March 7, 2018

Cheat Meals on Keto or Low Carb: A New Perspective




I ate 9 grapes.
They kicked me out of ketosis!

I ate a donut!
How soon until I’m back in ketosis?!

I went to the Chinese buffet, and … I don’t know, I just lost my ever-lovin’ mind and ate ALL. THE. THINGS.
Have I completely and totally wrecked *everything?*


Yes, folks, it’s time for a post about cheat meals.

Rather than having to answer the same questions over and over and (attempt to) instill sanity into people time and again, I thought it would be easier to put my thoughts together in one place so that when situations like the above arise, as they inevitably and often do, I can point people here instead of writing the same email response eleventy-six times.

Feel free to link to this post when you come across similar sentiments from low-carb and keto newbies freaking out because they jumped head-first into a stack of pancakes and syrup.


Lots to cover here, but I’ll try to keep it more succinct than usual. (Insert LOL.)
If you’re pressed for time and want a one paragraph summary, scroll down to the bottom for the tl;dr.


As Robb Wolf wrote about in his book, Wired to Eat, the word cheat is a bit problematic, in the sense that you don’t really “cheat” on a diet. You might cheat on your spouse, or cheat on your taxes, but on cheat your diet?  Cheating on a diet implies that there are ironclad, hard-and-fast rules. And yeah, okay, maybe some diets do have rules like that, but who died and made that author god? (If food rules are ruling you, you’ll want to check this out.)

Let’s get some perspective on this, shall we?

Back when you were eating pure garbage the standard American diet (or British, Australian, South African…whatever…), if you happened to have one healthy, nutritious snack, or even an entire healthy, nutritious meal, did you ever, EVER say to yourself, “I ate this one healthy meal. I guess I’ve completely negated all those decades I’ve been eating crap!”

Of course not.

Why?

Because that is ridiculous. It is totally and completely ridiculous.

What is equally ridiculous is when low-carbers and keto people think that one high-carb snack or meal completely reverses all the good they’ve done over the weeks, months, or years they’ve been low carb.


Let’s get one thing straight:
In the same way that one healthy meal doesn’t negate a lifetime of eating crap, one high-carb meal doesn’t undo months or years of eating low carb.


Remember: as I’ve written about in the past, being “in ketosis” is not the same thing as being fat-adapted. If you’ve been low-carb or keto for a while, then yes, a high-carb meal will “kick you out of ketosis,” but only temporarily, likely for just a few hours—basically, for only as long as it takes your body to use that glucose. If you’re worried about it, do a heavy workout sometime afterward, or maybe the next morning. Get the glycogen out of your system and you’ll be right as rain in no time. Or instead of—or possibly even in addition to—dealing with the consequences afterward, pre-game things by doing a short fast and a hard workout before chowing down on the carbs. Give that glucose somewhere to go, so to speak. Make it so your body is primed to shunt some of it toward replenishing your glycogen. 

If you know you’re going to a party, wedding, or some other event where you are making a decision ahead of time that you would like to partake of higher carb fare than is your norm, prep your body to handle it better. Like I said, do a hard workout. Skip a meal or two earlier in the day. Maybe do both.

But let’s go back to the “kick you out of ketosis” thing, shall we? (You knew I wasn’t gonna just leave that there, right?)

People who fret over getting “kicked out of ketosis” don’t understand that being in ketosis and being fat-adapted are not the same. If the goal is fat loss and overall wellness, the latter is far more important than the former. As I have written about ad nauseum, ketosis is an ephemeral state. It takes very little to make it disappear. Fat adaptation, on the other hand, is a much hardier state. You have to work to undo it. (This is in bold for a reason, folks. Bold means muy importante. If you are one of the people who freaks out in terror when you no longer see pink or purple on your urine ketone test strips, or you blow a negative on your breath ketone meter, or your blood meter shows ketones below, say, 0.4 mmol/L, then you really need to read this post. I wrote it specifically for this purpose!)


Clarification


To be clear, I’m not encouraging cheating here. I’m simply trying to bring people back from the brink. Some of you said goodbye to cheesecake, waffles, funnel cake, pork fried rice, and cinnamon rolls years ago and have never, ever had the slightest desire to taste them again. If that’s you, good. Great. Move along. Nothing to see here.

But if you happen to be an actual human being, with wants and needs, worries and fears, stress and uncertainty, with happiness, sadness, excitement, and loneliness, and you occasionally use food to help you get through your short stay on what Carl Sagan called this “pale blue dot,” well, pull up a chair my dear, because we’re all friends here.

If, every once in a while, you “cheat,” “indulge,” “treat” yourself, or whatever word you prefer, it’s not the end of the world. It’s just not. Take a breath. Let it out. Now take another one. And let that one out, too. Now keep doing that, for the rest of your life, regardless of what you happen to be choosing to eat at any given time.

Again, I’m not actively encouraging anyone to stray from low carb—at least, not long-term. And I’m not suggesting that people who’ve only been at this for a few days or weeks should make regular visits to the office donut box or remain on a first-name basis with the kid in the fast food drive-thru window. Obviously, that’s not a great strategy, so please don't misunderstand me here. When you’re new to low carb or keto, if you veer off course hard enough and often enough, you’ll never actually become fat-adapted to the point where the occasional—occasional—dietary debauchery has virtually no impact on your long-term health. And frankly, even if you are dealing with metabolic derangement, one meal, on occasion, won’t undo the adaptations your body has experienced over however long you’ve been low carbing, provided that you keep it to one meal and get right back to the carb level you need to be at. Like I said, when you’re a long time low carber, one high carb meal or snack won’t ruin everything, in the same way that one lower carb meal or snack doesn’t fix everything when you’ve eaten a conventional high-carb diet your whole life.


In case we need more clarification here, let’s talk about two categories of people whose needs and goals are different, and who might, therefore, want to take different approaches regarding “cheat” meals.


People who need strict keto

Individuals using ketogenic diets to manage otherwise intractable neurological issues, migraines, or as an adjunct to conventional cancer therapies might have a more pressing reason to walk the keto straight and narrow than wanting to look “hawt” in a bathing suit. For these people, it’s possible that a wild indulgence could, for example, trigger a seizure or migraine, or set them back somewhat in terms of progress they might be making in reversing or managing their condition. For these folks, eating something off-plan—no matter how delicious—just isn’t worth it. That being said, these folks are human, too, and it’s not that they’re “not allowed” to indulge; it’s just that the consequences of them doing so are potentially more grave than for someone who eats low carb in order to lose body fat. (And if they’re willing to risk those consequences, no problem. To each their own. But, thanks to an ever-expanding world of recipes for fat bombs, entire cookbooks dedicated to fat bombs, keto-style ice cream, and other low-carb, high-fat treats, it is entirely possible for even those who “have to” be strict keto all the time to enjoy sweet and decadent things.)


People who prefer 80/20


News flash: as I ranted wrote about a while back, not everyone needs to follow a strict ketogenic diet (or even all that low carb a diet) in order to be healthy. Heresy, I know! Really, though. It might blow your mind, but there are, in fact, people who can eat fruit, beans, and even grains, without having to increase their life insurance due to what is sure to be a shortened lifespan. I can’t say for sure, but I suspect these are folks who were pretty healthy and metabolically flexible for most of their life, and if they happened to put on a few extra pounds or experience blood sugar issues for a while, it was a temporary blip on an otherwise healthy radar.

If you read the success stories Mark Sisson posts every Friday on Mark's Daily Apple, you’ll certainly have come across many people who embrace his “80/20” principle, or maybe 90/10. These people stick to Paleo, Primal, or low-carb most of the time, but maybe there’s a monthly poker night with beer & wings, or a visit to one’s favorite bakery every other week, or the Friday night family ritual is pizza or Mexican food, complete with the gluten, rice, and beans. No big deal for these people. (Other folks, who were a bit compromised from the get-go, might not have this kind of wiggle room.) Plenty of people who follow the Primal way of eating aren’t even all that low carb – maybe they’re at 125-150 grams of carbs per day. Maybe that doesn’t sound low to you, but compared to 200-300 grams per day, as is not unheard of in 21st Century America, it’s still kind of low-ish

Maybe potatoes, beans, beets, butternut squash, and fruit aren’t part of these peoples weekly or monthly indulgence because they’re already a regular part of their diets. And these folks are fine. They’re maintaining a weight they’re happy with, they’re not keeling over from heart attacks, and they’re not on an express train to metabolic syndrome or type 2 diabetes. (I emphasize again: not everyone needs to live in a constant state of ketosis in order to be healthy and have a physique they’re happy with. If you do, fine, then do that. But don't mistake what's essential for you as being essential for everyone else.)

If 80/20 or 90/10 is not appealing to you, and you like to keep your diet at 100/0, go right ahead. But keep in mind that if you’re using a low-carb or ketogenic diet to manage your weight, have good energy, and generally just feel well and be healthy over the long term, there’s no need to measure your glucose or ketones and freak yourself out when you have an occasional meal that you know darn well is going to wreak havoc on those things temporarily. Being in a constant state of ketosis is not necessary for you.  



Tl;dr: 
Unless you have a pressing reason to measure ketones, stop. And if you know you’ve eaten something that is likely to have “kicked you out of ketosis,” stop even harder. If you’ve been eating low carb or keto for a while, a single meal—or even a whole day, frankly—of higher carbs—won’t undo all the good things your body’s done prior to that, in the same way that one nutritious low-carb meal or one whole day of eating low-carb doesn’t undo decades of being hyperinsulinemic or hyperglycemic. This isn’t a reason to indulge in high-carb foods all the time; it’s a reason to stop panicking on the rare occasions when you do.



P.S. I am well aware of the slippery slope argument: for some people, having one meal or snack off-plan is the first domino to fall, and before they know it, things are completely out of control. Three weeks, six months, a year go by, and “all of a sudden,” they’ve regained 20 pounds, or their fasting blood sugar is sky-high again. If, in your own self-assessment, you’re wired to do somersaults down that slippery slope, then yeah, maybe a cheat meal isn’t the best idea for you. Know yourself. But if you’re the type who can visit the dessert buffet on a cruise, enjoy the heck out of it, and get right back to low carbing, no sweat. Please, respect the context and nuance here. I know that’s a lost art here in the 21st Century, but if you can keep those in mind—context and nuance—you will be ahead of most people.






Disclaimer: Amy Berger, MS, CNS, NTP, is not a physician and Tuit Nutrition, LLC, is not a medical practice. The information contained on this site is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any medical condition and is not to be used as a substitute for the care and guidance of a physician. Links in this post and all others may direct you to amazon.com, where I will receive a small amount of the purchase price of any items you buy through my affiliate links.

31 comments:

  1. I don't really cheat at all, but I don't care about ketones, either. I'm probably ketotic most of the time in that 50g carbs is my daily max and I'm tall and exercise tons and always have. But, I don't care about it. The reason I don't cheat is that if you have a rigid habit, you don't need willpower!

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  2. Great information and reassurances as always, Amy--thank you!

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  3. I began exploring low-carb last August, and discovered your site in January. It has become a refuge when I get info-overwhelmed and need pragmatic insights. Thank you SO much for what you do and share .

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    1. Thank *you.* I'm having a really hard time lately. So much of what I do feels completely meaningless. Your comment means a lot to me.

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    2. You care a lot about helping people, and it shows. Do feel however you feel, of course (I get irritated when people aren't allowed/expected to have rough spots). At the same time, please know that your work is appreciated.

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    3. I do so agree with Dr. Goat!!!!! Thanks Amy, for you being here.

      Wendy

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    4. I really love your blog as well. A voice sanity it is. Excellent style.

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  4. The voice of reason as always. I have a cheat meal just before my period every month. I know it's going to happen and I plan for it. I want this WOE to be lifelong so feel you have to keep perspective.

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  5. Hi Amy,

    Such a fantastic blog site. wish more people would find you.

    Now that I achieved my goal (flat stomach ) which reduced inflammation and aches, possibly diabetes, I feel so great. I noticed that the whole LCHF thing emphasizes eating of fat too much over the low carb! maybe you can do another post on that again. I mistook the high fat part in the beginning and took to putting cream in my coffee, coconut cream in my curries, bacon for breakfast thinking that the point. But really, as you pointed out when I asked you a year ago there is no need do deliberate high fat; especially if you have fat to lose. I tracked my macros for two weeks and found that 1oz of nuts and cheese; couple tbsp of olive oil and boom the 55-60% calories from fat is so easy to get in a day! same thing for carbs; eat any starchy carb like rice; tortilla, bread, potato and voila your carb count has added up. and my net carb limit is about 80-90g! but protein, was super hard to get adequate amounts and I had to really work on getting that somehow. I recently discovered Dr Naiman's podcast and it made so much sense now.

    I don't eat steak and bacon as it not part of my south indian cuisine and since I cook for a family of 5 with full time work, the elderly parents in the house wont go for that type of food even though I enjoy it at restaurants. Same goes for salads though I love them. So i stick to all the vegetable sautes (cabbage, chards, kale, cauliflower, bell pepper etc) in indian cuisine, try to eat lentils that are not de-husked so as to get more fiber, make sure I make chicken,fish,turkey, shrimp curry/kabab of some sort every other day, eat whole milk yogurt with few nuts/berries and skip the rice/naan and it has not been that difficult. and I snack on hard cheese when I have salt craving and a piece of cream cheese when I have a dessert craving. I do find that I am eating more vegetable now than when I ate standard indian/american diet which is kind of counter intuitive when you think of low carb. for adequate protein I finally started taking a protein shake (25g protein) that has solved the protein deficit and accelerated my fat loss without losing weight. Oh and when I have PMS, I have to eat more carbs (there is no fighting it) and when its done I go back to normal and its no big deal. I guess everybody has to find what works for them. And if you dont want to eat steak and bacon, you don't have to!


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    1. Sounds like you're going great. We all have to find the right mix of things that works for us individually, without becoming too wedded to the dogma any one particular person preaches. You have a good idea -- I can probably do another post on *low carb* rather than "ketogenic." The word "ketogenic" is definitely getting used too much and it makes people think they *must* load everything up with extra butter or oil, rather than just keeping their carbohydrate intake low and getting sufficient protein and a *reasonable* amount of fat. (Honestly, I've been guilty of this, myself, and have the extra body fat to show for it!)

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  6. Excellent stuff. Some time after I started LC I bought some keto test strips for my blood meter but I never got around to using them as I realised that being keto is not absolutely necessary for me but being as LC as I can be most of the time is. I cheat all of the time but I'm still healthier than I've ever been ('hawter' too, I hope) & heading in the right direction.

    Before LC I had to go gluten free (coeliac's) but even now I still cheat occasionally. But only very occasionally as I know it doesn't do me any good. I'm fortunate there as I know other people who get really ill of they come into any contact with gluten.

    It is all about the nuance. I was saying just this evening that most people I know have border line eating disorders because of the amount of attention they spend on eating the 'right' food (most of which is the wrong food from an LC perspective). We really do know how to mess up our own minds, don't we?

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  7. I'm the kind who seems to be picking all the time because I don't have a great way with words and I usually only comment when I disagree or don't understand, but your voice is essential to me, I read all your blogs.

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    1. Thank you! :) I'm glad the blog is helpful.

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  8. Amy....I can reassure you. Your work/blogs are not meaningless. I was diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes on September 2017. I’ll never forget the day my doctor told me I was diabetic. I put on a brave face, walked out of his office and I felt completely devastated and heartbroken. Anyway after much searching and browsing through the trusty internet, I found the low carb community and the rest is history as they say! I recently found your blog and have bookmarked it on my iPhone. The “Tuit Nutrition” bookmark now sits proudly alongside bookmarks for blogs and websites from Jason Fung, Ted Naiman, Ivor Cummins, Mark Sisson etc. I’ve just finished your 8 part blog on Insulin...fascinating stuff! I hope you find a way through your current trial or tribulation and I hope it doesn’t stop you writing these blogs. I find them very beneficial and rather inspiring to be honest!

    Also I have a question. I realise that anything you type is not to be taken as medical advice etc. I’m on a low carb diet. I would reckon 40-50g carbs per day. I’m getting high numbers or high-ish numbers on the glucose meter. Post meal spikes of about 11 (198). I just don’t understand, it’s usually after a low carb meal. There are so many variables that can be causing this. Now these post meal spikes are the last thing for me to “fix”. I generally feel great....high energy....stronger....mentally clearer....fitter....loving the low carb diet and I have my nutrition nailed down and I don’t feel deprived. Have you any tips or advice for anybody that experiences these post meal highs after going LCHF? Could there be any potential reasons for this?....have you heard anything similar from others? (Again...I realise that what you type is not medical advice or any type of diagnosis). Thanks. Joe

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    1. Hey Joe, thanks for reading! i’m very humbled to be listed among that company. I have high respect for all of them. I’m flattered to be in someone’s bookmarks. :-)

      As for the blood sugar, I can’t really comment without knowing more. What’s your level prior to the meal? Are you on any medication? It would also help to know the types of things you typically eat when you see those numbers. Feel free to email me: tuitnutrition@gmail.com

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    2. Hi Amy. I’ll send you an email with more detail. If you have the time and energy to send a reply...that would be really appreciated. Joe

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  9. Another great post (and a much-needed one). Thank you Amy.

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  10. Amy,
    Thank you so much for the time and energy that it takes to share your knowledge and insight. You are so knowledgeable, sensible and damn funny too. I always read your posts, especially if I am feeling " Keto Overwhelmed", your writing focuses me and calms me down! Your posts on hypo thryoidism were excellent and really helpful to me.
    I am super grateful that you write this blog. And I seek out your posts regularly.

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    1. Thanks, Joanne! I'm glad my writing has been helpful. People really, *really* freak out about this stuff sometimes. I'm trying to be a voice of calm and reason in the midst of it. :)

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  11. Amy,
    Do you have an instagram/twitter/podcast? I am brand new to your site, followed a link to your "cheat meal" post and YOU are the voice of reason I respond well to. Please let me know where else I can find your wisdom!
    ~Sara

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    1. Hey Sara, I’m not on Instagram, but I’m very active on Twitter: @TuitNutrition
      I don’t have a podcast of my own, but you can find most of the podcast interviews and videos I’ve done on the “Podcasts” tab on my site.

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  12. Great article! Thanks for the insight. You provide a lot of no-nonsense perspective on a topic that has a lot of confusing voices. Your work matter a lot.

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  13. After I initially left a comment I appear to have clicked
    on the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and from now on each time a comment
    is added I get four emails with the exact same comment. Is there an easy method you
    can remove me from that service? Thanks!

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    1. Sorry about that! I'm not sure how to fix it. I don't think it's something I can fix on my end -- I think you have to do it. Next time you get one of those emails, see if there's any fine print at the bottom that tells you how to unsubscribe or turn off notifications. There should be something about that somewhere in the email, usually at the bottom, but not always.

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  14. Amy, you are a great writer and also very knowledgeable. You and Franziska are perhaps my favorites in the Lchf world. Thank you for your articles. A fan from Rio de Janeiro. ��

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    1. Thank you! Franziska is a great dietitian who really knows what she’s doing. She’s one of the few people like me, who tries to keep things sane and rational, and help people understand how simple and uncomplicated low-carb is when we don’t let ourselves become obsessed and neurotic about the details. She’s also a very good personal friend, so I’m happy to be thought of along with her! She’s one of the nicest, warmest people you could ever meet.

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  15. I wish I had found this article three years ago when I started low carb/Keto. Thank you so much!

    Isabel Reyna

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  16. Hello from Denmark
    I just found your site, and it is wondrous! Your communication is so clear. I am looking forward to reading the rest of the posts. I read the series "ketosis" vs fat adapted and it really is good advice and a great perspective to give a beginner.

    Thanke you!

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    1. Thanks for reading! I'm glad you're finding the blog helpful. :)

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