A guide to low-carb & keto diet cheating

A guide to low-carb & keto diet cheating

To cheat or not to cheat? That is the eternal question.

Almost everyone is occasionally tempted – are you? This five-part guide will help you think through low-carb cheating… and if you do decide to cheat, it will help you do it smarter.


1. Bad and less bad reasons to cheat

Why cheat? Some reasons are better than others.

Bad reasons


Politeness or wanting to fit in

Aunt Martha will get over it when you skip her gooey dessert. Your dining companion’s surprise when you swap out potatoes for extra veggies is typically fleeting. Don’t overplay others’ interest or investment in your personal dietary choices.

Remember, people are usually wrapped up in their own experience and quickly move on from yours.

However, some people do get overly curious about your food choices. When that happens, be ready with a line like, “I’m sorry, I have a sensitive stomach.”


An impulsive reach into that bowl of candy is an unsatisfying cheat. A last minute decision to eat a few of those cold French fries on your kid’s plate is rarely that satisfying.

Planned cheating can empower – random cheating undermines. Be true to yourself and stick to your cheating plan.

Bad planning

Grabbing a mediocre two-day-old sandwich from a gas station is a wasted cheat. Anything worth cheating on yourself for is, by definition, delicious. That stale sandwich is not.

Keep quality low-carb emergency food in your car, purse, or briefcase so you never cheat because you are starving.

Less bad reasons


To stick with low-carb long term

A low-carb lifestyle lasts forever – if you go back to your old ways, the unwanted illness or pounds will creep back into your life.

Although it sounds counter-intuitive, occasional, deliberate cheating can help some people stick with their low-carb lifestyle forever. Here’s how:

  • Knowing you can cheat occasionally reduces the feeling of deprivation.
  • Planned exceptions can help keep you from feeling deprived of a favorite indulgence.
  • Deliberate cheating gives your diet a bit more variety and makes you more flexible.

Most of us don’t have to be perfect. Cheat consciously and then immediately return to the healthy low-carb lifestyle you love.

Some of us, however, will have a more difficult time getting back on plan after a temporary detour. Which camp are you in? You may have to experiment to find out, but the resulting knowledge is empowering and will help you decide if planned diversions will work or not.

To take advantage of rare opportunities

Your favorite dessert – pumpkin pie – made just once a year by a dear family friend… perhaps this is a time to make an exception to your no-dessert rule.

CousCousOr that carefully spiced pyramid of couscous, served with stewed meat on your once-in-a-lifetime trip to Morocco… again, perhaps this is a worthy exception (if you like couscous).

Cutting yourself some slack to savor unique moments or unique flavors is probably a good use of your ‘cheating allowance.’

But keep in mind that birthday cake in the break room is not a rare or special occasion.



2. Side effects of cheating


So, there are bad and better reasons to cheat. What are the typical side effects of cheating?

Hunger and cravings

Many carbs make you hungry. You know this if you have given them up for any meaningful period of time. Cheating means potentially inviting hunger and cravings back into your life.

Proceed with caution – you could end up in trouble.

Weight gain

Cheating nearly always leads to immediate weight gain. First, too many carbs put your body back in fat-storing mode. Second, carbs can lead to hunger and cravings hence you eat more. Third, the water weight associated with high-carb diets returns.

Want to look and feel your best? Cheat rarely and carefully.

Blood sugar spikes

If you are keeping diabetes at bay with your low-carb or keto diet, cheating is generally a bad idea. When you eat too many or the wrong type of carbs, your blood sugar can spike to dangerously high levels. Over the long run you increase the risk of long-term complications like blindness, dementia, amputations, etc.

On the other hand, every time you manage to avoid a cheat, you’re one step closer to reversing your type 2 diabetes.

For those with diabetes or prediabetes, the price of cheating may be too high.

Sickness and acne

For some of us, cheating can lead to dramatic and fairly immediate setbacks – bloating, stomach upset, gas, or even seizures (if you have epilepsy). Some people get acne and other types of skin trouble, too.

If this happens to you, is cheating really worth it?

Feeling bad

One of the most annoying effects of cheating is that you often don’t feel great after having cheated. In addition to weight gain, blood sugar spikes and so forth, your mood can suffer – enthusiasm, focus, and confidence fall.

This is tough – and with hindsight, makes the decision to cheat seem questionable.


For those of you who are sugar (or carb) addicts, it’s really dangerous to cheat. Sugar addiction is real. Most scientists agree that sugar is psychoactive – it triggers the reward centers in your brain (similar to other addictive drugs). As a result, relapse can be immediate.

What Is Sugar Addiction? – Bitten Jonsson
What can happen when an alcoholic grabs just one drink? The same can happen to a sugar addict, and you may end up going off the rails. Moderation is not an option for some, and the only safe choice may be complete abstinence.

For more on how to manage food addiction and compulsive eating, check out our video course with Bitten Jonsson.

Cheating on yourself

Finally, let’s be clear about what cheating means. Simply put, ‘to cheat’ means:

  • to take something from someone by breaking a rule; or
  • to prevent someone from having something that he or she deserves or was expecting to get.

Remember this: when you stray from your low-carb lifestyle, the someone who loses out is you. You are not cheating on ‘a diet’ – you are cheating on yourself.



3. Cheating without cheating

Is it possible to cheat without guilt or bad side effects? Certainly. These tips will teach you how to cheat without cheating.

Make low-carb substitutes

Dying for some pizza? Before digging into an unhealthy and probably mediocre pizza that will make you bloated, how about eating the delicious and healthy keto pizza?

Jonesing for some bread? Skip the blood sugar spike from a traditional loaf and instead eat this totally awesome keto bread instead!

Crave dessert? Before going for unhealthy options, try fat bombs, frozen treats, and brownies! You’ll love them.

There are more fantastic low-carb recipes for many of the comfort foods you crave. Cheat by eating these substitutes and you’ll enjoy fantastic flavors without the guilt. That’s cheating without cheating.

Cheat your mind with this delay tactic


Tempted to eat that chocolate croissant on the breakfast buffet? Tell yourself, “I can have it, I’m just going to eat something else first.” Then, load up on scrambled eggs and crispy bacon and other low-carb favorites. Eat as much as you want. What happens? Your croissant craving is so diminished you don’t even want it anymore. Well done!

Tempted to eat dessert at the dinner party you’re attending? Tell yourself, “I’ll wait and have chocolate when I get back home instead.” Later, at home, time has passed and your food environment has changed – you’re no longer watching friends inhale a tempting dessert. This reduces your urge for something sweet and makes it easier to skip the chocolate – and dessert – entirely!

These are examples of the mind games many of us play to avoid cheating. They work. Use them to help yourself stay on-plan.

If you really want to stay away from cheating – if you have a sugar addiction for example – use this classic tool. Tell yourself that yes, you can have what you want – tomorrow. Absolutely not today, but tomorrow you can have it.

Of course, tomorrow you’ll use the same tool.

Cheat your cravings with low-carb snacks

Low-Carb Snacks Guide

Feeling hungry and crave carbs? Having low-carb snacks at hand is a great way to kill those feelings before they overpower you.

Bring low-carb snacks such as walnuts, macadamia nuts or Babybel cheese with you at all times. When a craving strikes, act quickly and eat low-carb food before you cave into high-carb temptations.

For more great snack ideas, check out our low-carb snack guide.

If intermittent fasting, cheat with fat


If you are fasting intermittently it can sometimes be a little hard to get through the day without eating. If you find yourself tempted to break your fast before you planned to, do it with pure fat – coconut oil or butter in coffee or tea are great choices.

Doing this will take the edge off your hunger without knocking you out of the fat burning state intermittent fasting delivers.



4. Cheating smart

While we don’t encourage cheating, we do want you to cheat in the smartest way possible if you do. Cheat smart with these nine tips:

Cheat deliberately

Be in charge and cheat consciously. You are cheating on yourself, so cheat in the best way possible. Do you do better with a strict daily regimen with an occasional day off? Or, will you feel less deprived with a small, daily off-plan indulgence? Can you maintain weight while cheating twice a week? Know thyself.

Writing down your intentions can help. Try this:

  • Keep track of your cheating – write down when you cheat and what happened. A log will help you gauge how much you are cheating and understand the side effects.
  • Set clear rules about the frequency and type of cheating you will and won’t allow. Write them down and post them in the kitchen.

Cheat with foods that are not high in carbs

This one is obvious, but so many people miss it. Cheat with the least bad choice possible. If you must eat regular pizza, thin crust is better than thick.

If you have decided to splurge on dessert, is there a cup of chocolate mousse or piece of cheesecake that will be lower-carb than that slice of frosted layer cake? All three are sweet, but the mousse and cheesecake contain more fat and fewer carbs than frosted layer cake.

Just because you are cheating doesn’t mean you have to throw all caution to the wind. Minimize the damage.

Cheat with small portions

Small Cheat

When eating carbs, the less carbs you eat, the better. If you decide it is worth it to eat something off-limits, how about a taste – just one bite?

For example, if you crave a sweet finish to your meal, a bite of someone else’s dessert is a better choice than ordering your own. And ordering one dessert to share with your companion is better than ordering one for each of you.

Don’t be afraid to leave sugary or starchy cheat foods on your plate after just one or two bites. Go ahead – waste the rest without regret. Finishing a carb cheat when you don’t really want it is not smart.

Cheat after a meal

After MealYes, your grandmother was right when she insisted you eat that chocolate chip cookie after you finished your lunch. The timing of your food really does matter.

Starting with healthy low-carb or keto dishes reduces your appetite for the bad stuff so you will cheat less. Additionally, eating protein and fat first slows down the absorption of glucose into your blood and reduces the intensity of your blood sugar spike.

Cheat late in the day

Stick with your low-carb lifestyle during the day and only consider eating carbs after dinner. This helps in two ways – it limits the window for cheating and keeps your body in low-carb mode for the majority of the day. If you are taking advantage of mild ketosis, cheating late maximizes the time you spend burning ketones.

Cheat with less sugar

Once adapted to low-carb eating, your tastes change – especially your sensitivity to sugar. Sweet treats that used to taste just right will now taste too sweet. Take advantage of this natural improvement in your palate’s sensitivity. Go darker on the chocolate; put less sugar in your yogurt.

Whatever it is, when it comes to sugar, less is more.

Cheat with added fat


Dilute the carbs! Add butter to bread, cream to peaches, and cheese to crackers.

If you pair your carb cheat with delicious fats you will eat less of the carb yet feel more satisfied. Plus, you will slow down the absorption of glucose into your blood and reduce the resulting blood sugar spike, which means less insulin, less hunger… all good.

Cheat with food that matters to you

Make your carbs count. Don’t settle for that ordinary, supermarket-made lemon square your neighbor brought to the potluck. Instead, wait for your favorite – a sliver of lemon meringue pie – from the corner bakery.

Choose what you love and save your cheating for exactly that.

Cheat before or after activity


Cheating before or right after vigorous activity is the least bad time to cheat. If you eat carbs before a workout, your activity will burn off some of them so they don’t make it to your fat stores.

If you cheat immediately after a workout, your glycogen stores are depleted so some of the carbs you eat will replenish glycogen rather than convert to fat.

Don’t over-estimate the effect of exercise though… it’s not as important as most people think. While activity can reduce the damage of occasional cheating, you simply can’t outrun a bad diet.



5. Finally: Getting back on track – fast


When it comes to cheating an old saying applies – Get right back on the horse! When you have cheated, even if you broke your own rules, don’t beat yourself up. Remember that it sometimes happens to everyone – yes, everyone. So just get right back on the low-carb track.

Here’s how:

Anticipate extra hunger and cravings

Prepare yourself for the extra hunger and extra cravings that typically come after cheating. Double down, recommit, and don’t look back. You can do this!

Learn from your cheat

Analyze the situation that led to cheating. Understanding your craving triggers and eating behaviors can help you avoid future setbacks. It is a process – keep learning and improving.

Forgive yourself

Beating yourself up for having cheated is not helpful. Be kind to yourself. Low carb, like life, is a journey – detours do happen. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Keep your eye on your long-term goal and return to low carb with confidence.

This not only helps you feel better – it also helps you succeed. Feeling bad just diminishes willpower and makes it easier to fall for more temptations, in a vicious cycle. Instead aim to forgive yourself instantly. It’s done, it’s over, it was a small thing in the grand scheme of things.

Feel good, knowing that you’re back on track now – that’s all you can do, and it’s all that matters.

A final word

Remember – cheating is a tool. Like any tool, it can help or it can harm. Maybe cheating isn’t right for you. Maybe it is. But if you do decide to cheat, do it smart. Develop great habits with deliberate exceptions.

And if you do decide it’s time for an exception, then enjoy every bite!




This Diet Doctor guide was written by Jenni Calihan, who also blogs at EatTheButter.org. Editing by Andreas Eenfeldt, MD.

What are your best tips for how to cheat on low carb? Please let us know in the comments below.

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What are your best tips for how to cheat on low carb? Please let us know below.

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  1. 1 comment removed
    for popcorn craving..... I do plain pork rinds with good quality butter and salt and a hint of either garlic powder or sometimes cinnamon! i first break my pork rinds up into little pieces and then I put everything in a zip loc bag. No, it isn't an exact replica, but it is very satisfying! You could experiment with different spices to get it as close as possible to movie theatre butter taste...
  3. Zar
    I am on the banting diet was wondering if I could use Duromine while Banting anyone with who have an idear please help
  4. 1 comment removed
  5. JudeeCee
    I tried pork rind with some Keto sour cream based dip, and had acid reflux.
    I had a serious Reflux previously but it went away after doing 2 teaspoons of apple cider vinegar every morning faithfully which I continue.
    I like the pork rind crunch but so far is the only thing causing the reflux on Keto. I wonder if there is a way to counteract it or have to give it up.
  6. Elly
    My partner does not need to lose any weight nor does he have any other health problems and eats some carbs each day (oats in muesli, a couple of slices of bread for lunch and maybe a potato with desert and occassional treat foods eg icecream) He is considering going keto because it is just easier to eat the same as myself and not a huge leap for him. However a few days a week he is living on his own and so his body would be flipping back into using glucose. What is the effect on the body of following strict keto four days a week, say, and three days week eating a diet that does include some carbohydrate? He is trying to work out if he has to commit fully to keto w.o.e. or can he just be part-time when he is with me?
    What is the effect of flicking back into non ketosis every week?
    (He is an endurance cyclist and can recognise when his body has used all its glycogen and has flipped into fat metabolism as he doesn't continue eating carbohydrates but allows his body to convert over so in this sense he is used to 'flipping' in and out of ketosis....)
    Reply: #57
  7. Kristin Parker Team Diet Doctor
    When one is back and forth between carbs and keto, they won't have that chance to ever convert to fat burning. It's very taxing on the system and metabolism.
  8. Carol
    Thank you!!!
  9. Steve
    This was a extremely high quality article! I've been Keto for 2 years and cheated a dozen times or so, nothing more than a single meal, or treat, or special occasion, but the advice here was so solid and useful, I still learned a lot! Thanks to the author and to DD for the great content. This article seems a bit old, you should refresh it and republish it so every member can benefit!
  10. MaryB
    I may be an exception to the rule, but i am doing very well with eating low carb 5 days per week and "cheating" the other 2 days, usually on the weekend. I don't even think about carbs on these 2 days and have pasta, ice cream, pizza, Doritos, whatever I want. I do get very full very quickly so portions are smaller. Then I get right back to low carb through the week. I typically lose 3 pounds the last few days of my low carb regimen, then gain 1 to 2 pounds back on my carb eating days. I have lost about 12 pounds in 2 months. But if I try to stay with low carb straight through I find I get too bored with the meals, and just knowing I can eat those carbs on the weekend really keeps me going. As long as I'm losing weight, albeit slowly, I think I'm doing ok. I would like to lose about 40 more and hopefully can do that in 6 to 8 months, but i do plan to stay low carb 4 to 5 days per week even after I reach my goal.
  11. 1 comment removed
  12. Jay
    Any suggestions for emotional eating?

    I love sitting by myself in a cafe with a coffee and cake. Gives me a break from people and decisions and life - I can recharge my batteries in 30 minutes. Coffee alone doesn't cut it.

    Unfortunately, I have now found a small selection of cafes which have a cake worth cheating for.
    How do I stop?

  13. Sonya Palaisy
    I found this article very helpful thank you for writing it I'm saving this so I can refer to it again and again as I try to switch over to keto.
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