Father Andrew's Hot Body Gym

November 25, 2009

‘Tis the Season to Cheat – Part I

Filed under: diet — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — Mara @ 2:05 pm

The earth has tilted on its axis, bringing dark evenings and a chill in the air. Here in Tallahassee, leaves are finally turning yellow and orange and drifting to the ground. Sweaters and boots are in vogue, albeit with the cursed skinny jeans tucked in between. Intoxicating scents of cinnamon, cloves, and sweets fill the air. The rich foods of winter – root vegetables, cookies, pies, casseroles, and steaming sweet drinks – call to us, appealing both to our light-deprived seasonal urge to put on protective fat and our holiday-induced desire for edible festivity.

In short, we are being called to cheat. To not do so would be an affront to the season, to our families and friends, to the very spirit of life at the present. Only the strongest will resist, and even those of us walking the same unusual path of a primal diet will likely think them extreme, deriding them and their inability to let go in secret.

So we’re going to cheat. There’s no way around it. The only question is, are we going to throw the rules out the door and eat stuffing until we fall into an insulin induced coma or are we going to attempt to maintain some degree of responsibility?

I urge you to choose the former. Cheat responsibly. Your body and you conscience will thank you.

Just because you’re not going to be able to (physically or mentally) create and consume a strict zone/primal meal or avoid every Christmas cookie that looks your way does NOT mean you should forget all the principles of healthy eating you have worked so hard to follow. There are ways to cheat that will allow you to enjoy some of the holiday foods you love without completely sacrificing your ideals or your waistline.

First, relieve yourself of some of the guilt you might experience by reminding yourself that cheating is actually recommended, in moderation. Mark Sisson of MDA recommends an 80/20 principle, where you eat primal 80% of the time and eat whatever you want 20% of the time. This is shown to reduce the mental stress of deprivation and thereby encourage you to stick to the plan longer than you might if you were strict 100% of the time.

One important thing to remember, particularly with sweets, is that the pleasurable effects of sugar consumption follow the law of diminishing returns. This means that the more you eat, the less good it feels. 70% of the dopamine produced by eating those Christmas cookies or that slice of pie will be released after the first bite. So to cheat smart, limit your portion to only a few bites – one cookie or a miniscule slice of pie. It may look sad, but eat it really, really slowly, and savor that flood of hormones. Disabuse yourself of the notion that eating another piece will produce the same pleasure that the first piece did. It will only produce insulin, nausea, guilt, and chub. Check out this post on MDA for more about eating sweets responsibly.

Urban Gets Diesel offers some insightful commentary on the subject of cheating in three posts. First, she reminds us that while cheating clearly has some mental benefits, it does NOT have any physical benefits. Bad fuel is bad fuel, no matter how you spin it. Second, she looks at some ways to cheat smart. She recommends: spreading that 20% out throughout the week rather than packing it all into one meal/day; being intentional about only cheating with things you really, really love; eating only enough of the forbidden food to satisfy your craving (ala the diminishing returns principle; savoring the consumption process slowly and with focus, i.e. not downing a pint of ice cream while watching a movie; and finally, figuring out how different cheat foods affect you and choosing the lesser of the available evils. For example, for her, a cheat of grain (pancakes) leaves her much better off than a cheat of dairy (ice cream). In her third article, she examines the danger of introducing habitual cheats and thinking they do not have negative consequences because you don’t feel immediate side-effects. She writes of the experience of re-introducing dairy, grains, or sugary foods after following a stricter diet:

After eating those foods, you may not notice an immediate reaction in any of your body’s systems. However, your body is still experiencing some, if not all, of the negative internal effects associated with those foods, such as inflammation, gut irritation, and insulin spikes.

Dallas explains, “Even infrequent consumption of foods (or food products) that contribute to elevated levels of insulin, cortisol, or the pro-inflammatory eicosanoids will set you up for inflammation-driven disease processes. Most of us already know the effect that chronic consumption of processed carbohydrates has on the development of Type II Diabetes, but this is only one example of how a previously asymptomatic (“silent”) inflammatory process can manifest itself as overt disease. Unfortunately, just eating a bagel and a yogurt for breakfast once a week is enough to trigger grain- and dairy-related inflammation, causing an uptick in all the inflammatory processes in your body for days or even weeks afterward. You might not be able to feel a bagel and yogurt invading your system, but you cannot avoid the pro-inflammatory effects of those foods.”

Basically, if you start cheating and enjoying it, don’t fool yourself into thinking that it’s not really so bad to have that cereal for breakfast or those oreos for dessert a couple times a week. It is still bad for all the reasons you cut it out to begin with, and those “calendar” cheats will come back to haunt you one way or another.

Now, what do you do about all this with the biggest cheat day of the year staring you in the face?

Here are some of our ideas:

1) Bring approved sides that will supplement the lack of clean veggies and non-sugary sides at a typical holiday meal. Abby posted on this idea here and offers recipes for Roasted Vegetables, Paleo Sweet Potato Casserole, and Paleo Sweet Potato Pie. I am using a similar tactic for our meal at a friend’s house. I’m bringing green beans and carrots, Pureed Cauliflower instead of mashed potatoes, fresh Cranberry Sauce sweetened with stevia and agave, and Abby’s Sweet Potato Casserole. This should guarantee that there are plenty of acceptable sides to accompany the meat.

If you haven’t tried Fauxtatoes yet, you need to. You’ll never miss the carb-loaded traditional version. The key is adding plenty of yummy fat. I don’t usually measure, but here’s a guestimate of how I make them.

Pureed Cauliflower Fauxtatoes Recipe

Steam one head of cauliflower, cut into chunks, along with 2 cloves of garlic and a bit of chopped onion until tender. Blend in food processor or blender with 1/2-1 cup cream, 1/2 stick butter, salt and pepper to taste until smooth. Texture is key here, so keep blending until you don’t see any chunks. Substitute coconut milk or regular milk for cream if desired. Voila!

2) Load up on meat and veggies first. The good thing about Thanksgiving is that there is always some form of meat available. This means you don’t have to worry about the disaster of arriving to a dinner party to find only various forms of process carbs available and no protein in sight, such as I did at a pasta dinner with spaghetti, bread, salad, and cake. Use this fact to your advantage. When you fill you plate for the first round, give yourself an unusual portion of meat and whatever clean vegetables you can find. Eat them first so you will be full of the healthy stuff, and then go back for whatever bad stuff you’re craving. If your belly is already rumbling happily with a dose of protein and good fiber, that steaming stuffing will look at least a little bit less like heaven.

3) Don’t deny, just ration. Instead of trying to ignore the existence of Grandma’s pecan pie or that marshmallow-topped sweet potato concoction, allow yourself to sample everything in moderation. Remember Sisson’s teaching about the first bite: all you need is a tiny scoop of each item to get almost the full benefit of sensory pleasure. So following with point #2, load your plate so full of meat and clean veggies that you can only fit a tiny daub each of potatoes, stuffing, candied whatever, and no roll.

4) Be selective. If you’re like me, there are certain parts of a meal that I can take or leave, and there are other parts I dream about all year and would rather die than not eat. For me, stuffing falls into the latter category, while a store-bought yeast roll or marshmallowed sweet potatoes fall into the latter. If this is you, then pick and choose your poisons carefully. Choose two or three of your favorite naughty sides and enjoy them to the fullest, but pass over those that only whisper your name instead of shouting it.

5) Be really, really careful with dessert. A decently portioned meal can be utterly ruined by three slices of pie with ice cream. Don’t undo all your hard work. This is coming from a self-admitted sweet tooth, so don’t tell me you can’t. I think one of the best strategies is to stuff yourself so full with the meal that you can barely fit a few bites of anything else down your gullet. Then, be selective if you can, choosing only one option to sample. If you’re like me and love all desserts and have to try everything, that won’t work. In that case, insist on serving yourself, and try only a 1/2 inch sliver of each pie. Then chant that diminishing returns stuff like a mantra as you let each bite dissolve in your mouth so very slowly.

If you’re into making your own, try using Agave and/or Stevia instead of sugar. I used a ratio of 1 Tbl Agave and 1/8 tsp stevia powder for a tasty but low-carb combo. There was no Stevia aftertaste, but I made a 13×9 pan of sweet potatoes casserole with only 2 Tbl of Agave. I’m not sure exactly how to substitute that for sugar yet (without just taste testing, which is what I do), but I’ll be working on it.

6) Pre-game. If you can’t count on anything clean other than maybe some turkey, you may have to resort to pre-party damage control. This is what I have started doing when I am going to a mystery meal, where anything from spaghetti to vegetarian burritos to french toast could be served. After a couple of ruined evenings spent waiting out insulin hangovers, I finally realized that you just cannot count on a decent protein source, let alone clean veggies, when eating with others. It’s shocking how far their ideas of good meals can be from ours, but it’s a fact for which we have to be prepared. My solution is to down a glass of protein powder and milk (with about 30 grams of protein) before leaving for the event. That way, I can sample whatever form of processed carbs they put before me without having to rudely refuse or worse sit in a silent, semi-vegetative state through the night’s conversation because an insulin spike and crash. With 30 grams of protein in your belly, you can face just about anything that’s thrown your way. It’s like liquid courage! This is less likely to be necessary with Thanksgiving, because a big hunk of meat is usually the centerpiece, but just know it is always an option.

Those are the tips I’ve come up with to cope with the potential perilous holiday meal. If you have any other ideas, please share in the comments!

Part II of this series will explore other holiday temptations and how to indulge sensibly, without compromising the festive spirit.

Happy Thanksgiving!


  1. Great advice Mara! I’m glad you touched on diminishing return. I often say “Why did I eat the entire thing?” after downing more dessert than my taste buds needed. For certain, I’ll be thinking about the economics of dessert when I’m looming over the glorious array of pies.

    Comment by Abby Vandegrift — November 25, 2009 @ 2:22 pm

  2. 70% of the dopamine? Hmmm…then why do I feel so warm and fuzzy at the bottom of a bag of chocolate and candy? Oh yeah, that’s the insulin spike talking 😉

    Comment by joshuaeller — November 26, 2009 @ 1:29 pm

  3. I think pregaming is the best idea for me.

    Comment by joshuaeller — November 26, 2009 @ 1:30 pm

  4. […] primal, stevia, sweet — Mara @ 5:46 pm I am finally writing the follow-up to my first post about cheating during the holiday season. It seems a fitting time to do so, as the house is quiet […]

    Pingback by ‘Tis the Season to Cheat – Part II « Father Andrew's Hot Body Gym — December 24, 2009 @ 6:24 pm

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