Scarlet Letter


We hear this a good bit in reference to diet. “I was doing well but I’ve been cheating a lot lately.” I get it…we all feel a twinge of remorse when we make a choice that we know isn’t the greatest…it’s only human. I have a feeling a lot of those reading this are “A type” personalities who have taken their health into their own hands and challenged conventional wisdom in pursuit of optimum nutrition…you are even more prone to feeling like you’ve let yourself down. I just feel that this notion of “cheating” really puts the wrong connotation on what we’re doing when it comes to diet/nutrition. After all, this isn’t meant to be a fad diet…you know that. Going off of your plan for a 1 week juice fast (help!!!) would seem like more of a failure than eating something less-than-optimal in a LIFE LONG commitment you have made to eating well. Saying that not eating perfectly is “cheating” is setting yourself up for certain failure if you think of it this way. You have what’s called “a life”…it’s a life that does not exist inside a bubble. Where everyone does not know about the paleo diet. Hell, it’s a world full of tasty innovations and special occasions…and everyone KNOWS it is not realistic (and probably not necessary) to abstain 100% from these situations (read: it is next to IMPOSSIBLE).

Cheating as we say it implies an unforgivable sin. Are we really comparing eating an (insert your favorite “non-paleo” food here) to adultery? Should we be emblazoned with a scarlet letter for doing such? Come on…we all know that it’s not that serious.

In a way I feel that the guilt is brought on by those in positions of influence…the bloggers and writers and media authorities that put on airs about their compliance to their method. You know the holier-than-though attitude I am talking about. They would lead you to believe that they are always perfect and if they do show a sliver of being mortal…they will chide themselves and make atonement to show that they are really “above” that. (I hope we are not so guilty of this here, though we don’t go out of our way to show you pictures similar to those below.) They have something to gain from this pretense and it may be a lack of security as well, but I think it’s adding to the paranoia. And I would guarantee that behind closed doors they are living at least a slightly different life than they present. Let me be clear…I don’t mean everyone, there are those that seem very transparent in a good way.

I can illustrate this with the thought of politicians and other celebrities that show a storybook life until the headline breaks. And even more easily with a comparison to another type of relationship, a marriage (or committed pair).

So many married couples present a perfect relationship on the surface. It might leave you wondering how everyone else’s marriage seems problem free when you have disagreements with your spouse. Well, guess what…they do have disagreements and they just don’t want you to know about it. It probably stems from pride and lack of security…sound familiar? Saying that a marriage is a failure because you have an argument is like saying you “cheated” on your diet because you did not eat perfectly.

So can I propose that eating imperfectly now be called “having a disagreement” with your diet? I know it’s more of a mouthful but bear with me. Your marriage or committed relationship is very much like your commitment to your nutrition ideals.

1. It changes and evolves
2. When you are committed, a disagreement is tiny bump in the road not a burning of the bridge
3. It does not adversely affect the outcome

At Health-Bent…we feel like we need to relax a bit about not eating perfectly all the time. I’ve written some about the 80/20 rule in the past. Of course, if you use this to justify eating poorly all the time then it’s counterintuitive. What I’m saying is that if you are committed to your relationship with food, you wouldn’t let it be anything more than a relative rarity.

I am not perfect. I eat bullcrap sometimes and can be mean to my wife on occasion. But I am committed to a great relationship with my wife and with food. I know that the amount of time not making both happy better be slim. I recognize that having self diagnosed imperfections doesn’t make me the only one. Everyone does. And as such…it’s just part of the norm…it doesn’t mean anything is wrong. It also doesn’t mean you shouldn’t strive to be the best you can. Just don’t beat yourself up over it so much. It’s just my opinion but I think that is the healthiest way to be. If you’re shooting for perfection you’ll land at excellence…so don’t cry over spilt coconut milk.

I wouldn’t know what a perfect marriage or a perfect diet would look like anyway. In my next post I plan to write about how “cheating” would be hard to define even if we were calling it that because every single thing you eat falls within a scale of values you have set (based on what you can know so far). Since we are learning more and more every day those values change some and any food choice is not a full on perfect or not perfect choice…almost all fall somewhere in between. (another reason you can’t really say conclusively what food would be a deal breaker or a “cheat”) I’ll introduce a way we subconsciously evaluate our food choices as “good”, “better”, “best” using our umbrella parameters.

I hope this helps. If you feel like you’re eating very well the majority of the time…you should be proud of it and own it. That’s all I feel anyone can do…no matter what they’ll have you believe. At the end of the day, Megan and I fundamentally believe that —

Real and lasting, positive change does not come from 100% compliance; it comes from knowing the difference.


18 responses to “Scarlet Letter”

    1. sarahsmum

      Timely post. I’ve been struggling with ‘cheating’ and good food vs bad food and your post just spoke to me. I know that there really isn’t good or bad food just better choices. It was great to have reinforced that we’re not alone and even the ‘experts’ aren’t ‘perfect’. Thanks

  1. Awesome Post!! Love the marriage analogy!

  2. Hi Brandon, loved the article. I was wondering if you’re signed up for Robb Wolf’s newsletters? I only mention it because he almost never sends them out, but he did write one this week. In it, he had a brief section about the “just in case” food in pantries, stashed ice cream, etc. He feels that none of this should be in the house, period. He also states an example (and I’m paraphrasing), along the lines of “sure, have some ice cream, but go out and eat it somewhere, don’t keep it in your house”. Stuff like that. I guess I’m one of those Type A people you mentioned who’s trying to find a happy medium between The Paleo Solution and our modified Paleo (for athletes, though it’s not explicitly Cordain either). Do you have any thoughts (beyond your article) with respect to Robb’s recent newsletter? Do you have any tips for those of us [relatively new to Paleo] on finding that “happy place” between the “prescribed” diet of our major Paleo writers/researchers, and the HB model that seems to promote more sanity?


  3. we don’t keep much like that in the house either. i’ll have to agree with robb on that one. when we want it we go out for it…we will bring it back to the house at that point though. a pint of ben and jerry’s is always just enough. we don’t buy gallons and such.

    it is interesting to think of sweets and breads in a more non-industrialized sense…imagine that for every wheat and sugar laden treat you were going to eat you had to make it from scratch. even further…imagine you had to create it from wheat that wasn’t already processed. how often would you eat it then? a lot less most likely. convenience might be the biggest problem we have with eating the way we do…that stuff is ubiquitous and cheap now. every store seems to be made up of it almost entirely. so yeah, not keeping it in the house and using an inconvenience as a check to see how bad you really want it is not a bad idea at all.

    you’ll be a lot less likely to cook when you get home tired if there is a pile of junk just sitting there that you could eat instead.

    julia child lived to be 92 years old. sure, it’s an isolated example but maybe it gives the idea that even if you’re eating junk food…making it yourself (or treating a treat you bought with respect) makes you much more likely to be healthy. it’s the whole food relationship…using whole foods and having a culture that supports more fresh and artisan foods that helps explain things like the french paradox. food as something special vs. food as something cheap and convenient.

    that was a ramble if there ever was one. you get the point i hope.

  4. I agree with Brandon on the matter of convenience – I used to eat sandwiches all the time, but now that I’ve actually had to make my own grain-free bread, I just haven’t been bothered to. There’s always plenty of food waiting to be cooked in the fridge or pantry, but the moment I buy something that doesn’t need cooking, I’ll automatically default to that when I’m hungry.

  5. Brilliant post and excellent comment about respect of food. Living in France, I observe the French Paradox on a daily basis…and it is true that there is a true respect for food…procuring it, preparing it or purchasing it (often the case with baked goods) …but also in savouring it, appreciating it and sharing it…regardless of whether the item is “healthy” or not…I am in total agreement with your statement about seeing “food as special vs. food as something cheap and convenient” …

    Thank you for your fresh perspectives and “grounded Paleo”….I always glean so much from your posts…

  6. wonderful and timely post…

  7. Great post, sometimes we need a little reminder that we are not failures if we go off the wagon every once in a while. Thanks for helping me to keep my chin up 🙂

  8. That last point about 100% compliance vs. knowing the difference is spot on. Although I’m really curious about folks who have fallen off the Paleo wagon, so to speak. Like how do you go back to eating SAD after being enlightened? I understand if people are having some issues they need to address, but I can’t imagine that eating a box of organic Annie’s Mac & Cheese is going to help.

    But I digress. I try not to say the C word either. I try to say “off-plan”.

  9. Just starting on this path to eating well and whole foods.. This piece really spoke to me. Sometimes I am a bag to my kind loving and awesome husband. Sometimes. Not all the time and not most of the time. I strive to be a better partner but I’m flawed just like everyone else. The marriage analogy really worked for me.

    I’m on day 23 of a 30 day clean eating challenge. In the beginning the days were long but since about day 12 I haven’t really focused on the end. I’m not planning a pizza and cream puffs pig out or salivating over a loaf of French bread. Every day I feel more confident that eating real whole foods is possible for me forever. Every day I feel better. I have more energy. I’m not running for a big coffee or a chocolate bar to prop me up through the afternoon. I wake up naturally before my alarm. It’s easy to get out of bed. And it’s easy to go to bed at a reasonable hour and fall quickly asleep. If my toddler allows me, I sleep right through the night. It feels really good.

    Am I swearing off gelato for the rest of my life? No. But I am aiming to continue to fuel myself for wellness and for energy.

    Thanks so much for this site and all the amazing free recipes and inspiration like this.

  10. If I’ve been particularly good with my diet and I then have a moment of weakness I feel like I need to go out behind the wood shed and flog myself.

    It’s so funny how we convince ourselves that that one cookie or cupcake can completely undo days or even weeks of healthy living. We have to be hardwired to want bad for us things or else we wouldn’t crave them so much. Then again, I do believe in excess in moderation 😛

  11. To me, I visualize a treat or “cheat” as a wrong turn in the road. And all I have to do is make a U-turn to get back on track. So simple. And since I’m good with directions, U-turns are only a sometimes occurrence.

  12. Natalie Brooke

    BRILLIANT blog! Thank you SO much for this. Everything in moderation! I just started Paleo, what? Like 4 days ago and Easter is this weekend…AHHHH!!! Sugar and cupcakes everywhere! I am known as “the cupcake queen” in my family, and always make baked goods and never eat them, but watch my family devour them. So, I’ve been thinking, today, about how I can make baked goods for my family, boyfriend, friends, etc. that won’t hurt them. If I can make a small difference on holidays and special occasions, then I’d really like to. Your recipes are awesome, I’ve made a couple this week (pork and such) and yum! Cooking has never been hard for me and I my choice this last year was culinary school or grad school, I picked the ladder. Maybe one day I’ll open a Paleo restaurant or bakery? My dream is to open a culinary school for children with dietary issues, so being in my first year in grad school for Early Childhood Development, this whole paleo thing has come at the right time. Just trying to straighten it all out and this and your “SUGARS” blog helped so much! Robb Wolf is AMAZING, but I don’t get the scientific stuff. You brought it all out in a way I can understand! It’s hard for us, being active and athletes, to not FLOG ourselves when we eat badly. But it’s ok. We only live once and the universe brings us things when we need them — like your blog I stumbled on today! 😉

    1. yes, we especially like moderation in moderation! ha.

  13. I love this post! I follow paleo because I have health conditions that I find are greatly improved when I eat this way. It is one thing to just want to be healthy and follow a healthy diet and exercise regimen, but it is a horse of a totally different color when you do it because you HAVE to. When you are basically forced into a situation that you don’t have a lot of control over (such as in my case 3 different autoimmune diseases), and you find something that works, I can not tell you how discouraging it is when “purists” come at you with pitchforks and brooms ablaze with fire just because you had a little bit of clarified butter steamed veggies. I get that there are type A people out there that need the rigidity and the rules to be successful with this lifestyle. But what they need to get is there are lots of us that aren’t type A that HAVE to follow this life style, and don’t have much of a choice. So if there is a gray area where we can claim victory over our diseases and have one tiny place in our lives where WE call the shots and make the decisions, we are going to take it by golly! Those who are healthy and don’t face these challenges every day will never understand that, but this still continue to judge like they do. The autoimmune family is THRIVING on paleo, people who have suffered for years at the hands of their diseases are finding relief! I am SO thankful that I have found it, and wish that people would refrain from labeling us “cheaters” just because we have an area of our life we can control. Great post! Thanks SO much for all you guys do!

  14. […] I like their recipes and they have some interesting perspectives. In doing so, I came across this blog post from a couple of years ago, pondering the whole idea of “cheating” on our diets and the […]

  15. […] Considered a cheat by Paleo Purists. We hate the word cheat, by the way. So much so that we’ve written an entire post about it. Dairy is a gray area in Paleo Land and therefore considered a “Scarlett […]

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