Sometimes people cheat. Whether you’re unplugging your boyfriend’s controller at Mario Kart or writing your test answers on your water bottle, it happens. Even though anyone following the keto diet knows that it’s healthy for reasons beyond weight loss, sometimes you fall off the wagon.
That’s perfectly fine – a diet that is 80% keto and 20% not is still better than the standard American diet and will result in benefits to health. The very act of having a planned “cheat day” can lead to better overall quality of diet adherence. Mindfulness is a huge part of living effectively, and eating habits are not immune to these benefits.
Keto is far more restrive than most ways of eating, however. Even strictly following calories-in, calories-out allows you to eat whatever you want in smaller portions. The question of cheating specific to keto is therefore a different animal, both physically and psychologically. New research however shows that you either need to plan your “cheats” very carefully or avoid them entirely. Let’s look at why.
Cheating on keto
Keto is a beautiful partner when you really break it down. Simple, uncomplicated, sleek and efficient, keto does everything you want, in a reasonably predictable manner – as long as you’re faithful. Maintaining the sacred macro triangle of 60-75% fat, 15-30% protein, and 5-10% carbs will have you burning fat and improving your overall health quickly and easily. For most people, this will result in about 25-50 grams of carbohydrate or less per day for optimal weight loss and disease-reduction risk.
Looking at just a few of the verifiable benefits of cutting carbs, we can see that it’s more than a fad weight loss tool:
- Appetite suppression, which makes keeping your calories low easier (and therefore makes weight loss easier)
- Improvement of blood lipids (increase in HDL, with a slight increase in LDL but larger particle LDL) This specific article is dependent on ingestion of eggs but the information can be extrapolated to the natural fats ingested on ketosis are not only NOT harmful, but beneficial, contrary to scare-mongering media and “traditional dietary wisdom”. Paired with this study that shows that the decrease in common fatty acids found in the SAD when eating keto also had beneficial effects on blood lipid panels.
- Improvement of depression and potential for the reversal of type-2 diabetes.
- Wide variety of benefits on neurological disorders, including epilepsy, Parkinsons, and most notably right now, Alzheimers.
- Of course weight loss, which can reduce or eliminate fatty liver disease and the firestorm of metabolic syndrome that will lead to diabetes, certain types of cancers, heart disease and stroke.
It’s a combination of the therapeutic effects of ketones but also the overall reduction of carbs which leads to a reduction of circulating insulin that provides these beneficial effects. We’ve been duped that grains are healthy and fats are bad, and the chickens are coming home to roost.
There is the cyclical ketogenic diet, though, a very simplified version being that you eat strictly keto during the week and then allow yourself 200ish carbs on the weekend to replenish your glycogen stores. This should be done in a way to avoid mixing fat and carbs in the same meals, and definitely not all at once. Though this model of keto should be more strict, if you’re weight lifting and exercising you can reasonably use it as a day to have relaxed eating habits.
Then there’s just the wholesale “cheat days” where you eat whatever you want and have a bad time, regret it, and go to forums to ask “how to get back on the wagon”. These all pose problems, but there is a scientifically verifiable concern we need to be aware of, and that’s the crux of this article.
The danger of cheating on keto
Not unlike a jealous lover or possibly a werewolf, keto will go right for your heart if you cheat on it. In this study, 9 healthy males around 23 years old were put on a low carb, high fat diet for 1 week. Then they were given a high glucose drink and tested for inflammatory markers as well as blood flow in the main arteries. The results showed that, although a spike in blood glucose is bad for everyone’s arteries, the results were worse for this group. This means that spiking blood glucose while on keto – or coming off of it – can do some pretty intense endothelial damage.
Though this is a short, isolated study, and the effects of spiking glucose on a person who has been in ketosis for a long time haven’t been studied, the results are frightening. We’re not talking that these kids gained a bit of weight back but rather that they damaged the lining of their veins and arteries. It’s not as if endothelial cells can regenerate – they absolutely can – but if we are constantly spiking our blood sugar, they never get a chance.
There’s also the potential for binge-eating behavior when restrictive eating is eased up. If you’re already predisposed to a binge-eating reaction to stress, then coming off of keto can trigger that response and lead to falling off the wagon completely. I know this personally because, well, I am predisposed to binge-eating and I have fallen off the wagon multiple times in the 8+ years I’ve been doing keto.
Can you cheat safely?
The first thing I would recommend is mindful eating. This is the same rhetoric you see all the time for dieting – eat slowly, eat off blue plates, don’t starve yourself, chew your food 777 times, blah blah. When I suggest mindful eating, it means think about what you’re preparing and how you’ll feel eating and after eating it. Make a meal plan and stick to it. Consider the long-term effects of the food you eat versus the short term dopamine hit. Really analyze how and why you eat what you do and yeah, slow down a bit.
If you do have cheat meals, plan them out. If your upper limit of carbs for the day is 50g, then assume that burger and fries will be your allotment and leave it at that. Or, if you’re a weight lifter like I am, use it as a way to replenish glycogen in your muscles and liver. Again, avoid eating a double-scoop sundae or getting all your carbs in one meal and it will be far less deleterious than eating a whole pizza at once. Also, if you can help it, avoid fats and carbs in the same meal as carbs spike insulin which turns off fat burning, which means the energy-dense fat you eat will be almost certainly stored rather than used for energy.
Finally, if you’re using keto as therapy for diabetes, just skip the cheat days. Keto is healthy and we all know processed food strictly isn’t, so living with that knowledge and still going back to the fast food well is just, well, stupid. We all do it, but we should know better. Cyclical keto is fine for someone who works out aggressively and will use the carbs or store them, but if you’re an office worker who has cardiovascular risks and diabetes, understand that cheat days are far worse for you than anyone else, especially if keto is part of your treatment plan.
Turns out cheating is pretty much always bad
You don’t need to be told cheating is bad, but now there’s hard science to tell us that it’s bad and how bad it can be. To be honest, reading this study really put some perspective on my own dietary habits and actually caused a fear response. Arterial damage and stiffening in response to glucose was a thing I was aware of, but knowing just how bad it can be really drives the point home. Just take a breath, keep calm and keto on, and you’ll find yourself not even wanting cheat days – the weight loss, improved health, great physique and compliments you receive from friends, family, and your doctor will be all the cheating you need.
And if you do cheat, do it intelligently, don’t flood your blood with glucose, and understand the risks.
You dirty cheater, you (and me).
Do you plan cheat days or do you strictly avoid them? I’d love to hear your strategies for dealing with cravings in the comments!