Before You Reach for that Thanksgiving Roll . . . (Here's What You Need to Know)

Fancy Plate Filled with Croissants
Are the consequences for cheating on Atkins
actually worth going off plan for Thanksgiving?

With Thanksgiving only a few days away, it's time to think about what you're going to do.

The holidays can be an extremely difficult time to diet, and you don't want to wait until the very last minute to choose a plan of action. Allowing your emotions to rule the day will only sabotage your weight-loss goals, so the wisest course is to let your rational thought get in on the plan ahead of time.

Thanksgiving and Christmas means lots of office parties, family gatherings, and social events that will put you around food.

Lots of food.

And usually, the type of goodies that aren't found on any low-carb plan.

If you're new to Atkins, it's hard enough trying to figure out how low carb works and what to eat without adding temptation into the mix.

But newbies are not the only ones who might not understand the consequences that come when reaching for that Thanksgiving roll, small piece of pumpkin pie, or a forbidden chocolate bar.

Personal responsibility leaves the choice up to you, but you can't make a wise choice if you don't know what the choices are.

If you're considering going off plan for Thanksgiving or Christmas this year, here's what you need to know to make a well-informed decision.

Pinterest Image: Berry topped pie

What's the Purpose of Gluconeogenesis?

To understand the effects of cheating on a ketogenic diet, you have to first understand the process of gluconeogenesis.

Since there is a lot of confusion within the low-carb world about this life-saving process, I'm going to take a minute and explain it first.

There are three major macronutrients that make up a healthy diet:
  • protein
  • fats
  • carbohydrates
Carbohydrates are not necessary to sustain life. Most low carbers already know this.

However, the brain, the central nervous system, your red blood cells, and a few liver and kidney cells cannot use fatty acids for fuel, so initially, when you first go on Atkins, all of these body cells need glucose.

Later on, after the body adapts to the state of ketosis, and you're beginning to efficiently burn fatty acids for fuel, the brain is able to derive up to 75 percent of its energy needs from ketones.

This leaves 25 percent of your brain function and some other cells still needing glucose. This glucose is manufactured by the liver through a process known as gluconeogenesis.

When necessary, the liver will take glycerol (from fats) and specific amino acids to make that required glucose. It can also use pyruvate and lactate, non-essential amino acids like glutamine, plus any sources of carbs coming in like vegetables and heavy cream.

When carbs are restricted, gluconeogenesis is the metabolic adaption the liver uses to keep the brain functioning normally.

It does NOT turn all protein into glucose, nor even all excess protein. Gluconeogenesis is demand driven, so the liver only converts to glucose what it needs to sustain your life.

When glucose is in ample supply, the liver doesn't need to break down proteins or fats. Neither does it go scavenging elsewhere to get the building blocks for glucose. Therefore, your protein and fat requirements go down.

The amount of protein and dietary fats you need to eat are directly related to how many grams of carbohydrate you're taking in on a daily basis, as well as the number of maintenance calories required to sustain all of your body's functions.

Upset the regular routine by switching back to a glucose-burning metabolism, and your body will have to re-adapt again.

How long that re-adaption to ketosis takes depends on:
  • how full your glycogen storage deposits are
  • how active you are
  • how long you've been low carbing
  • and how resistant the body is to going back into ketosis again
Until you're completely fat adapted, the body won't like bouncing back and forth between metabolic pathways.

Digesting Starchy Carbohydrates Requires Enzymes

Another thing to think about:

The idea of simple versus complex carbohydrates was debunked scientifically several years ago. The more accurate terms would be fibrous carbohydrates, starchy carbohydrates, and sweeteners.
  • High fiber carbohydrates would be foods that contain mostly fiber and little to no carbohydrate, such as non-starchy vegetables or flaxseed meal.
  • Starchy carbohydrates would be breads, cereals, grains, and higher-carb vegetables like peas and potatoes.
  • Fruits would also fall within the starchy carbohydrate category due to their high fiber content.
  • True sweeteners contain calories with little-to-no fiber and hardly any nutrients.
Starchy carbohydrates require specific enzymes to break down their sugar construction into usable components.

This is where the original idea of simple carbohydrates versus complex carbohydrates came from.

Carbohydrates were separated by the number of sugar molecules a food had, but blood glucose response and insulin secretions do not fall within those divisions.

Some complex carbohydrates, such as baked potatoes, can give you a quick rise in blood glucose while sugars like agave syrup will not. For that reason, how your food is digested is more important than how quickly.

Speed doesn't annul the carbohydrate content of the food.

Eventually, those carbs will have to be digested and either used or stored.

Homemade Thick Hamburger Patty Topped with a Fried Egg
If you're used to eating very low carb,
your body won't be used to making
enough enzymes to digest carbohydrates

Although digestion of carbohydrates begins in the mouth, it's the pancreas and small intestine that secrete most of the digestive enzymes and compounds you need to process those carbs.

When you restrict carbohydrates, the body gets used to you not eating very many carbohydrates, so fewer enzymes to digest carbohydrates will be made ahead of time and stored.

When you have a cheat day or go off plan for Thanksgiving or Christmas, you won't have the necessary enzymes needed to digest and process a carb-heavy meal.

Up-regulation of those enzymes takes about three or four days because the pancreas functions according to your eating patterns.

It doesn't read how many carbohydrates are coming in and then quickly creates the needed enzymes. It looks at what you've been eating over the past few days and makes enough to handle your typical carb load.

Not having the needed enzymes when you need them can produce a lot of discomfort:
  • bloating
  • cramps
  • gas
  • diarrhea or constipation
  • other digestive problems
Carbohydrates are not to blame. A lack of enzymes needed to process that carb-heavy meal is what's going on.

If you're gluten intolerant, and don't know it, your reaction to those missing enzymes can be even worse.

Blood Glucose Control Works the Same Way

The same thing holds true for blood glucose control.

When you eat a carb-heavy meal, your basal insulin levels won't be high enough to take care of those extra carbs.

Basal insulin is the baseline the body uses as the minimum amount of insulin you need to help usher the nutrients in your food into your body cells faster.

In addition to this foundation amount of insulin, the pancreas also stores what it thinks you're going to need for that meal ahead of time. It looks at what you've been eating over the past few days and stores enough insulin to handle those types of meals.

When you eat more carbs than what you have been eating, such as at Thanksgiving Dinner, the pancreas won't be ready to handle that new level of carbs. It will only dump into the bloodstream the amount of insulin you need to handle what you ate the day before.

Thanksgiving Dinner: Turkey, Dressing, Potatoes, Cranberry Sauce
Holiday meals can be problematic on Atkins
because the pancreas will only be prepared for your
typical amount of carbs you eat regularly

Therefore, after a large holiday meal, your blood glucose level will be much higher due to the sudden, unannounced carb-heavy load because the pancreas will have to manufacture the extra insulin you need to bring your blood glucose level down to normal.

This is called the second insulin response and what most low carbers seek to avoid because any blood glucose level over 140 ml/dl can damage the body and worsen insulin resistance.

Like digestive enzymes, adapting to a higher carb load takes three to four days, so carbohydrates are not why your blood glucose level goes up when eating carbohydrates. It's simply because the body was't prepared for them.

If the body has adapted to your ketogenic Atkins diet, a low carb intake is what your digestion and metabolic processes will expect. Higher carbs won't be prepared for, so it will take longer for your body to usher those nutrients into your body cells.

Real metabolic damage won't be seen for at least a week after eating at higher carb levels.

This is why the Atkins Diet is structured to introduce additional carbohydrates gradually. When you add back carbohydrates slow enough, the body will easily adjust to those minor changes without it interfering with fat loss.

But a rise in blood glucose after a Thanksgiving meal isn't the only concern here.

Once you eat a meal at a dramatically higher carb level, the body will expect you to keep doing so. As a result, your next meal or two could result in a sudden hypoglycemic response and even trigger cravings for more carbs.

The body could begin producing and secreting an overabundance of insulin to take care of the number of carbs you ate for Thanksgiving because it doesn't understand that Thanksgiving is a one-time thing.

The pancreas, small intestine, and liver cannot read your mind like that.

It only understands patterns.

Unconscious body functions are habitual. Eating patterns become well established, and the body functions similarly to a machine. If it didn't, we'd have to consistently know how to command each and every cell in our body.

Low-Carb Diets Often Function as Elimination Diets

Food sensitivities and intolerance cause systemic inflammation. When you eliminate the foods you're sensitive to, such as wheat, trans-fats, or sugar, inflammation goes down, improving your health and well being.

When you introduce those foods into your diet again, you can have a severe reaction to them.

This is why elimination diets are designed the way they are.

Food sensitivities are not an allergy, so they are more difficult to pin down. However, if the body has created antibodies against those foods, it will let you know about it through a wide variety of uncomfortable symptoms just as soon as you eat that food again. In fact, the reaction will be overly exaggerated.

Like digestive enzymes or a wacky blood glucose response, food sensitivities are not a reaction to the carbohydrates themselves, but they do need to be considered in light of a holiday meal.

If you've been on a low-carb diet for at least a month, the reaction to eating wheat or sugar can be quite disabling, so pick your foods very carefully and watch for any abnormal reactions.

There are many, many low carb dieters that are sensitive to wheat or gluten and just don't know it until they cheat on their diet!

Weight Gain is Inevitable (But Most of It is Not Fat)

If you go off plan and don't gain weight, there's a valid biological reason for that.

Either you didn't eat over your carbohydrate tolerance level, or your body was masking fat loss by stuffing water into your fat cells prior to cheating, and the cheat triggered water loss.

When the body sees carbohydrates coming in, it will often dump the water it's been storing in your fat cells to make room for that incoming dietary fat.

All dietary fats are immediately stored, even when you've adapted to a fat-burning metabolism. This is just how the body works. Fat stores are a flux. Fat moves into the fat cells and the body withdraws it, as needed.

However, in general, weight gain after a holiday meal is inevitable.

Most people following a ketogenic diet are low on glycogen, so the extra carbs are used to refill those glucose storage deposits.

Along with storing the carbs, the body will also store the amount of water it needs to process those carbs, so the weight gain after a holiday meal can end up being as much as 5 pounds, or more, depending on the amount of lean muscle you have and how empty your glycogen stores were before you cheated on your diet.

Keep in mind that this extra weight is not fat.

It takes an extra 3500 calories over your daily maintenance number of calories to store just one pound of fat.

Even if you gorge yourself for that one meal, you wouldn't be able to eat enough calories to physically harm your diet, so holiday weight gain is mostly glycogen and water.

It will come right back off again once you go back to your low-carb dieting style.

Getting Right Back On Plan is Key

Grilled Salmon and Salad with Lemon
Head right back to Atkins once Thanksgiving is over

While I don't recommend going off your low-carb diet for Thanksgiving, due to the reasons I've shared above, hundreds of low-carb dieters do exactly that.

If I'm describing you, be aware that for a large number of dieters, getting back on plan after indulging in carbs can be the hardest thing you will ever do.

Once the mind knows there are carbs in your environment, that you really aren't in a famine situation, it will do everything it can to force you to eat.

That's the cave-man mindset coming out, what some folks refer to as the lower-brain.

It's real.

It's hard-wired to survive.

It's hard-wired to eat carbs.

So be prepared for the body to put up a fight!

Sticking to your new set of values is what you have to do to win the fight, so you might need to eat a bit more over the next few days than you have been eating because the body will be looking for food.

Expect your hunger to soar.

The trick is:

Look at the week following a Thanksgiving indulgence as if you were returning to Atkins Induction, even though you're not.

It will make it easier to handle the extra hunger and cravings if you go into the week with an Induction mindset. Go ahead and feed the cravings, but feed them with extra protein and dietary fats.

Eat more often if you need to to keep hunger at bay.

Do everything you did on Atkins Induction until the body gives in and returns to a fat-burning metabolism.

That might take a few days.

Heck, it might take a few weeks even.

It's hard to say.

My body doesn't go into dietary ketosis as easily as it used to. Today, it really puts up a fight.

Indulging in carbs can also result in a several-week stall, so toss out the scale for a while, and just work on getting your head back in the game. The scale can drive you crazy, so I don't advise using it too much either.

That's another reason why going off plan isn't a good idea, but I do understand those who choose to do that. I've done it myself.

The consequences for me were pretty rough.

Not only did it drive my blood glucose levels through the roof for several hours afterward and resurrect the painful neuropathy, but I also stalled for a whopping two months before the weight started coming off again because the body thought the famine was over.


  1. This article reinforced for me that the body is efficient and intelligent. It's our mind that thinks it can outsmart the body that can get us in trouble. There is no way to get through bio-medical things without understanding how the anatomy works.
    I like the emphasis that the body has no clue that it's the holidays.

  2. I'm seriously thinking that backing into change is the way to go.

  3. Thanks for this!!! I gotta stick to my low-carb guns. :)

    1. You're welcome Brista. I'm glad I could be of help.

  4. Everything you've said is so true! This totally explains the horrific leg cramps I experience after indulging in sweets and carbs! It's all about the enzymes- or lack of enzymes...

    1. Hubby and I get horrific leg cramps from magnesium deficiency. We both have celiac disease, so we don't absorb minerals properly. Electrolyte imbalance is responsible for most leg cramps, but that's a symptom, and not actually a cause. Lack of proper absorption plays a role, as do lack of digestive enzymes. Low carb can be very dehydrating as well, so it's also easy to get your electrolytes out of whack with too much or not enough water. For some people, potassium can also be the culprit.


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