Fall off the Keto wagon? Follow these 8 steps to recover ASAP.

This is the process I use myself... it happens to the best of us.

By Mark Hamblin

So you’ve been following Keto, but then, for some reason, you fall off the wagon and eat some carbs.

Maybe it was some special event. Maybe the holidays. Maybe a trip or vacation you went on where there weren’t many Keto options. Or maybe a colleague brought it some really yummy looking cookie tray to share with everyone in the office, and you caved in…. (been there, done that).

Whatever the reason, and while certainly not recommended, it happened. And it happens to the best of us. Even in my nearly 5 years of (mostly) following a ketogenic diet it has happened to me many times.  Sometimes it’s planned (gasp!  don’t worry, very rare) and sometimes it’s unplanned.  Despite losing 175+ pounds already, and being more in “maintenance” mode than in “massive weight loss” mode, I still follow a Ketogenic Diet today.

In fact, what triggered me to write this post is that I’m going through this situation right now.

I am on my way back from visiting my soon-to-be in-laws in China. My fiancee and I went there to celebrate the Chinese New Year holiday, which is a big deal in their part of the world. We were there for 5 days this time, and despite sitting there like a deaf mute most of the time because of my horrible Mandarin language skills, I enjoy it.

If I tried really, really hard, I could have stayed Keto while I was there. It would have been very tough, and I would have had to rely very heavily on the food supply in my Keto travel kit. But I caved in and ate the homemade dumplings, steamed buns, and sweet potato dishes. (They don’t eat much rice in Northern China.) For many meals, there was literally not a single dish that didn’t have carbs. And with no restaurants in town and no store easily reachable, I didn’t have other options. On top of it all, watching my fiancees mom work hard in the kitchen to make everything from scratch made me feel extra guilty for not eating it. And oh boy, it was tasty.

Since I’ve been down this road before, and because this was one of my very rare planned “cheats”, I knew that I should minimize damage and I didn’t go overboard while there. I turned down extra helpings of carb-heavy dishes. I avoided the dishes that I knew had added sugar. But still… I can feel the bloat from eating carbs again, and I still feel some regret from eating all of it. It would have been easier to avoid carbs in the first place, but sometimes that’s just not how the cookie crumbles…

So… I’m now in the position of having to “get back on the wagon” and get back into Ketosis — and I’ll take you through how I do it, both practically and mentally.

I’ve broken the process down into 8 key steps:

1) Feel the regret. Feel the guilt. But not the shame.

Regret and guilt can be powerful emotions. And put to the right use, they can help set us in the right direction. That’s why humans have these emotions — to steer us towards things that make us not feel guilt and regret. While you are in the moment of feeling these things, take 5 minutes to really feel them. Are you mad at yourself? How is your body feeling? (Mine is feeling a bit bloated and puffy.) Take note.

One thing you should NOT do is to feel shameful. Guilt is defined as feeling you did something bad. Shame is defined as feeling you are a bad person, or that you are a failure. Don’t feel shame. You are not a bad person just because you ate some carbs. Everyone slips up, and the fact that you’re reading this post and feeling guilty already means that you care to get back on track and move towards your goals. Shame can lead many of us (including me) to getting stuck in a cycle of food addiction, going back to carbs and overeating because we are sad and mad at ourselves. Don’t fall into this emotional trap that our minds sometime put us in. YOU ARE NOT A FAILURE.

Harness the guilt, ignore the shame, and move on.

2) Remind yourself of your motivation.

This is why I recommend writing down your motivations for losing weight. Do this when you start your journey, and add to the list as you go. Keep it in an accessible place.

And now is a perfect time to look at your list. Take 5 minutes to read through the list and visualize success. Don’t just read it, but feel it.

You have goals, and despite any setback, what you do RIGHT NOW is the only thing you have control over to reach those goals.

3) Declare that it’s over. Now.

The biggest problem with “cheating” with carbs — whether planned or not — is that a single cheat episode can easily turn into an extended cheating period. A cheat day can turn into a cheat month if you’re not really careful. I’ve fallen victim to this myself. I eat one cookie at the office, then next thing you know, I’m still eating cookies 4 days later. Yuck!

Declare that your carb cheating is over right now. Do you still have a half-eaten tub of ice cream sitting around? Go throw it out. Still have some cookies in the break room at work? Great, they’re no longer for you — they’re just for the carb-eaters. You know it isn’t worth it, and you can have ALL the cookies and ice cream you want when you reach your goal weight.

Remember, harness the current guilty feeling and make a change NOW, not tomorrow.

4) Go eat one strict (but small) Keto meal right now.

This will convince yourself that you’re back on track and prove that you’ve stopped the slide. See, you did it! You’re back on track. Of course you could decide to slip up later, but once you’ve done one thing to get back on track, you’re less likely to “ruin it” and cheat again.

I suggest keeping the meal small. Chances are that after feasting on some carbs you’re already feeling puffy and bloated. The last thing we need is to stuff ourselves with ANYTHING to make that feel worse.

5) Go do some significant exercise ASAP, and for the next few days.

Yes, we all know that losing weight is more about what you eat than the exercise you do. But its also a proven scientific fact that you can accelerate the process of getting back into ketosis by doing things that “burn up” all the stored glucose and glycogen in your body. The best way to do this is to do prolonged, whole-body exercises. As I always say with exercise, do something that you’ll actually do. Whether that’s walking, running, playing tennis, lifting weights, or whatever. Just do something. And do it for long enough that you’re continuing to burn the stored sugars in your body.

I also recommend doing more exercise than you normally do for the coming few days to a week. That’s what I’ll be doing. I plan on running just about every day for the next week, just because running is one of my current exercises of choice. Keep in mind that this exercise is NOT PUNISHMENT. Instead, it is what I need to do, from a scientific perspective, to get back into ketosis.

6) Drink plenty of water and get your salts in.

Depending on how long you cheated, you’ll likely be “starting over” with your body entering ketosis. This means you may go through the Keto Flu again, with some potential not-fun side effects. Remember, the best way to minimize side effects is to drink plenty of water and get your salts in. Sodium, potassium, magnesium. Take some supplements if you need to. Or just do what I do, which is to put lots of salt on everything and eat some avocados. You’ll get through it.

7) Know that when you weigh yourself next, you’ll be higher.

Without a doubt, the next time you step on the scale you will be heavier. You should expect this, and expect a fairly significant increase. Even 1 day of cheating can cause you to jump 5-10 pounds, if you ate lots of simple sugars like candy and cookies.

If you step on the scale with this expectation in mind, you’ll be less frustrated when you see that big number. You won’t go through yet another emotional roller coaster. Expect the worst, and maybe you’ll even be happy with a lower increase.

The good news is that much of the increase in weight when cheating is from more retained water. That’s one of the things carbs do — they make us hold water. This weight can also come off relatively quickly once we’re back in ketosis, so be strict in the coming days, and watch the weight fall back off. It might take a week or more to balance back out, but it will happen.

8) Learn from it and move on.

Once you’ve been back on track for about a week, take a look back.

Was it worth it to cheat like you did? How can you handle the situation better next time? How long did it take you to get back to your pre-cheat weight? Likely you’ll feel more guilt and regret from this. That’s OK — remember, it’s OK to feel guilty, but avoid the feelings of shame — there is a difference. Remember these feelings of frustration and wasted time. Pull them out of your memory bank the next time you’re tempted by the carb monster. Even write them down on your motivation list as something you want to avoid in the future.

For me, my 5 days of not-so-bad cheating is probably going to turn into a 2- or 3-week delay in my weight loss process. (I say it takes about 2-3x as long to lose weight than it does to gain it.) If I was in rapid weight loss mode, that would suck. But I’m in more of maintenance mode, so I’ll be OK. Still feeling I could have done better, but that’s OK, I’ll put that feeling to use and I’ll use it as my armor in the coming weeks and months.

While I’m at it, I should point out a few things that you SHOULD NOT do after falling off the wagon and trying to get back on:

1) Don’t take anything that promises to get you into Ketosis faster (like exogenous ketone supplements).

These supplements DO NOT get you into ketosis faster. Sure, they might have ketones in them, but that doesn’t mean your body is going to do anything with them. If you still have stored glucose and glycogen in your muscles and liver, your body will use that for energy first. That’s just how it works. Your body won’t start using ketones (and therefore enter nutritional ketosis) until you have used up that glucose and glycogen. The supplement companies will try to convince you otherwise, but don’t fall for their crap.

2) Don’t punish yourself.

I know some people who say they’re just going to fast for many days as a “punishment” for cheating. Sure, this might help, if you can actually stick to it. But I think the motivations are totally wrong. Eating a strict Keto diet is nearly just as good, and much more sustainable than just fasting immediately after stuffing yourself with carbs. Feel your guilt, but don’t punish yourself for it.

3) Don’t tell yourself “Diet starts tomorrow”.

We all laugh when we hear this because tomorrow never comes. Harness the guilt while you’re feeling it and use it to make a positive change NOW… don’t wait until tomorrow because your motivation may not be as high. Stop the slide now… you’ll love yourself for it.


So there you have it.  Hopefully this helps a bit while you’re feeling a bit crappy about what you did.  Try not to make a habit of it, use it as a learning experience, and put it in your bucket of experiences you go through to make you better.

Keto on, my friends.

Mark Hamblin

Mark is a Keto Diet blogger, author, and coach, helping people all over the world reach their individual weight-loss goals. He has been following the Ketogenic Diet himself since 2013, achieving a staggering transformation from a very unhealthy 405 pounds to 195 pounds today. As a day-job, he works as an executive in the global electronics industry. He splits his time between San Francisco, Copenhagen, and China.
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