In the world of diets and nutrition, we often hear of a ‘cheat day’ or ‘cheat meal’ to allow a certain amount of dietary flexibility and indulge in whatever food or drink takes your fancy occasionally.
Indeed it could be argued that including an occasional cheat helps to promote dietary adherence, so those following relatively strict regimes do not feel deprived, in turn helping to reduce the risk of binge eating.
So, can you have a cheat when you’re on keto without undoing all of your hard work?
You can, but perhaps a better way to think of your cheat is as a meal– not an entire day.
On any diet, there is no issue with enjoying an occasional extra. A few glasses of wine, a couple of chocolate biscuits or a large restaurant meal will not cause any long term damage, and provided you get back on track with your regular calorie controlled eating plan, it is literally impossible to gain anything other than water weight in the short term.
The difference between regular eating and keto diets is that in order for keto to be maintained, carbohydrate intake needs to be kept relatively low to 50g of total carbs or less. If you then enjoy a cheat meat, or an entire cheat day, the chance your carbohydrate intake will be kept this low is slim.
As such, you will shift away from burning ketones as your primary fuel and again be burning glucose.
If your cheat is significant, or an entire day of high carbohydrate eating – think pizza, alcohol, desserts – you will also replenish a component of the glucose stores in the liver and the muscles. This in turn means that when you are keen to return to your keto plan, it will take at least a day or two to work through the extra carbs you have stored and get into ketosis again, which is generally not such a pleasurable transition. You are likely to crave the carbs and experience a nasty headache as your body shifts its metabolism to burning ketones and feel pretty tired and lethargic.
While such, a cheat may not cause fat gain specifically, but you are also likely to see an increase on the scales thanks to the water weight of the extra carbs. This water weight will generally take another few days to shift as the body re-stabilises after shifting in and out of ketosis.
As a general rule of thumb, an entire cheat day is a recipe for disaster for any diet. You can eat a lot of calories in a day, which is unlikely to benefit any diet you are trying to follow.
On the other hand, a single cheat meal may help to control your intake overall and if you are focused on your carb intake, you may even be able to keep in ketosis.
Which takes us to a sneaky way to have a cheat on a keto diet…
Ketosis is dependent on a low intake of carbs. This means if you shift your perception of a cheat to a low carb burger and vegetable chips as opposed to a high carb burger and fries, or a chicken curry minus the rice (high fat meals minus the carbs), you may still be able to have your cheat and maintain ketosis.
You will have to be fussy with your food choices and be strict to avoid the fries and pasta and milk chocolate and cakes made with white flour but it is not impossible. It is all about how important your diet is to you, or how much you really want your cheat. Most importantly, remember it is a single cheat meal, not an entire cheat day.
Susie Burrell is a nutritionist. Continue the conversation on Twitter @SusieBDiet.