How to Transition from Keto to a Healthy Diet Without Gaining All the Weight Back
While the ultra-restrictive keto diet may have helped you lose some weight, chances are you'll gain some of the weight back that you lost. But fear not! Three dietitians give their advice on maintaining most of the weight loss after keto.
Pictured Recipe: Shrimp Pasta Salad
The ketogenic diet (also called "keto diet") is a high-fat, moderate-protein, very-low-carbohydrate diet introduced by physicians in the 1920s for treating epilepsy. Recently it's become a popular weight-loss diet. When carbohydrate intake is very low and glucose is not available for energy, the body breaks down fat into molecules called ketone bodies through a process called ketosis. While the keto diet can lead to rapid weight loss, it's a really challenging diet to stick with long term because of how restrictive it is. Maintaining weight loss after any diet can be difficult, especially one where you lose weight fast. So, we interviewed dietitians to get their take on exactly why it's so hard to maintain the weight loss and what they recommend you do to keep as much off as possible as you get back to a regular healthy diet.
Why It's Hard to Maintain Weight Loss After Keto
Your body will try to replenish its stores
Restrictive diets like keto don't work long term. "Whatever changes you made to lose the weight need to be kept up permanently to avoid weight regain," says Ayat Sleymann M.S., R.D.N., a weight-loss dietitian at Mom Nutritionist. The problem is, says Sleymann, "The eating habits are unsustainable and too difficult to do. This leads to [people] falling back to their old eating habits and regaining the weight." This is a totally normal response your body will have after any restrictive diet. After being deprived of energy, your body will work hard to replenish its stores.
You end up eating more calories than you burn
Vanika Jethwa, R.D., C.P.T., a dietitian and personal trainer at Weightloss.Nutritionist, agrees: "The reason why all of these diets can work is because fewer calories are being consumed than burned. Oftentimes once the restrictive diet ends, we tend to eat more of that particular food and calories consumed ends up being more than calories burned, causing weight gain."
Your metabolism slows and makes it harder to lose any weight that you regained
Another danger of restrictive diets is that they can lead to a restrict-binge cycle. This is harmful because the body responds by slowing your metabolism, which makes it harder to lose weight later on. This is a definite challenge, especially if you did gain back some or all of the weight you lost—losing it the second time around can be more difficult. "Also, fad diets can be harmful because they usually lack essential nutrients (like fiber, B vitamins, magnesium and more) and they teach you nothing about healthy eating," says Sleymann. Not to mention, they take the pleasure out of eating and overcomplicate things, she says.
Related: The Not-So-Sexy Side Effects of Keto
How to Transition to a Healthy Diet Post-Keto
Pictured Recipe: Crispy Fish Taco Bowls
Make a plan personalized to you
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to maintaining weight loss after keto. "Some people stay on a low-carb or keto diet even after losing weight, while other people like to include higher-carb days," say Lara Clevenger, M.S.H., R.D.N., C.P.T., and Faith Gorsky of The Keto Queens. "Eating at the right calorie level while also controlling for stress and living an active lifestyle help maintain weight loss."
We here at EatingWell totally agree that working with a dietitian to create a personalized plan that accounts for calorie needs, decreasing stress and incorporating movement can help maintain weight loss. It's important to note that we don't encourage following the keto diet, or any restrictive diet for that matter, unless recommended by a physician—for example, for the treatment of epilepsy.
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Bump up activity levels, fiber intake and keep protein at a healthy level
If you want to ditch keto and counting macros, there are other easier ways to maintain weight loss. Jethwa's recommendation is: "Find exercise you enjoy! This could be anything from walking around the block each day to taking dance lessons or joining a local soccer club." Sleymann recommends: "Exercising for at least 30 minutes per day and making sure you are eating an adequate amount of protein (about 50 grams per day), which helps promote fullness." And rather than relying solely on animal proteins, opt for more plant-based protein sources, like beans, lentils, tofu and edamame.
"And eat vegetables at every meal as they add volume on your plate and are low in calories and high in fiber," adds Sleymann.
It's also important to make changes to your diet slowly. If you all of a sudden start eating 30 grams of fiber a day after not eating much at all, your stomach is going to go crazy and likely cause some pretty intense constipation. Add in one or two servings of a high-fiber foods per day, like oatmeal, whole-wheat pasta, beans, chia seeds or berries, and if your stomach tolerates that, bump it up a little more the next day. And remember, whenever you add more fiber to your diet, you also need to add more water to prevent constipation.
Allow yourself to enjoy all foods in moderation
Jethwa adds, "Enjoy all foods in moderation to help avoid cravings. If cravings do come up, honor them!" This includes all forms of carbs, from ice cream to pasta! And moderation also means not relying on fat and animal proteins to fuel your diet. "Listen to hunger cues and acknowledge them—eat when you feel hungry."
What about the "Cyclical Keto" method?
Priscilla Blevins, M.S., R.D., registered dietitian at Keto.Weightloss.Nutritionist and founder of What The Fat Nutrition uses the Cyclical Keto Method to help clients lose weight and keep it off. "The macro breakdown for keto varies: 60-75% fat (80-100g fat), 15-30% protein (70-90g protein), and 5-10% carbs (30g carbs)," she explains. Most of her clients eat closer to the upper range while doing keto. "Cyclical Keto is where my clients follow the traditional keto 4-5 days a week, and then have higher carb days 2-3 days a week. The higher carb days are about 100g carbs. This usually looks like having a serving of carb, fruit and dessert," she says.
The RDA (recommended daily allowance) for carbs is 130 grams per day, so if you're eating fewer than that over a long period of time, you're at risk for nutrient deficiencies. 30 grams a day on keto is too low, and while 100 grams is better, it's still a level where you're missing out on important nutrients. There are healthier way to lose weight and maintain a healthy weight.
What to Do If Your Weight Creeps Up
Start tracking your food again, dietitians recommend. Calories can sneak back in and if you were tracking macros closely, the percentage breakdown could be off since you stopped tracking. The Keto Queens also recommend taking a look at activity level, stress and any medication changes to get a more holistic understanding of what's going on. Also, don't get back into the habit of restricting foods again to try and maintain or lose weight, whether it's in terms of type or amount of food—it does you no good. Let go of guilt around all foods and allow yourself to enjoy what you crave in moderation.
If you can't keep up the way you're eating and exercising forever, you won't see the results forever, so however you choose to lose and maintain weight, it has to be sustainable for you and your lifestyle. Sleymann says, "I truly believe leading a healthy lifestyle should not feel challenging. In order to lose the weight for good and start eating healthy, you need to ditch the diet and the diet mindset. Instead, think about small, achievable modifications you can do today that you could live with and enjoy for life."
Jethwa agrees, "Weight loss should be slow, steady and sustainable; if you are nervous about maintaining your diet it might be a good idea to try something different! Choosing a sustainable approach to weight loss means that once you reach your goal weight, keeping the weight off will be much easier."
Everyone's lifestyle and relationship with food is different. As always, seek guidance from a professional, like a registered dietitian, if you need help navigating the best eating pattern for your personal goals.