Google searches for this question have shot up in recent weeks. I’m not surprised. An unprecedented number of people went keto in January purely as a quick weight loss hack, and now they’re looking to transition off of “this weird diet.” Tortillas and bagels beckon, after all. This is the wrong way to approach keto—obviously. It’s not a quick hack. It isn’t magic, and if it were magic, the magic takes awhile to happen.
And asking “what happens after keto?” is the wrong question to ask. And here’s my answer to all those folks who are wondering.
Keto is a reset (a Keto Reset, even). It’s a return to the ancestral metabolic state, the metabolic state we were born into (newborns are filthy with ketones, even on their relatively sweet mother’s milk diet). Keto happens really easily in humans compared to other animals. You go 12 hours without eating and then wake up in the morning? You’ll have detectable ketones on your breath. It’s almost like we’re made for it.
Then we enter the “real world.” We start sitting in chairs for half the day. We never go more than a couple hours without snacking on something. We eat carbs we don’t need in order to fuel athletic pursuits we don’t actually pursue. We eat right up until bedtime, which is later than ever because we have multiple social media statuses to update. After our 6 hours of sleep, we grab a pastry and Frappucino on the way to work or school. We’re not just well-fed. We exist in a permanent fed state. Since ketosis naturally occurs when we don’t eat, ketosis comes fewer and farther between for the majority of people living and eating this way.
When you fully commit to the ketogenic diet, you’re committing to rebuild your fat-burning metabolic machinery. The stuff you were born with but squandered. The stuff that’d fuel you for ten hours straight without any exogenous input on those long summer break days. It’s pretty enviable metabolic machinery to have. And while it takes at least four weeks and maybe as long as several months to really establish a solid fat-burning infrastructure, once you build it, you have more flexibility.
This is where “after keto” comes in.
You can stay keto indefinitely. This could be necessary for certain people with certain conditions that really respond to keto, like epilepsy or neurodegenerative diseases. Or if keto just works for you, it might be the easiest, most sustainable way forward.Studies as long as five years show no negative side effects of long-term ketogenic dieting, so, provided you do it right (no salami and cream cheese keto diets), I see no reason not to continue.
If you’re done losing weight and happy with your body comp, you can shift toward a more moderate carb intake. Maybe 100-150 grams a day, depending on activity levels. Just be sure to reduce your fat intake commensurately. The weight loss will have cleared out most of the insulin resistance that naturally results from carrying extra body fat and improve your ability to handle a few more carbs.
If you have weight to lose, and keto was working, I’d just stick with it. Stay the course until you’re where you like.
If you have weight to lose, and keto wasn’t working—and you gave it an honest 2-3 month try—try something else. Nothing works for everyone. Some people just do better on moderate carb, lower fat diets. Most people eating these diets for weight loss probably shouldn’t beand would do better on a keto approach, but this is a viable option if you’ve tried keto and it just hasn’t worked.
What you definitely don’t want to do is return to the dietary habits that led you to keto. Yet I see people do this, time and time again: Keto went well, but they want out, so they start adding carbs on top of their high-fat intake. That’s a recipe for disaster. Not only will you consume an incredible number of calories without even knowing it—butter just disappears into a baked potato—you’ll be consuming the most obesogenic combination of macronutrients around. Consider what the Standard American Diet consists of:
Salty snacks like chips and crackers (pulverized carbs fried in refined seed oils)
Fast food meals (meager meat sandwiched between pulverized carbs served with pulverized carbs fried in refined seed oils)
Pizza (huge discs of pulverized carbs topped with cheese)
Notice a theme? Sound familiar?
Not even choosing the cleanest, most Primal sources of fats and carbs together makes it much better. That combo doesn’t work unless you erect an ultra-intense, high-volume training habit just to keep the junk at bay—and even then, you’ll only maybe stave off some of the weight gain and create a whole host of other problems. If you’re getting paid to do it, sure. But if you’re a weekend warrior destroying his or her social life just to out-train a bad diet, what’s the point?
Here’s what I like most—and what seems to work best for folks: the keto zone.
That’s where your diet is fluid. You’re regularly slipping in and out of ketosis. You’re a bit higher (not high) carb one day to help with an intense training session and go right back to lower carb the next. And throughout it all, because you’ve put in the work necessary to build up that fat-burning machinery, you’re always great at burning fat, and you retain your ability to burn glucose/glycogen when needed.
It’s actually not that far off from how I ate before the keto reset. Same basic foods promoted and eliminated. Similar macronutrient ratios. But with my newfound metabolic flexibility and the improvements in mitochondrial function, it feels different. I eat a little less. I’m a little more efficient with my calories. And I’m not getting any of the negative effects usually seen in diehard adherents to calorie restriction. I’m still killing it in the gym, on the board, and on the Ultimate field. I’m sleeping great. My cortisol levels are in a good place because my body isn’t perceiving this way of eating as a stressor. I’m handling the work load of a growing business and the stress of a cross-country move without issues.
If I had to sum up what ideally happens “after keto,” it’s that ketosis becomes a well-worn tool in your kit—one you’re able to call upon when the job requires it. These jobs just… happen. You realize you skipped lunch because you just weren’t hungry, and you barely noticed. You spend all day bouncing around airports and never even think to eat the terrible food being offered, and it’s no issue at all. It doesn’t even register because, underneath the hood, your mitochondria are dialed in and producing all the energy you need from your own body fat. Ultimately, what keto allows you to do is stop thinking about food so much and get on with your life.
That’s what I’ve seen, at least in myself, my tribe, and the thousands of people who write in to tell me about it. That’s our “after keto.”
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.