A Guide to Low-Carb 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
  2. Side Effects of Cheating
  3. Cheating Without Cheating
  4. Cheating Smart
  5. Getting Back on Track – Fast


 

1. Bad and Less Bad Reasons to Cheat

Why cheat? Some reasons are better than others.

Bad reasons

Fries

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.

You probably wouldn’t worry about what people think of you if you could know how seldom they do!
– Olin Miller
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.”

Impulsivity

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

Family

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.

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

Cheat

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

Hunger and cravings

Carbs make you hungry. You know this if you have given them up for any meaningful period of time. Cheating means 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, 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 diet, cheating is generally a bad idea. When you eat carbs, your blood sugar can spike to dangerously high levels. Every time this happens 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.

Addiction

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 Jonsson4.5 out of 5 stars5 stars73%4 stars14%3 stars4%2 stars2%1 star4%369 ratings36906:35What 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

Low-Carb PizzaLow-Carb Pizza4.5 out of 5 stars5 stars69%4 stars16%3 stars9%2 stars3%1 star1%4439 ratings4,439 Ketogenic low carbKetogenic low carb70% Fat27% Protein3% Carbs6 g carbs / serving Easy 5 + 25 m5 minutes preparation25 minutes cooking timeThe Low-Carb BreadThe Low-Carb Bread4.2 out of 5 stars5 stars59%4 stars16%3 stars14%2 stars6%1 star2%4711 ratings4,711 Moderate low carbModerate low carb70% Fat16% Protein5% Carbs2 g carbs / serving Medium 10 m + 1 h10 minutes preparation1 hour cooking time
Cinnamon and Cardamom Fat BombsCinnamon and Cardamom Fat Bombs4.2 out of 5 stars5 stars56%4 stars19%3 stars14%2 stars5%1 star2%654 ratings654 Ketogenic low carbKetogenic low carb96% Fat1% Protein1% Carbs1 g carbs / serving Easy 5 + 35 m5 minutes preparation35 minutes cooking timeLow-Carb Chocolate and Peanut SquaresLow-Carb Chocolate and Peanut Squares4.3 out of 5 stars5 stars61%4 stars16%3 stars13%2 stars6%1 star2%1014 ratings1,014 Liberal low carbLiberal low carb68% Fat14% Protein14% Carbs3 g carbs / serving Medium 5 + 35 m5 minutes preparation35 minutes cooking time

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 low-carb pizza?

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

Delay

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

Coffee

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 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

Butter

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

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

nocake

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!

 


 

About

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.

Know other people who could benefit from reading this? Consider sharing, by pressing the Facebook icon at the top of your screen.

 


 

Visual Low-Carb Guides

30 Comments

  1. Yanina
    GREAT CONTENT! I loved it. I was wondering if I should say goodbay to icecream and Friday pizza for ever. This article helps a lot to make good choices. Thank you! :)
  2. Tessa
    This was great! So practical and definitely helps to empower me with lots of excellent ideas for when I am tempted to cheat.
  3. Brenda
    I feel so much better without the carbs, that the fear of feeling crappy, even for one day, keeps me from cheating. If I can fast for 3 days without hunger, I can miss any meal if only inappropriate food is available, although I rarely find that to be the case. There is almost always something I can eat, even if its eating just the fillings out of the sandwiches. Carbs make me want more carbs and I like the power I have over food without them. I am trying to do strict low carb, but occasionally I guess I do cheat with a little sweet potato, parsnips, or fruit. Better choices which haven't derailed me.
  4. Mandy
    Can you supplement with nerve time if cheating on carbs?
  5. Bess
    I was so happy to read the tip about cheating with fat while intermittent fasting. I had discovered that by myself, but I was unsure. As I fast for my diabetes - with good success - a little butter oor mayo helps me keep blood sugar and insulin down for more hours on a daily basis.

    Even if I don't fast I'm very strict. I have one funny example for a typical cheat that I plan for and enjoy: There is a restaurant in my neighbourhood that makes the best sweet potato fries in the world. Every two or three months I go there with my grown-up daughter who lives in another town - which of course is a treat in itself. And then and only then I split a portion of those fries with her while enjoying her company enormously.

    This is my first post here. Many thanks form Germany to the Diet Doctor team for their outstandig work!

  6. norfolk_lass
    I am going to France for a month and was contemplating cheating with coffee eclairs and to be honest I was starting to get pretty uptight and scared about it. I now know that I will only have an eclair if it looks truly exceptional and then I will only have a small amount as a huge treat. I'm only willing to cheat with/for the best thanks to this article - thank you.
  7. C.H.
    What an empowering article. Thank you Diet Doctor!
  8. Brigitte
    This article makes me feel less bad about my decision to have a cheat day once a month.
    My empoyer has a staff day once a month with business meeting, presentations etc. It often includes people bringing homemade food along - pierogi from the Russian doctor, börek from our Turkish office staff and Persian pilaw rice. I decided that this will be my cheat day where I allow myself a high carb evening meal as well but only if I really want it.
    Our next staff day is the day of the annual excursion. We'll be going to a theme park, all expenses paid. Cheat day means: I take part in whatever we decide to do. I'm going to enjoy the day guilt free and return to low carb living on Saturday.
    I am not too worried about my cheat days. After months on low carb and two years IF a lot of high carb foods no longer appeal to me. Desserts are often far too sweet for my liking as are most cakes and biscuits. I like fried chicken breast with vegetables and a side salad or sausage with kohlrabi gratin. And there's nothing like your low carb pizza!
  9. Susan andrews
    You are always ahead of the curve. So timely. As usual, this is something I can use. And not only that, this is something I can pass on to help people who are on this journey with us.
  10. Laura
    Wow. This is such a great web site. I haven't been able to read the whole thing but I surely intend too. I have been cheating off and on for awhile now. I'm pretty sure the tips are really going to help me back on track. Thank you so much for all the info. This is my web site to go to.
  11. Perle0
    These tips are great. I had figured out some of them for myself already, but others are new. I'm glad to hear that my instinct to cheat with fat was right!

    One other suggestion I have to share: if you do a short cheat (1 day or less), you can bounce back much faster if you can fast the following day. Burn up those glycogen stores ASAP, and get back into ketosis toot-sweet.

  12. WendyS
    I find what works for me in terms of cheat 'recovery' is to allow myself 2 days. In other words, if I hit the carbs one day then I've got 2 days to get it out of my system and get back on track. So the carb cravings might kick in and I may well eat something carb loaded, but I know that whatever else I sneak has a life limited to 2 days worth only. After that it's back to LCHF with a vengeance.

    I've also found that the way to recover from a carb fest is to hit the fats in a big way. Forget about portion control until you are back to normal, this post-carb recovery period needs to be heavy on satisfaction provided by fats and filling meals. If you are half starved and don't have enough good fats in your system then the cravings will just continue to drive you crazy. You can modify your portions once you've settled back down into LCHF, but this initial stage is all about stopping the carb/sugar cravings.

  13. Lizzie
    Such a helpful, positive article. Thank you.
  14. John
    I've been low carb for about 4 years, but seriously committed to LCHF for about 16 months. I've lost 140lb over the entire time, not including several cycles in which i gained and lost due to falling off the wagon. The LCHF portion definitely provided the most advantage, having lost 40lb in about 6 months (I took maximum advantage of a life situation where I was completely in control of my diet).

    I've certainly used some variation or combination of these tips throughout my time living this way, and they all help. One other thought I focus on when I am tempted to cheat is the time cost of the cheat - how easily the small cheat will knock me out of ketosis and how long it will take to get back into full fat burning mode. I find that this consideration of the time I've invested and the time that will be required to return helps me better place a value on the cost of cheating. It also helps remind me that LCHF is a commitment and a journey, and the consequences of a single, rash, bad decision really are larger than they may appear in the moment.

    So, when faced with a cheat, I ask myself if I would exchange 2 to 3 weeks of success in order to have the cheat? Would I do that for a $2 slice of pizza on the run? No, not nearly worth enough. For homemade dinner with family I can haven't seen for a year? Absolutely. This line of thinking helps me scale the cost of the cheat most effectively since it makes for a more concrete concept of my lost time investment that my mind can weigh against the immediate pleasure the cheat would provide.

    It also helps a lot now that I am at a good weight. I am often admonished that I don't need to worry and can cheat a little cause it won't hurt. Then I remind myself, "is it worth 2-3 weeks?"

  15. Deborah Hopper
    I love LCHF, I do really good for a week then that carb craving kicks in, so I treat myself to a piece of cake, which I really use to love, I tried that cake and it taste really bad, I guess my body is finally saying no to bad carbs, as i have learned how quick the pounds can return with just a few bad carbs, So I have cheated , now I am back on track, I love all the good tips that will guide me on the right path, Thank you.
  16. STEPHANIE
    These tips are all on point!
    I have to say I do pretty well until I get into a movie theater. Something about fresh popped popcorn sends me overboard and out of control. The last movie I went to I brought in some nuts and I did ok but I thought about the popcorn during most of the movie. :(

    Any suggestions for making it through a movie without popcorn?

  17. Devlin
    Awesome article!
  18. Mary lou
    I am a prediabetic , I went to a steakhouse for dinner one evening and ate ribs,sweet potato and 2 rolls. About 3-4 hours later my blood sugar went down to 60. I had to take a glucose pill , 15 min. Later it was back up yo 95. Why does this happen?
    Reply: #21
  19. Helen
    This is a great article, there's no way I can pass up Mums Christmas pudding once a year. There's only so many years left before I may never have it again! Sometimes a slip can lead to a binge and giving up in perceived failure so all these little tips are a great Resource to keep me on track and looking at the bigger picture. Some of these ideas I have figured out for myself the hard way and some are new but they do help me feel that I can really live this.
  20. Helen
    @Stephanie, maybe buttered cauliflower florets? Stir melted butter over chopped raw cauliflower and sprinkle salt.
  21. Geraldine Denise
    You need to ask that question on the other page "ASK THE EXPERTS", Ask Dr. Andreas Eenfeldt. It won't get answered here as this page isn't for questions. It's just for comments.
  22. nancy
    Even the "low carb mug cake" and "bread" items send me on a carb frenzy. Hmmm, might be an addict. Some sites specialize in these recipes, which are also usually a lot of work. Scrambled eggs with cheese and bacon are easier and more delicious than anything with stevia and keeps me sane and feeling well.
  23. Steve
    Well written, great article thank you. I am losing weight rapidly on LCHF right now, so I afford myself a treat once a Saturday but keep it at that. I know from past experience that giving up carbs can be like giving up smoking "just one more" can lead to many more. And it is the same with sausage rolls and pork pies (for me at least!) haha.
  24. Julie
    I bought this book called " Guilt Free Deserts". Sure there are some recipes that are too hi carb. But a couple of good ones are hiding in there too. Like Lemon Cheesecake Slice. And there are always substitutions you can make too. There's almond flour, but since my husband doesn't like that I make my own our out of sunflower seeds. I hope that's ok? It is low carb. This way I keep my husband on the LCHF diet. The fact that he has joined me has me excited. I only needed to lose 10 kg but he needs to lose 25. We are now walking the dogs together, which also has the benefit of extra time together. The other morning he took a blood sugar test before we went walking. His sugar was 13. When we got home again his sugar test was 8. Things like this encourage everyone!
  25. Shirley
    An excellent article! Thank you so much for reaffirming some ideas which I'd already worked out for myself but also for giving me some great new ones. Yes, it is so important to plan cheats, ensure they include your very favourite foods or take place during very special occasions and, most importantly for me, they are 'guilt free experiences'! There is nothing worse than cheating on impulse with less than mediocre food, then beating yourself up afterwards for being a 'failure'. Thank you for such a supportive and realistic article which recognises that none of us are perfect and that LCHF is a lifelong journey.
  26. Toni Clark
    Excellent article thank you for all the info. I shared this and other with many of my friends.
  27. Tamara
    I loooooooove this. Save my cheating for time of the month aha. Thanks a million <3
  28. Moideen
    Is pomegranate allowed in lchf diet?9
  29. Sister Am
    Thank you for your advice. It's really motivated me. Now, I'm happy because I always have choice to getting back on track low carb. Thank you so much. I really like this blog. More love from me. <3
  30. Fairbanks Female
    The few times I have thought I could not do this forever....I get an e-mail with GREAT CONTENT and I am back on track. I have lost 50 pounds in 5 months. I have LOTS to go, but, with Diet Doctor's help, I think I can do it.

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