Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The occasional exception

This is a new episode from the series of posts where I discuss the typical questions a nutritionist is asked ([1], [2], [3]). The question of today is:

But... if I eat
[unhealthy food of your choice]
only once in a while...
...it is still ok, isn't it?

I usually take a big breath and hold it in the hope to faint so I have an excuse not to reply. Unfortunately my expectations are not satisfied and find myself facing another dilemma:
  1. Say a categorical no, and be seen as a food-nazi, knowing that they will occasionally do exceptions anyway
  2. Say that, yes, it is possible to do an exception from time to time, and accept the fact that they will interpret "from-time-to-time" as an ultra-liberal:
Woah!!! He said we can!!!
Let's eat unhealthy more often
than we eat healthy!!!

Let's begin with the most obvious starting point: defining the problem.

Where does the need to cheat come from?

Diets which are low in nutrients

And for nutrients I mean anything that our bodies need to function properly.
  • Low-fat diets or diets with bad quality fats will very likely trigger an incontrollable need to binge on greasy junk-food
  • Low-carb diets will keep sending messages to our brains to eat sugary treats. I take this opportunity to remember how adrenals and the thyroid are particularly impacted by ketogenic diets.
  • Diets low in proteins. Despite everybody acknowledges the importance of this macro-nutrient, and some people even abusing of them, many don't get the required minimum amount. One tricky thing about proteins is that we will never be 100% satiated until we fulfill the needs, thus we will keep eating (often carbohydrates).
  • Diets low in vitamins and minerals. This is the case of diets that rely heavily on refined food. 
Cravings are signals from our body that something is missing in our diets, the solution is not to binge randomly, but instead to identify that our diet is deficient in. One example for all:
  • it is perfectly fine to eat more fats, as long as they are the healthy ones
  • what is not good is to stay low-fat all the week following the outdated and debunked myth that fats-will-make-you-fat-and-clog-your-arteries, just to eat industrial chips on Saturday evening because-you-live-only-once

Not eating enough

As I said several times, calorie-restriction diets cannot work on the long period. Actually the need for cheat-days show that they are not feasible even in the short period. Enough said.

Unresolved metabolic addictions to some food

This is often the case of sugar. Almost everybody knows how addictive carbohydrates are and how important it is to reduce the quantity of bad carbohydrates we eat, to replace some of them with low glycemic-load sources.

A sugar-detox diet is no joke and the initial phase is likely to discourage even those with the highest motivation. I observed that, if properly done, it takes from one to three weeks to get rid of sugar dependency from a metabolic point of view: this is what is needed for most people to restart the far-burning pathways. In short: it is tough, but it can be done.

Dysregulated taste...

Getting rid of the taste-dependency from sugars instead, that's another thing.

There is a (very unhealthy) growing tendency in adult people to keep looking for food that tastes sweet. This fact remembers me a blog post I read five years ago, complaining about this trend: how almost nobody today can, for example, simply drink a black coffee. It has to be somehow edulcorated. Quoting:

"Now coffee comes in a myriad of flavors including vanilla, caramel, cinnamon, and peppermint."

Or, tea. Quoting again:

"Take iced tea for instance, whereas older people tend to enjoy unsweetened tea, younger people cannot palate it without some sort of sugary substance."

His major complaint however was on alcoholic drinks, quoting:

"as a whiskey aficionado, I was stunned to see apple and cinnamon flavored whiskeys creeping onto the shelves. Only then did I realize whiskey was also beginning to undergo a sweetness transformation"

Which is what we see today, even in healthy circles:
  • People don't eat meat, they eat protein bars, shakers and meal replacements that taste chocolate, caramel and vanilla
  • Blogs about healthy recipes contain more desserts than main courses and side dishes
  • Mid-morning and mid-afternoon snacks are... sweet treats.
  • Cheat days are for... sweet treats (or abuse of carbohydrates like pasta or pizza)
While protein bars and homemade desserts are often better than an industrial donut fried in rancid sunflower oil, what is missing in this scenario is the need for re-education of taste buds, from an preference for the sweet taste (typical of children) to a preference for bitter, salty, sour and umami (typical of adults).

As long as this is not resolved, one will always crave sugar and, with a growing numer of researches showing that alternative sweeteners are unhealthy, that can potentially be an issue. It had already been an issue in the past (external link, worth reading).

Psychological dependency for forbidden food

Often, this does not cause cheat days but instead replacements. I see this a lot:
  • vegans crave meat and cheese (that's perfectly normal, we have a taste for umami). This is where an extraordinarily flourishing industry of fake-meats and fake-cheeses is literally making billions out of this newly created problem which takes advantage of an ancestral and hardwired (hence not easily disposed) physiological need.
  • paleo-dieters and the gluten/lactose-free tribe crave bread and dairy, again ending up in grotesque replacements on which I don't want to spend any more words.
Some don't replace and simply decide to cheat occasionally, actually doing themselves more good than harm.

Poor cooking skills when cooking healthy

A lot of people recently jumped onto the healthy-eating wagon, and that is just fantastic: there is a more and more widespread awareness of the role played by what we eat on our health. Unfortunately, often, they are confronted with lack of cooking skills. It's ok: I wasn't born with a chef's hat neither.

Because of this, they end-up eating recipes with such low organoleptic properties that the only solution not to go insane is to wait for the weekend or for a social event to cheat on junk food. Stated this way, it is obvious to everybody that something is wrong with this approach: your weekly menu should not be so unsatisfactory to let you frustrated thirteen meals out of fourteen.

I personally went through this and know that there is only one solution: learn to cook. One of the things I wanted to avoid in my blog was to make it a recipe blog, however I recently opened a Facebook Page, too. I plan to start publishing recipes there.

The 80/20 rule

A case against 80/20

In healthy eating circles, the 80/20 rule is becoming very popular. The thesis is that if you eat healthy 80% of the time, this allows for a 20% of freedom.

The first question that comes to mind is:

Freedom from what?

The mindset itself is wrong and it is the heritage of a culture dating back to the Eighties, when we have been cheated into believing that eating healthy must perforce be a torture, a stoic proof of superhuman self-control where all the delicacies are forbidden and all what is allowed is chicken breast and white rice. Needless to say, it is once again a problem of cooking skills.

The second question is more intriguing:

Why would anybody want to do 80/20 at all?

I'll make a practical example to explain how I see it:
  • our hands have 10 fingers
  • we deliberately hammer two of them
  • we still have eight healthy fingers, which are enough to perform most daily activities
Again, stated this way, it becomes evident that the approach is non-sense: only a masochist would want to have less than 10 healthy fingers, even if 8 still allow to write a letter, drive a car, type a keyboard, etc.

A case in favour of 80/20

That said... shit happens. We don't always have control of the situation and we may have to eat something we haven't cooked ourselves or the menu in the restaurant doesn't have options that fit our regimen. And guess what?

That's fine!

I believe the 80/20 rule is true. If one is healthy, his or her body is perfectly capable of handling the occasional not-so-perfect meal.

Back to the 10 fingers example: we do our best not to break any finger but... should we break one or two our body will fix them.

Bonus paragraph: trivia on the 80/20 rule

When speaking about the 80/20 rule, some people invoque the Pareto Principle, hoping to gain more credibility by doing some scientific talk.

Unfortunately they didn't get it right: if we want to apply it correctly, what Pareto truly says is that 80% of the damage is caused by 20% of what you eat.


This post wouldn't be complete if I didn't spend some words on orthorexia.

As I mentioned before, more and more people are realizing that eating 2000KCal of junk food is not the same as eating 2000KCal of Mediterranean Diet. We live in a time when we have to be particularly careful and well-informed with regard to the choice of what is in our dishes, in particular its origin, and knowledgeable about the correct preparation processes. Sounds logic. However, instead of being encouraged, this behavior has been proposed to be recognized as a psychiatric disorder, luckily it hadn't been accepted (for the moment).

My personal point of view is: making informed decisions on what we eat (and when, how and howmuch) in order to avoid disease and feel better, this is not an eating disorder: that's intelligence and insightfulness, Basing decisions on shame, or guilt, or self-exteem issues, or trends, or not basing one's decision at all and eating randomly... those are eating disorders.

In short, orthorexia is way over-sensationalized and I think (being caustic here) that this is just the last desperate attempt of a corrupt food system to keep us away from adopting healthy eating habits. I am worried about the day when psychiatrists will start diagnosing orthorexia as a fully recognized disorder and will recommend a therapy based on fast food, twice per day.


Okaaay, yeees... It is possible to eat unhealthy once in a while and still enjoy all the benefits of eating unpeccably the rest of the time.

We don't have to freak-out because the gourmet chef used a spoon of wheat flour as a thickener in a stew, our bodies can pretty much handle the occasional contumely: honestly, if it were that easy to become intoxicated there wouldn't be a single organism alive on this planet anymore.

However, it should not be a planified cheat day... that would be the equivalent of looking forward for the weekend to deliberately break a femur.

The ideal exception is represented by the case when we don't have a choice: either we are invited, or the restaurant we are going to has no alternatives. People break bones everyday, it happens... that's life. In healhy people bones repair: this is life, too.

The take-home message of today is:

Eat healthy whenever you are in control of the menu
Be in control of the menu as often as possible
Accept the compromise when you have to

And stay tuned: here there are no exceptions allowed!

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