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.

polynesia

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.

17 COMMENTS ON THIS POST

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  1. Roger Haeske says:

    Thanks for sharing your story Fred.

    Great article with lots of valuable tips.

    Certainly eating 100% raw does complicate travel to many locations where raw food is not so plentiful.

    And we alway have to evaluate what is most important to us health or diet flexibility.

    Interesting about your blood pressure and lack of ability to deal with the heat. Not sure if you mentioned in your article (and I know you know this I’m just sharing for others) but you can get sodium in your diet even if you are intentionally keeping the salt out via getting it from organic plant sources like celery and greens. In other words you won’t mess up your electrolyte balance by eliminating toxic NaCl or salt from your diet.

    I myself live in the hot desert and because I eat 100% raw and eat no salt I can handle the heat better than everyone else. I actually like 115 degree days.

    But even if I so much as don’t get enough sleep then the heat can start bothering me.

    Anyways, your trip sounds like it was a lot of fun visiting some gorgeous islands. Too bad your body didn’t enjoy it too. But at least you got some clarity and a reminder how addicting unhealthy foods can be.

    Take care,

    Roger

    • Hi Roger! Next time I do a similar trip I will stick with my diet, even if that eliminates some possible destinations or make travel a bit more complicated. Like you said, we have to choose what we value most! At this point I think it’s no longer a choice but a necessity! Thanks for your comments as always!

  2. Bob Mathews says:

    Interesting thoughts. I am not vegan, or even vegetarian, and typically eat a small serving of some meat/fish in the evening. But I do eat a lot of vegetables that I juice/blend/cook from scratch, and make a lot of fermented products which I eat daily. I eat hardly any processed foods (except dark chocolate) and rice and pasta only occasionally.
    I do travel a fair amount, and trying to avoid all the toxic meats and fish is difficult. The main thing I notice is that when I get back home the fermented foods stabilize my whole system in less than 24 hours, particularly my sauerkraut and home-made yogurt. Even small daily amounts can help, so I am thinking of taking a little with me on trips in the future.
    I often gain weight on a trip as well, but sometimes even though I have eaten a lot of food, my weight has barely changed. Just spent a week at an All-Inclusive on the Riviera Maya and only gained one pound, whereas I could easily have put on 5 to 8 pounds on another week long trip. I think it is related to the amount of hidden processing in what may appear to be healthy meals.

  3. Jennifer says:

    After being a vegetarian for many years but eating very unhealthy and weighing 303 pounds at five foot six inches tall,I began a raw vegan diet. I quickly lost ninety six pounds and was feeling much better. Then I had to have a neck fusion surgery that meant I needed a lot of protein to recover. I added whey protein powder and then cheese and yogurt. Within a year I regained forty pounds. So this past Thursday I went back to raw. I already have more energy and my body is cleansing itself.

  4. Lorraine says:

    The thing I like most about you is your candid honesty in your articles. Thank you for telling it like it is.

  5. Carmen says:

    I love this article! This came exactly at the time I need it as I am a food cheater to the max. Having fractured my wrist and arm this last week while in Greece, I decided to be strict 100% raw vegan when I got home. This is my first day. I do not eliminate salt or oil tho and I still have coffee with sugar, 1/2 C 2/day. I have low blood pressure within normal limits, but when I went to the emergency room today to check on my arm directly after coming home, my blood pressure was 141/80. The hospital staff said this was normal for people going to the hospital. Another time I went, tho, the first number was only 40. I don’t remember the second tho it’s written down in a log. My feeling is that raw veganism will heal me way faster than if I eat normally what I eat which is raw vegan 40%, cheating heaven 60%. So thanks for this enlightening article.

  6. Carolyn King says:

    Hi Frederic
    I have always read about you even back when you published “Just Eat an Apple.”
    On more than one occasion, I have often pondered this thought: What if we remained 100% raw and then suddenly we found ourselves in situations where we had no control over our food supply. What if we could only get canned meats and whatever?
    Maybe we are too inflexible and we should seek to balance our raw diets with a bit of salt etc.; perhaps gradually so that we wouldn’t plummet so quickly into bad health.

    These are just thoughts.
    Please answer.

    • Hi Carolyn! Nice to hear that you’ve been around since the JEAA days! I think those situations are quite rare and unexpected. Now I think it’s best to follow a diet as perfect as possible most of the time. The fact that your body might react more strongly when you “cheat” is a sign that things are working properly. Don’t forget that daily mistakes affect our health much more than occasional cheats.

  7. Faith says:

    Great article Fred.
    I agree with what you have written as I see it in my health that as we get older our bodies does not feel good due to cheat days and one has to be quite strict in eating good most of the time.

  8. Linda says:

    I thought a little salt is what the body needed, so how much is too much? I use tamari is this too salty? I only add about 1 teaspoon salt to my salad per day and tamari on my dinner at night. Should I cut out both?

    • Basically the body needs around 500 to 1000 mg. of sodium a day. Most people get over 3500 mg. and in many cases 5000mg. Just by eating food (fruits, vegetables, etc.) without any added salt we get around 800-1000 mg. of sodium a day. The maximum before health issues pop up is 1500 mg. a day. But I think a better rule of thumb is half a mg. of sodium per calorie. So someone on a 2000-calorie diet should aim at 1000 mg. (as a maximum), which basically means no added salt. One teaspoon of salt is a lot of sodium! Around 2300 mg. of sodium for regular salt and maybe around 2000 mg. for sea salt. Tamari is also very salty. The most obvious effect of excess sodium is high blood pressure. But it can take a lifetime to develop in some people, depending on your genetics and other factors. However, excess sodium affects your body in different ways INDEPENDENT of blood pressure. “High sodium intake results in massive albumin excretion, oxidative stress, severe renal arteriolar damage, interstitial fibrosis, increased glomerular hydrostatic pressure, glomeru- lar hyalinization, fibrosis, and end-stage renal disease independently of increased BP.” (REF: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23558162)

  9. SYLVIA says:

    Very educational, Frederic! I, too, struggled with the heat this Friday. We were climbing up and going down some sand dunes. As it got closer to noon the sun was brutal and I had a “hero” help me make the final climb.

  10. Fred says:

    Yes. Some people cannot tolerate salt. Salt allergies are a curse because they prevent some of the joys of eating. Fortunately, in my case, I can eat tons of salty foods without an increase in blood pressure or any other noticeable difference. Restaurant “food” is another story. Although I have had very few problems, every stomach ache or vomit that I can remember has occurred within about twelve hours of eating this “food”. And there is the lingering guilt feeling.

  11. Bill Kranker says:

    Frederic,

    What you talk about in this article parallels what I am currently going through. Over the last 12 years or so I completely changed my diet from fast food to the natural hygiene version of raw foods (low fat, no salt, oils spices, wheat etc…) But over the last few years I slowly added back a few of the “bad” foods that NH suggest against. I occasionally ate things like fermented foods (Kombucha, Sauerkraut, vinegar). I ate more cooked foods like steamed vegetables. Added higher levels of fats to my diet (This mainly after reading a book on Ayurveda, the 3 season diet by John Doulliard, which allowed for more diversity in the diet. Also he suggested eating more fats in the colder seasons.) Also, I tried more complex recipes that contained a lot more processed ingredients. I also was not strict about salt. I did not add any to my food but if it was already in the food I would still eat it. (Items like canned beans, or tortilla chips)
    Recently, I had my first cold in the last 12 years. It was very short lived, 2 days, but still I was definitely ill. Also I noted my ability to run was greatly diminished. I would run out of breath much quicker. You had mentioned joint pain, I also started to get a lot more joint pain especially in my hips. I noticed it mostly when I sat on the floor and then got up. Something that was never an issue 2 years ago.
    Regarding traveling, one of my travel hobbies is searching out raw organic juice shops wherever I travel. So I end up eating and drinking foods which are not in my usual diet like raw Cacao powder or agave or honey. Although these foods are not awful they are also not great for us. Often it takes a week or so to get back to normal after a vacation. (One of my favorite shops is actually near you in Ottawa, Ont. Simply Raw Express, Natasha Kyssa’s Place)
    One of the main things that I am struggling with currently is the sugar debate. I love eating fruit and I make several smoothies a day which are a mixture of fruits and greens. I recently took a tour of Hippocrates Health Institute in Florida after hearing Brian Clement speak here in Michigan earlier in the year. He is very anti-sugar in all forms including from fruit. I am leaning toward agreeing with him because from a common sense point of view it is likely that our current fruit has been hybridized to contain much more sugar that it would have originally in nature. So am I consuming too much sugar? I think that I may be so I am planning on eliminating as much as possible over the coming months. Also, because I have added more fat in the winter I think I may be elevating my blood sugar which is not good.
    Sorry for the long note, but my last thought is regarding salt. When I was young the prevailing logic was that if you sweated a lot you needed to replace the lost salt. My current belief is that having salt in your sweat is an abnormal condition and this a way for the body to eliminate excess salt. In other words if you have the correct levels of salt in your body your sweat should not be salty. What is your thought on this?

    Bill Kranker

    • Hi Bill. Good discussion! Even if Brian Clement were right about the amounts of sugar in fruit, he would still be wrong about the role of carbohydrates in the human diet. Reasonable estimates place it at around 70% of total calories before the advent of civilization. Even the traditional Hawaiian diet, with lots of fish, was about 70% carbohydrates before colonization. Salt: I do think that a lot of salt loss in sweat is abnormal and caused by a high-salt diet.

  12. Nancy says:

    Hi Frederic
    I have been following you for years. Changed my life. Also bought the apple book?
    Just wanted to say I love your honesty and sharing your insights.
    Keep up the good work.
    Nancy

  13. Thanks For you inspiring story. This article is really good and effective for me.

    I ate a lot of raw and junk food that’s why i getting fat and my body can’t take my weight. Before i have no blood presser but when i get fat i fell sometimes my presser is going low. That’s a very bad experience for me.

    Now i get control and very careful on my body.
    I diet, do exercise and avoid all junk food. tamanbinh.com

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