How Much Can You Cheat On Your Diet? (and get away with…)

Saturday Apr 22 | BY |
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Local Market in French Polynesia

Local Market in French Polynesia

We all have our definition of what is an ideal diet and lifestyle. For me, it’s pretty simple: a plant-based diet with no added salt, sugar or oil. Along with that, the habit of regular exercise.

If that’s the ideal, then how far can you stray from it and still get good results?

And how much can you harm your health if you go off this diet for some days or weeks?

I recently got a “wake up call” regarding “flexibility” of my diet and lifestyle.

For years, I’ve been trying to maintain a healthy attitude of eating as best as I can at home while being totally flexible on vacation or while traveling.

With that in mind, I recently took a rather long trip to the South Pacific, to an area of the world that I always wanted to go back to — French Polynesia.

My trip was filled with adventures and excitement. I visited seven different islands, staying between 3 to 7 days on each. I discovered beautiful natural wonders such as the marine fauna of an atoll, or the lush beauty of the islands of Tahiti, Huahine, Bora Bora. And of course, the incredible colors of the lagoon.


It’s hard to imagine a place that fits more the description of “Paradise” than French Polynesia.

And yet, in these Paradise islands, it can be quite a struggle to eat the diet of Adam and Eve. On an atoll — a reef island where the volcanic core has long sunk to the bottom of the ocean, leaving only a “ring” of land — there’s almost nothing to eat besides coconut and fish. Everything else must be imported. On volcanic islands like Moorea or Bora Bora, you can find a ton of fruits and vegetables, but supermarkets and restaurants feature local fare that isn’t particularly healthy.

I booked my trip so that I could prepare my food in half of the places I visited, and in the other half, I was at the mercy of whatever was being served at the guesthouses.

On these islands, part of the fun is to stay in very typical, family-style “guesthouses,” called “pensions” in French. Usually, breakfast is included, and often dinner. Everybody eats together, and it’s always a good time to meet other travelers with similar interests. It’s a personal and authentic experience instead of the anonymous experience at resorts and hotels.

Before leaving on my trip, I thought: “I’ll try to do my best to eat well. The rest of the time I’ll have a good time. After all, it’s only for a few weeks”.

In the end, I didn’t eat such a healthy diet compared to my standards. Even in the places where I had access to a kitchen, I often didn’t plan well enough and ended up eating at the restaurant. I tried to eat a fair amount of fruits, but not many veggies. I ate bread, pasta, and even fish. I drank some wine or beer.

Atoll from the sky. Yes, people live there!

Atoll from the sky. Yes, people live there!

What a Month of “Cheating” Did to My Body

It would be nice to think that you could go off your diet for a month and still feel pretty good. But as the trip progressed, I started noticing some alarming signs. The first one is how my body struggled in the heat.

Eating salty food is supposed to improve one’s resistance to heat, but that’s largely a myth. As you consume more sodium, your body excretes the excess rapidly. As a result, it has trouble maintaining the right balance of electrolytes. On a no-salt diet, your body learns to hold on to sodium and does better at managing electrolytes.

It was hot and humid, and I was struggling to stay hydrated. I drank a lot of water, but I still felt the effects of heat. I slept well without A/C, but on some days I felt a bit nauseous and drained.

As the trip progressed, I became congested. I even canceled some diving I had planned because of this. I started having some stomach pains on and off. I was still affected by the heat, even though I had been there for a while and supposedly had “acclimated.”

I contrasted this experience with my last trips to the region. Certainly, the times when I was strict about following a vegan, high raw diet were different. I handled the heat well and did not experience any of the symptoms I was experiencing.

Towards the end of the trip, I even started experiencing some joint pains randomly for a few seconds or minutes.

When I got back home, I was tired. I still felt intermittent pains in my stomach area. Instead of feeling rejuvenated by the trip, I was exhausted!

I got on the scale: I had gained 8 pounds or nearly 4 kg.

Out of curiosity, I checked my blood pressure. It was 150/105! Extremely high by any standard. High enough for meds.

Could this be all because of one month going off the diet?

The next day, I immediately started fasting for 24 hours and eliminated all salt, eating mostly fruits and vegetables.

Within three days, my blood pressure was back down around the 125/85 range and after a week got under 120/80.

The stomach pains went away almost immediately. The random joint pains also went away after a few days. And I started feeling a lot better!

Granted, it will take more than a few days to “undo” 4 or 5 weeks of “cheating.” But the results were so immediate and noticeable that it was clear that my diet change was what caused my troubles, not some “bug” I had caught on the trip.

Reversing the Damage of a Lifetime of Bad Eating

In most cases, it takes a relatively long time to develop health problems from diet and lifestyle, and although results are quick to appear when we make a change, we must be patient.

Experiences on sodium were done on chimpanzees where they added salt to their diet that was equivalent to what is found in the typical American or even vegetarian diet today. Their blood pressure slowly raised over 20 months, resulting in hypertension. After they had eliminated the salt, it took six months for their blood pressure to go back to normal completely.

As we get older, we have to deal with a lifetime of poor eating choices. What my recent trip showed me is that it doesn’t take much to erase the benefits of a healthier lifestyle.

I always had an ambivalent attitude towards going “100%”. On the one hand, I value flexibility and a wide range of experiences in my life. On the contrary, I also value my health and would put that above any minor difficulty in sticking with what many would consider a “strict diet.”

One thing that I have noticed by visiting various fasting centers is how many people love the idea of fasting or doing some “detox” diet to get back to health, but struggle implementing the diet that would keep them healthy the rest of the year. For that reason, they often end up going back to fasting or raw food centers, as their health goes downhill, trying to fix the mistakes of last year.

I knew that as I got older, I would have to become stricter with my diet. It seems like that day has come!

The Problem With Cheating

Having an occasional meal of “fun food” is not going to ruin your health. But the problem with cheating comes from how the human mind’s ability to delude itself. Most people vastly overestimate the positive and underestimate the impact of the negative.

Psychology research has shown that people have a “self-enhancement bias.”

Through this trait, we tend to think of ourselves as better, more beautiful and healthier than we are.

We overestimate our likelihood of engaging in a desirable behavior.

The most famous example of this is the many studies showing that most people consider themselves to be “above average” drivers. A shocking 93% of drivers think so.

Likewise, 94% college professors consider that they do “above-average” work.”

Obviously, almost all of them are wrong! Universally, we tend to view ourselves as “unique individuals amid a homogenous, dull crowd.”

Combined with the self-enhancement bias, humans also suffer from (or enjoy) an optimism bias. For example:

  • Smokers believe they are less likely to contract lung cancer than other smokers.
  • Most alcoholics don’t think they have a drinking problem.
  • Traders mostly think they are less liable to pick bad stocks than their peers.

Scientists now think that the human being is hardwired for optimism. David McRaney, author of “You Are Not So Smart.” writes: “Your wildly inaccurate self-evaluations get you through rough times and help motivate you when times are good.”

People who are brutally honest with themselves are not as happy as people with unrealistic assumptions about their abilities.

The downside to this is obvious: Our grossly inaccurate estimates about ourselves often lead us to make bad decisions.

For example, almost everybody thinks they have a healthy diet.

In fact, most people would describe it as “pretty healthy” or “healthier than most.” The reality is that following a truly health-supporting diet in the modern world is tough, and the definition of “healthy” is so flexible that it can encompass almost any set of behaviors.

Like most people, I thought my diet was pretty healthy, and my level of cheating was under control. And in this case, I vastly underestimated the impact that a few weeks of bad eating could have on my health.

Your thoughts?

Frederic Patenaude

Frederic Patenaude has been an important influence in the raw food and natural health movement since he started writing and publishing in 1998, first by being the editor of Just Eat an Apple magazine. He is the author of over 20 books, including The Raw Secrets, the Sunfood Cuisine and Raw Food Controversies. Since 2013 he’s been the Editor-in-Chief of Renegade Health.

Frederic loves to relentlessly debunk nutritional myths. He advocates a low-fat, plant-based diet and has had over 10 years of experience with raw vegan diets. He lives in Montreal, Canada.

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