So you tried the ketogenic diet, the über-popular low-carb, high-fat eating style. By focusing on high-fat foods (all the avocados!), this type of diet puts your body into a state of ketosis, using fat for energy instead of carbs. For many people, this switch results in weight loss, but most don't (or shouldn't) stick with the keto diet long-term unless they're on it for a medical reason. Here's why, plus how to transition off the diet safely if you're considering doing it.
Why Do People Go Off Keto?
"Life usually ends up getting in the way," says Shoshana Pritzker, R.D., C.D.N., C.S.S.D., a sports nutritionist and registered dietitian. For most people, how long you can stay on keto is however long you can say "no" to typical social munchies and drinks, she adds. Sometimes, you just want to be able to let loose and eat some processed carbs, right?
Plus, there may be health implications to consider. "We're really not sure what kind of health complications may arise from a long-term state of ketosis (i.e., years and years) if any," says Pritzker. And it's not just that. "One reason a person may want to stop keto dieting is if their lipid panel worsens," notes Haley Hughes, R.D. "If a person who is at a high risk for heart disease is eating increased amounts of saturated fat and sources of cholesterol while consuming less fiber from whole grains, beans, fruits, and starchy vegetables, they may see increased cholesterol levels." There are also special concerns for those with type 1 diabetes and people taking insulin, who might not be a good fit for long-term keto dieting, she says. (Related: Healthy But High-Carb Foods You Can't Have On the Keto Diet)
Lastly, the reason for going off keto could be as simple as having reached your goal—weight loss, performance, or otherwise—and being ready to get back to eating carbs. Regardless of why you want to stop following the keto guidelines, there are some key things you'll need to know ahead of time.
How to Come Off Keto the Right Way
Sadly, shocking your system by downing a few slices of pizza is *not* the right way to come off of keto. Instead, you'll need to do a little mental prep work.
Have a plan. "One of the biggest problems with dieting altogether (whether keto or another diet) is that when you stop, what do you do next?" says Pritzker. "Most people just end up going back to the way they ate previously, which wasn't working for them before, so why would it work now?" This is especially true if you went on keto for weight-loss purposes. "Your best bet is to have a plan as to what you're going to eat and how you're going to start incorporating carbs back into your diet." If you're not sure what your goals are now or how to accomplish those goals with your diet, check in with a dietitian. (BTW, here's why the anti-diet is the healthiest diet you could ever be on.)
Get familiar with portion sizes. "As with any strict diet, transitioning back into your normal eating style can be difficult," says Keri Glassman, R.D., C.D.N., founder of Nutritious Life. "After restricting your carbs for so long, you're more likely to overdo them once you allow yourself to have them again." The first few times you eat carbs post-keto, look to see what one serving size is and stick to that.
Start with unprocessed carbs. Rather than going straight for pasta, doughnuts, and cupcakes, go for plant-based carbs first. "I would reintroduce whole grains, beans, legumes, fruits, non-starchy vegetables first versus processed foods and sugar-sweetened beverages," says Hughes.
Go slow. "Try introducing carbs slowly and gradually," advises Pritzker. This will help you avoid any G.I. distress (think: constipation) that could come along with reintroducing carbs. "Start with adding carbs in at one meal per day. Try this for a few weeks and see how your body responds. If things are going well, add carbs into another meal or snack." Continue adding carbs one meal or snack at a time until you're comfortable eating them throughout the day.
Photo: Dimitri Otis / Getty Images
What to Expect When Stopping Keto
Even if you do everything right, there are some physical effects—both positive and negative—you should watch out for when stopping a ketogenic diet.
You might have blood sugar fluctuations. "It's hard to predict how someone will react to coming off the keto diet," says Edwina Clark, R.D., C.S.S.D., head of nutrition and wellness at Yummly. "Some may experience minimal effects, while others may find that their blood sugar spikes then crashes after their first carb-moderate meal." Roller-coaster blood sugar levels can cause jitteriness, mood changes, hyperactivity, and fatigue, so check with your doctor if you experience any of these symptoms.
You might gain weight. (But don't freak out.) You also might not! "Weight fluctuation is always a possibility, but weight gain will depend on many factors, including how your body metabolizes carbs, the rest of your diet, exercise, and more, says Glassman.
It also depends on how long you've been on keto. "Much of the weight lost when cutting carbs is water weight initially," says Pritzker. "When you reintroduce carbs you also introduce additional water; with every gram of carb, you get 4 grams of water. This can make you feel like you've gained a ton of weight rapidly, though much of it is probably water retention." This type of water weight gain applies to everyone coming off keto, but those who have been on it for a shorter period of time and lost just a small amount of weight on the diet may notice it more. (Related: 6 Unexpected Causes of Winter Weight Gain)
Bloating could happen. But it's temporary. "The most common issue that people deal with is bloating and intestinal issues because of the re-introduction of fibrous foods," says Taylor Engelke, R.D.N. Even though foods like beans and sprouted bread are good for you, your body may need to get used to digesting them again. You can expect this to subside in a few days to a few weeks.
You may have more energy. "People may have increased energy after adding carbohydrate back into their diet since glucose (which is found in carbs) is your body's main fuel source," says Hughes. You may also notice better performance in HIIT workouts and endurance training. Plus, you could feel better mentally, since the brain also uses glucose to function. "Many people report having a much better memory and feel less 'foggy' with concentration or functioning at work," says Engelke. (Related: 8 Things You Need to Know About Exercising On the Keto Diet)
You might feel hungrier. "The high-fat and moderate-protein combo of a keto diet make it super satiating," says Glassman. That's why a lot of people experience a suppressed appetite while trying keto. "It is possible that you might feel hungrier after each meal as they start to contain less fat and more carbs, which tend to be faster-digesting," she adds. To combat this and smooth your transition, Clark suggests pairing carbs with both protein and fat. "This can help slow down digestion, boost fullness, and limit blood sugar spikes and crashes as you reintroduce carbohydrates."