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Usually when people talk about “cheating” on their diet, they mean they had a cheat meal, or a cheat day, or they “went off the rails” completely at a party.
Whether or not these are scheduled “cheats”, the underlying premise is that you’ve broken the rules or done something naughty. And whether or not you have guilt about that cheat depends on how much strictly you follow your diet, and why you did the “cheating” in the first place.
But eating foods that are not on your strict diet plan shouldn’t be compared to something as serious as cheating on your spouse or cheating on your taxes.
That’s why I actually hate the word “cheating” when it comes to building a healthy diet. In my mind, there’s no such thing as cheating on your diet.
Every meal you eat is a choice. Some choices are more disciplined and purposeful, others are more impulsive, and still others are purposefully for the sake of enjoying yourself and chilling the heck out. (Those are my favorite choices!)
But just in case you are stuck in the mindset that “cheating” on your diet is wrong, here are three reasons why breaking free from your rigid diet rules can actually improve your health and happiness both today and twenty years from now.
[Tweet “Dietary infidelity? @Ancestralizeme gives her top 3 reasons why cheating on your diet is good!”]
1. Always Keep Experimenting
One of the big reasons why many of my clients come to work with me is because the diet they’ve been killing themselves to stick to for months or years has suddenly started to fail them.
Perhaps they’ve gained the weight back that they lost. Or maybe they stopped menstruating. Or perhaps their energy has dropped significantly, despite a huge boost when they first started their new way of eating.
Some of these clients have no issues completely revamping their diet and trying something new, such as switching up their macronutrient ranges, adding in new foods they’ve been avoiding, eating more in general, or eliminating problem foods they’ve been overeating.
However, I’ve worked with a lot of people for whom change is scary, and takes more than a few sessions to really get on board with.
I’ve had clients afraid to eat bananas (too much sugar!), white potatoes (not Paleo™!), eggs (autoimmunity!), liver (toxins!), chicken skin (high omega-6 fat!), broccoli (goitrogens!) and white rice (grains!).
Adding some of these foods into their diet was a scary experiment for them that 9 times out of 10 was perfectly fine, and often helpful for getting them to their health goals.
It’s rare for anyone to figure out their 100% perfect diet that will never change no matter what happens in their lives – I’d even argue that this is impossible.
You need to always be open to experimentation when it comes to your diet, otherwise you’ll likely get stuck in a diet that is not be serving you anymore, but you’re too afraid to make changes.
Don’t take your diet too seriously. Yes, diet is extremely important to good health, but not so much that a little bit of experimentation with new and different foods isn’t worthwhile doing.
You might find that lifting restrictions, shifting your macronutrients, or trying new foods that you used to not tolerate may actually improve your health rather than harm it.
2. Rigidity Rarely Lasts
Complete rigidity when it comes to your diet isn’t a good strategy for long term compliance or good mental health when choosing a diet to follow.
Avoiding rigidity in your diet should be a priority.
Mark Sisson has a great term to describe the ideal diet: WCIGAW. (I think that’s pronounced “wicky-gaw”?) It stands for “What Can I Get Away With?”
The basic principle of WCIGAW is that the key to staying consistent and happy with your Paleo, Primal, or ancestral diet is to have a good sense of understanding about what foods your body does well on, what foods you can “get away with” on occasion, and what foods are absolutely non-negotiable.
For example, perhaps for you gluten is a non-negotiable, you enjoy sugar occasionally, and you can eat as much dairy as you want with no repercussions. Knowing that sugar and dairy are okay for you to eat can make it far easier to enjoy eating out and traveling, without the stress of trying to stay perfectly Paleo 24/7.
For me, I don’t even avoid gluten 100% of the time. I have beer an average of 4-6 times a month, I’ll nibble on a nice piece of bread or tasty dessert at a restaurant, and I don’t worry about croutons on a salad (though I pick them off because I actually hate croutons.)
But on the flip side, I don’t buy regular bread or pasta, I typically order gluten-free dishes when I’m eating out, and I know that if I eat excessive wheat products, I generally feel sluggish, my digestion is a little icky, and I tend to break out.
So while I generally avoid gluten because too much of it makes me feel gross, I understand that enjoying a beer or two is not going to kill me or make me violently ill, or even affect my health at all in the long run, so I don’t stress about it.
It’s important for you to figure out what foods you can “get away with” in order to avoid the rigidity that often leads to “falling off the wagon”, bingeing, and feeling extreme guilt when the diet is “broken”.
3. Life Is Short!
This is my favorite reason to loosen up with your diet, especially if you’re someone who’s generally healthy but is just looking to stay healthy and live a long, energetic life.
As I mentioned earlier, rigidity in your diet can lead to unhappiness, anxiety, stress, and disordered eating. None of that fits into a picture of health in my book, so I strongly recommend taking a long hard look at your diet if you’re finding that it is causing you emotions like anguish, fear, or depression.
Ultimately, even if you find the perfect diet for longevity and health, we’re still all going to die in the end. And a perfect diet won’t keep you from getting hit by a truck or falling into a manhole, so spending every waking minute analyzing and tweaking your diet is a pretty poor way to spend your precious time.
After all, time is the only resource we have that we can never get more of, so spending it wisely is the most important thing you can do in this world.
And spending it on restrictive dieting, overtraining, and obsessing over your health or physique could not be a bigger waste of time, if you ask me.
For other perspectives on this, check out these posts:
- Diane Sanfilippo’s Paleo Perfectionism
- Chris Kresser’s How To Put The 80/20 Rule Into Practice
- Maddy Moon’s How I Realized My Diet Was Keeping Me In Social Prison
- Summer Innanen’s Why You Need To Love & Accept Your Body
- Amy Kubal’s What Are You Afraid Of?
- Juli Bauer’s My Ever Changing Viewpoint on Paleo and CrossFit
Now I’d like to hear from you. Did your health improve when switching to a less rigid diet? Are you tired of following arbitrary food rules? Share your thoughts in the comments below!