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Cheat Days on Keto: Pros and Cons
Cheat days on keto deserve a reframe and a rename.
Cheating means deceiving. But if you’re truly and consistently practicing a high-fat low-carb keto diet, and you take a break for a day to indulge in a piece of celebratory birthday cake or some french fries fried in tallow, then the next day you get right back on the low-carb wagon, is that really cheating?
Or is it ‘treating’?
In this article, we’ll explore the ins and outs of cheat (treat) days on keto. How they can be beneficial if done well, or detrimental if done without much consideration.
Table of Contents
Are you Cheating or Treating on Keto?
How people interpret cheat days on keto can range from enjoying healthy homemade whole food ice cream to binging on McDonald’s washed down with a Big Gulp.
In addition to the kinds of foods you chose, your motivations for consuming non-keto foods also play into whether you are cheating, i.e. betraying your health goals, or simply enjoying a moderate quantity of foods with more carbs than usual.
Enjoyment or Addiction?
When you’re treating, you’re adding satisfaction to your diet in a way that doesn’t harm your body or derail your goals.
When you’re cheating, you’re sacrificing your goals for something that in the moment, feels like it brings more satisfaction than sticking with your keto eating goals.
True cheat foods are ultra-processed, artificial, and contain toxic seed oils, and you know you’ll feel awful from eating them. Consuming cheat foods is often motivated by emotional eating and carb addiction.
So the difference between cheating and treating includes:
- The high-carb foods you chose to eat: Fresh homemade pasta vs. ultra-processed fast food loaded with toxic vegetable (seed) oils and preservatives. Homemade ice cream vs. a slurpy.
- The motivations for consuming high-carb foods: Partaking in a family or cultural celebration by eating a piece of cake or serving traditional food vs. relieving stress by mindlessly snacking on nutterbutters while watching the news.
- How you feel afterward: Physically well and emotionally content vs. physically sick and ashamed or guilty.
The Difference Between a Healthy Treat and a Harmful Cheat is Your Mental and Physical State
The key here is to realize that so-called cheat days on keto can look and feel very different depending on your mental and physical state.
Some people, especially hard-training athletes, find it easy to cycle on and off keto.
While some people go keto to treat serious and life-threatening diseases. For these people, it is best not to cheat or treat until the ailment is resolved.
Others come to keto simply to optimize already robust health–so temporarily dipping out of ketosis doesn’t impact their health in any significant way.
Some people do not have addictions to food and find it easy to get back on the low-carb, high-fat wagon if they veer off for a day. While many others with carb addictions use food as a drug to sooth or numb stress, anxiety, and emotional pain and find it difficult to break the addictive cycle once it’s reactivated.
Pros and Cons of Treat and Cheat Days on Keto
Here we’ll break down the pros and cons of treating and cheating on keto to help you determine if and when to veer from your low-carb routine.
Pro: You Won’t Feel Like You’re Missing out with Family and Community
Are truly practicing a keto or carnivore lifestyle? Then allowing yourself some flexibility to partake in a celebratory treat with friends and family can reduce the stress of feeling like you’re missing out all the time.
As with any addictive substance, be honest about your relationship to sugary foods. Notice when and if having a treat stimulates cravings for more and makes it difficult or impossible to stick with your high-fat low-carb lifestyle.
Pro: You’re May Be More Likely to Stick with the Program Long-term
Allowing occasional treating and even cheating can eliminate feelings of failure, guilt, and shame when and if you do eat non-keto foods.
It’s a bit oxymoronic, but if you plan for spontaneous treats/cheats then you haven’t done anything wrong when you get there. This short circuiting of the “did something wrong” fuse is important because we know that feelings of shame and wrongdoing are prime drivers in the cycle of addiction. 4
There is even controlled research backing this up.
In this paper from 2015 researchers looked at three studies that supported the view “planned hedonic deviations” i.e. cheat, supported sticking regimens and achiving success across a variety of goals. (2).
Con: Reactivates Sugar Addiction
Sugar and carbs stimulate the same “happy” chemicals that make us feel good when we’re spending time with friends and people we love. 
A 2013 study by Harvard researcher David Ludwig, found that even when people don’t know what they’re eating, people who consumed high-GI carbs experienced a greater activation of opiate and dopamine receptors in the craving and reward center of the brain. 
Research also shows that repeatedly stimulating the reward center of your brain with high-GI carbs can reset your body fat levels. When your fat levels are set, your body will attempto to preserve your accumulated fat by secreting hunger hormones and slowing down your metabolism.  
Con: Mood Swings
High-carb meals like the kind that constitutes a cheat and even a treat on keto can cause mood swings.
One study made rats fast after consuming sugar. Cutting off the sugar source–which is what happens when you get back on the keto wagon post-cheat, reduced dopamine and increased anxious behavior. 
If you are anxious and sad after your cheat day on keto, you can be even more prone to crave sweets.
In one remarkable study, researchers induced women into a sad mood and had them choose between a high-carb or a high-protein drink. Even when blinded from knowing which drink was which, they were more likely to choose the carb-rich drink! [13
Hunger Pangs and Energy Dips
Low-carb diets stabilize hunger hormones like ghrelin and neuropeptide Y.[*]
Less hunger hormones and highly satiating fatty foods that you eat on a keto diet give you stable energy throughout the day. For many people its this sustained mental and physical energy that makes keto so appealing in the first place.
When you cheat on keto you return to the hunger pangs and energy dips. In small doses this might help you renew your motivation for keto, but it’s also a risk that could compel you to gobble more carbs, making it harder to get back into your keto regimen.
Con: Overeating and Binging
For many people cheating doesn’t just mean eating carbs, it means binging!
In this 2018 study with over 248 young adults found that the more often people had cheat meals, the more likley they were to have “bing episodes”. And the findings were much stronger for men than for women.
Tips for Treat and Cheat Days on Keto
Here are some helpful tips for successful cheat and treat days on keto.
Chose the Keto Version of your Cheat Food
One of the best ways to turn your cheat day into a treat day is to opt for the keto-friendly version of cheat food.
The best keto-friendly foods are those you make yourself with the minimum number of processed ingredients. For example, store-bought keto ice creams can have dozens of inflammatory additives.
But Dr. Kiltz’s BEBBIIS diet keto ice cream recipe has 5 simple whole foods ingredients.
If you have an ice cream maker you can follow along with Dr. Kiltz here:
Here’s a short list of common cheat foods and their keto-friendly substitutes
|Keto Cheat Food||Keto-Friendly Treat|
|Ice cream||Keto ice cream|
|Peanut butter cups||Keto cups|
|Chocolate-chip cookies||Chocolate chip keto cookies|
|Potato and tortilla chips||Pork rinds|
|Pizza||Pizza with keto pizza crusts|
|Chocolate cake||Homemade chocolate keto cake|
All these foods come with a major caveat–if they taste really sweet even without actual sugar, they can cause sugar cravings.
Keep Your Cheat and Treat Days Rare
The key to any successful integration of cheat or treat days on keto is to make them really rare.
Most people have a really hard time remembering what foods they ate and when–so it can be good to mark your keto cheat days on a calendar to keep yourself honest.
Cheat and Treat Alongside Physical Activity
Popular low-intensity exercises include:
- Standing and walking in an office/work setting–assisted by a standing desk
Make it Count
Don’t blow your cheat days on stale sugary cereal. Plan them in advance.
Make that dessert you’ve loved forever. Or use your treat day to eat out at a quality restaurant you and your partner have been wanting to try.
Keep Your Portions Moderate
As mentioned above, cheating is associated with binging.
Don’t rely on willpower; keep your portions small to begin with, and savor it!
Eat Lots of Fat Soon After
The longer you go on carbs the harder it is to let them go again. Plan a fatty after-cheat meal.
Wait to Cheat Until You’re Adapted to Keto
Cheating on keto will have less impact on your health and be less likely to result in binging once you’re fully adapted to keto.
The adaptation period to keto takes around 3-6 weeks for most people. So it’s best to wait before cheating or treating on keto.
Cheat Days on Keto: Dr. Kiltz’s Botto Line
Keto and carnivore mean eating an ancestral diet of whole foods while cutting out processed junk.
My approach leaves room for occasional indulgences in keto ice cream and other high-quality whole foods that have some carbs and even a little pure sugar.
If you’re practicing keto and intermittent fasting, processing occasional carbs from wholesome treats is not be deal.
But be honest with yourself about how often you’re treating. Learn to recognize when and if it veers into cheating–when you’re actually not being honest about consuming lots of carb and processed foods.