Over the past decade or so, the ketogenic diet has been a hot topic for dieters around the country. Especially among people who need to lose weight and want to do so quickly, going keto has become a tool that can be useful.
The keto diet can result in fast weight loss by severely restricting the amount of carbohydrates in the diet to about less than 5% of calories. This causes the body to burn fat as fuel instead of its preferred option – glucose – which is a type of sugar that’s broken down from the food you eat. When the body uses fat for fuel instead, it releases a byproduct called ketones.
Ketones can be measured in the blood and urine, and for the strictest adherents of the ketogenic diet, hitting a certain level of these chemicals made in the liver means you’re in the optimal fat-busting zone.
“Ketogenic diets work well for weight loss because restriction of carbs, and to a lesser extent protein, cause a reliance on fat for energy, including your stored fat,” says Kelly Roehl, an advanced practice registered dietitian nutritionist and a certified nutrition support clinician based in Chicago. “Ketogenic diets with a slight, but not excessive, calorie restriction help you mobilize your own fat stores for energy while maintaining muscle mass.”
While the keto diet has recently caught on as a way to quickly shed weight, it’s not a new idea. Indeed, the diet was initially developed in the 1920s as a means of helping control intractable epilepsy.
Today, many folks who need to lose some weight are opting for an extremely low-carb lifestyle like the keto diet, but staying on even a modified keto diet long term can present some challenges.
“Most people have a hard time staying on a really strict keto diet approach,” says Michelle MacDonald, clinical dietitian supervisor at National Jewish Health in Denver.
For many folks, this means there’s going to be a time when they must transition from the keto diet to a different way of eating. That often means those lost pounds return as you revert to previous dietary patterns.
But going off keto doesn’t have to mean weight gain, and there are ways you can manage moving off the keto diet to a more traditional way of eating without losing the ground you gained on the diet.
8 Tips for Transitioning Off Keto
Many followers of a keto lifestyle cycle in and out of the diet. If you find you need to go off keto, here are eight ways to limit how much weight you’ll gain back during that transition.
1. Pay Attention and Adjust as You Go
Anytime you leave one diet for another, you should be paying close attention to how your body responds to the revised eating plan. If you notice that your weight is creeping back up, make some adjustments, Roehl says. “Should the weight creep back up, carbs can be reduced to produce weight loss.”
This will require you to keep a close eye on your weight and other health measures so you can respond in a timely fashion when that number on the scale starts inching upward.
Some people follow a plan called keto cycling that has them following a keto diet a few days in a row followed by a day at a more normal carbohydrate consumption level before going back to a stricter keto diet. That’s a little different from what we’re talking about here, but there are a wide range of ways you can approach following keto for a time, followed by a break, before going back on keto again.
2. Learn to Cook
Roehl notes that a healthy keto diet will contain a variety of high-quality and minimally processed foods that are less likely to cause weight gain than ultra-processed foods. These nutrient-dense options “should be the focus of any long-term healthy diet, including for weight maintenance. Learning to cook and enjoy these high-quality foods will make weight management less of a chore by causing a behavior and mindset shift.”
3. Slowly Scale Back Fat Intake
The bulk of the calories you’re feeding your body daily when on the keto diet are from fat, and as such, you’ll need to reduce the amount of fat you eat to make room for more carbohydrates in your diet. Monica Chan, supervising dietitian with Riverside University Health System in California, recommends transitioning off a keto diet by “slowly decreasing your fat intake, especially saturated fat, while increasing lean proteins, vegetables and wholesome carbohydrates like fresh fruits, whole grain and beans.”
4. Add Back Carbs Slowly
Similarly, once you’ve achieved your goal of being on the keto diet, whether that’s for weight loss, blood sugar control or achieving another aim, you can gradually add back some high-fiber carbs to your diet a little at a time.
“Typically, what we recommend in our clinics is to have people slowly add back in carbohydrates,” MacDonald says. And how many carbs and when you add them may vary somewhat depending on how many carbs you’re eating each day while on the keto diet.
For example, if you’re eating about 20 grams of net carbs per day, which is a fairly common amount of carbs for someone following a strict keto diet, “you would try adding 5 or 10 grams of carbohydrates a day for a week and see how you’re doing.”
For reference, a half cup of berries contains about 7 grams of carbohydrates, and a tablespoon of blackberry jam has about 10 grams of carbs, so these are quite small increments of food we’re talking about.
If you’ve gained weight, you can scale back a bit. If you’re maintaining your weight, you can continue adding carbs and reassessing. “You keep increasing the amount of carbohydrates up to a threshold of maintaining the weight that you’ve already lost,” MacDonald explains. This set point will be different for each person, and it’ll take a little trial and error to find the right balance for you.
5. Visit the Mediterranean
Roehl recommends slowly transitioning from a keto diet into a diet that more closely resembles the Mediterranean diet through the “gradual addition of high-fiber carbs.” The Mediterranean diet is a frequent favorite among dietitians and has been ranked the No. 1 diet in U.S. News & World Report’s 2020 Best Diets ranking.
6. Avoid Previous Bad Habits
MacDonald notes that for some people, going off keto means they’re reverting to previous bad habits. “That’s what causes people to come undone – they return to some of the old habits, which is very understandable. We’re hardwired to like sugar.”
This tendency to pick up old dietary habits can result in a dieter consuming more carbs than intended, and “carbohydrates are usually the culprit” when it comes to weight gain, MacDonald adds.
If you’re cycling in and out of keto and trying to maintain the weight loss you achieved, MacDonald notes that you’ll probably “have to accept that you can’t eat a lot of junk. You have to be selective about what foods you eat, particularly carbohydrates,” such as breakfast cereals, snacks, ice cream, sodas and other foods you may love but that probably aren’t the best nutritional choices.
7. Select Less Processed Foods
Both when following a keto diet and when transitioning to a less restrictive diet, Chan says it’s important to think about the quality of the foods you’re eating and choose less processed options.
“If you eat large amounts of processed meats like bacon, sausage and lunch meat, consider reducing the amount because these have been linked to increased cancer risk. Instead of processed meats, select lean meats like fish, skinless poultry and occasionally lean red meat,” Chan notes. Tofu and other plant-based proteins can also be an excellent option instead of processed meats.
She offers an example of a healthy, post-keto meal: 4 to 5 ounces of lean protein, surrounded by a large amount of vegetables with added olive oil, avocado and a small serving of berries.
8. Boost Physical Activity
Chan adds that a good way to help maintain your weight as you’re altering your dietary intake is to keep up or increase your exercise levels. “Increasing your activity level will help you avoid gaining weight. Check with your physician for appropriate types of exercise that are fit for you.”
When to Transition Off Keto
Naturally, each person’s dietary journey is going to be different and will be influenced by tastes and preferences, culture and health needs. For some people, a keto lifestyle is a form of therapy to control seizures or support good mental health. But it can be restrictive and difficult to stick with long term.
Before you ever go on keto, Chan recommends talking with a health care provider or dietitian to make sure it’s a good option for you. “You should have your physician check your blood work to ensure this extremely low carbohydrate diet is appropriate for you.”
If you are cleared for it, Chan says it’s best to “stay on it no longer than three to six months. Continue having your physician check your blood work closely to make sure your blood glucose levels, liver and kidney functions are at target.”
Generally speaking, “the idea is to maintain the diet until you’ve achieved or come close to achieving your goal, whether that’s weight loss, blood sugar control or blood pressure control,” MacDonald says.
However, even if you haven’t yet met your goal, if you’re struggling with the ketogenic diet, it might be time to consider transitioning out. “If the lifestyle makes you unhappy or unhealthy, you should transition off,” Roehl says.
For some folks, it’s time to leave the keto lifestyle when life intervenes, such as going on vacation or coming up on a birthday, a holiday or another event during which you want to be able to eat more liberally. You can come back to keto later, and MacDonald says most of the people she works with who follow a keto diet do tend to cycle in and out of it.
Bottom Line: “Keto is not for everyone,” Roehl says. “No matter what diet or lifestyle you gravitate towards, remember that food quality and quantity are important. Eat more vegetables, fewer processed carbs, and don’t be afraid of healthy fats,” she says.
Chan adds “nutritional goals are, and will always be, about the work you put in. All diets will reach a plateau whether it’s in weight loss or from being tired of the taste or even just eating certain foods for the diet. The best thing you can do is to focus on healthy eating habits for a lifetime.”