days to help maximize performance.
Example: 5 – 6 days in ketosis alternated by 1 – 2 of higher carbs
I would reserve this method for those of you who are highly active and also are keto-adapted. 2
Remember, this isn’t a protocol to be used as an excuse to eat everything you want. There is still a strategic component to implementing a cyclical ketogenic diet, but it sure helps with carb cravings.
Diet break (1-2 week break periodically)
This is where I differ from the crowd, but sometimes I think it‘s good to actually take a break from dieting and/or being in ketosis.
Recent research suggests that alternating periods of dieting (calorie restriction) with periods of maintenance (eating enough to maintain weight) has been shown to benefit fat loss both physically and psychologically.
As we diet, our body begins to downregulate certain hormones in an attempt to preserve itself. Taking a diet break allows these hormones to recoup, making subsequent dieting weeks more fruitful.
How often and for how long you should take a break will largely depend on how much fat you have to lose and how long you’ve been dieting. The above is typically how often I would recommend taking diet breaks based on your body fat percentage. 3
For most people looking to lose weight, a cheat day sounds alluring, but the benefits are small if any.
Reasons you SHOULDN’T have a keto cheat day
Can easily sabotage your efforts, 1 step forward 1 step backward.
If keto weight loss is your goal, you might set yourself up to undo all the progress you made throughout the week, even if you were good 6 out of 7 days.
Just remember weight gain and weight loss results from how many calories you do or don‘t eat over time. You can easily eat so much in one day you erase all the progress from the previous 6 days.
Just have a look at the graphic below to get a visual of what might happen
You’ll feel horrible afterward
If you have a carb-heavy cheat meal or day, you might set yourself up to those dreaded feelings you had when first starting a ketogenic diet, AKA the keto flu.
After being on a ketogenic diet for some time, it dampens your ability to process sugar. It’s like when you first started a ketogenic diet, it required your body to get used to burning ketones.
If your cheat day consists of high carb foods, it’ll likely kick you out of ketosis, raise your blood sugar, and possibly lead to sugar cravings.
Does nothing physically
There really is no benefit to a cheat meal or cheat day besides the psychological break it gives you from dieting. You might have heard cheat days kickstart your metabolism or trick your body into burning fat, but there is literally no scientific evidence to support a single meal or day is enough to do anything.
*Don’t get me wrong… a psychological break is needed as much as a physical one.
This is also why I recommend longer breaks above of 1-2 weeks. One day is not long enough to do anything besides give yourself a mental break and maybe enough energy to hit another workout.
Instead, I would suggest strategic refeeds almost like keto carb cycling (cyclical ketogenic diet) or better yet, complete diet breaks where your goal is to simply maintain your weight for a period of time by raising calories back up to a level that is appropriate to maintain your weight.
Bad relationship with food
By having “cheat” days or meals you‘re reinforcing a bad relationship with food. There are no foods inherently good or bad (unless you have an allergy).
And if you feel the need to cheat, maybe it‘s time to rethink whether a ketogenic lifestyle is for you.
The best diet will be the one you‘re satisfied on and can adhere to over the long term.
Pigging out “just because”
Maybe you would have been fine continuing your fat loss journey, but instead of staying on track, you decided to have a cheat day just because it’s Sunday (or whatever day you make it). Again, sometimes it’s best to just go about your routine and save those “cheats” for special occasions instead of reoccurring scheduled days.
So if all of that above wasn’t enough to stop you then keep on reading for why you may want to incorporate them and what to do if you decide to…
Reasons you SHOULD have a keto cheat day
Again, a cheat “meal” can be a good psychological break from dieting.
Let’s face it, dieting is stressful and can take a mental toll. Allowing oneself to mentally clock out for a meal without thinking about it can be liberating and undo some stress.
Therefore, sometimes people drop a pound or two after going off plan, not because of some magical fat-burning that happens after a cheat day… but rather the mental break was enough to stimulate the release of some of the water weight masking weight loss on the scale from being too stressed.
Can “temporarily” increase performance
Sometimes a day with extra calories is enough to give you a little pep in your step for the next training session. Having enough energy to hit the gym hard can go a long way in helping preserve or even gain muscle.Our goal when we lose weight is not to simply lose weight, but maintain our muscle and lose fat.
If you‘re not doing any resistance training, I would highly reconsider.
What to do if you have a cheat day on keto
So you have a free meal, a “cheat meal,” or at worst go off the rail for an entire day what should you do?
Jump back to what you were doing
Nothing. Just move on and continue your diet and training like normal. Don‘t feel the need to starve yourself or add in an “extra” cardio session.
Believe me, I used to do that all the time.
Exercising yourself to death to burn fat and calories is just another form of purging.4
Fast/Intermittent Fast (if jumping back into ketosis is a priority)
I know I said not to starve yourself the next day, but sometimes fasting or intermittent fasting is a good idea if you feel less than optimal. Doing so may allow you to enter back into ketosis and reap the benefits of reduced hunger and mental clarity once again.
How to best incorporate a cheat day on keto
Don‘t make it a day, make it a meal
Don’t have a keto cheat day, instead have a cheat meal, or what I commonly refer to as a “free” meal.
I don’t know about you, but a whole day of reckless eating is asking for trouble. Try to limit yourself to one meal where you let yourself have whatever you want.
Preferably have this meal at dinner so it can’t easily turn into a whole day of bingeing.
Don‘t feel the need to “pre-compensate” cheat days/meals.
What do I mean by pre-compensate? Don‘t starve yourself or run yourself into the ground with exercise (before or after) to offset the meal.
One of the main reasons traditional exercise doesn’t always translate to what we would hope for in terms of weight loss can be explained by this theory of calorie compensation.
Somehow, if we add in exercise or overly restrict ourselves we gain this mindset we can eat more. While this is true, how much more we eat vs how much we ACTUALLY eat are two entirely different things.
This might explain why you would normally never eat a pint of ice cream, but now that it‘s “lower calorie” you might find yourself eating the whole pint… maybe even two.
Before you might have had a scoop and put the ice cream away, but since it’s low calories you justify eating more.
Create a calorie buffer
Going off the previous tip, while I don’t recommend starving yourself or fasting before your free meal, you could potentially make those meals smaller than usual.
If I ever want to create a “buffer” I’ll stick to protein and veggies with minimal carbs or fat throughout the day.
If you usually combine keto and intermittent fasting, then you‘ve already created your “buffer.”
Have a plan / plan ahead
“Those who fail to plan, plan to fail.”
Sometimes the best strategy is to get ahead of it. If you plan to dine out for your free meal, try looking up the menu on their website and choosing what you will eat beforehand.
… and stick to it.
If no website exists, try looking up the menu photos on Yelp.
The way I like to think about a cheat meal is protein first, carbs and fat for taste. Focus on protein, fat, and veggie intake first to maximize satiety and reduce the chance of going of the rails.
This is a great strategy to use at a buffet or even those holiday potlucks where you tend to indulge a bit much.
Limit choices, not amounts
When people are presented with too many choices, like a buffet, they tend to eat more. Not only do more choices lead to eating more, but it also lends itself to less satisfaction overall.
FOMO is real.
Think about it… if you were to limit yourself to prime rib and chocolate cake, you would eat only so much of it before being full and satisfied.
But if I now offer you potatoes and ice cream, you’ll end up eating a lot more than had you stuck to only a couple of items.
Remember, you don’t have to sample EVERYTHING on the menu.
It’ll be there the next time you visit, trust me.
Pick your favorite thing on the menu or the food you‘ve been craving most and stay the course.
Keep them “keto-friendly”
With the myriad of “keto treats” and recipes floating around on Pinterest, you can literally recreate your old favorites and have them as your keto cheat.
Not only will you not feel as guilty, but you‘ll avoid the possibility of re going through the keto flu from knocking yourself out of ketosis.
Try not to have them too frequently
If you‘re going to indulge, definitely try not to do it too often. I usually suggest people save these for special occasions like birthdays, anniversaries, or a vacation.
Having them too often may lead you on a roller coaster of highs and lows.
Even worse is if you let a cheat meal turn into a cheat week.
Final thoughts about if you can you have cheat days on keto
There is no need to beat yourself up or feel bad if you accidentally fall off track because it happens to EVERYONE. It’s when you fall off for one day and that day turns into days or longer where you’ll run into problems.
Progress isn‘t dictated by what you do once in a while, it’s dictated by what you do MOST of the time.
First, ask yourself why you “need” a cheat day. Do you need one because you need a mental break from dieting? Do you feel TOO restricted on a ketogenic diet?While I wouldn’t recommend an entire day, a meal once in a while can definitely provide a nice psychological break.
If having a “cheat meal” once a week or however often is what it takes to keep you adherent (consistent) with your diet, then I’m all for it.
Or perhaps it’s time to take a break from dieting altogether for a period, usually a week or two before continuing your fat loss efforts.
Just don’t be fooled or fool yourself into thinking that having a cheat day is “stoking” your metabolism.