Things are going great. You’re eating well, moving your body regularly, lifting heavy things, getting good sleep. Then wham! Something happens, and all your best laid plans are out the window. Maybe it’s a crisis at work, the loss of a loved one, a vacation, or, I don’t know, a global pandemic that changes everything. Sometimes it’s nothing memorable, you just sort of… stop trying.
What do you do when you realize you’ve fallen off the wagon?
It’s simple. You pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and climb back on.
Were You Really “Off the Wagon?”
Before talking about how to get back on the wagon, it’s worth asking yourself if you were really off in the first place. It’s one thing to lose your way for a while and make choices that erode the health gains you’d made. It’s another to allow yourself to enjoy a decadent dessert at a fancy restaurant, or to have one stressful week at work that leaves you with no time to meal prep or go to the gym.
There’s no set timeline where you can say, “Now I’m officially off the wagon.” There’s no set number of lenient meals, sweet treats, or sedentary days in a row that determine that you’re not “in” a healthy lifestyle anymore. It’s subjective. There’s no membership card.
The point of this exercise is to avoid the temptation to make a big deal over minor blips. Diet culture is all about “cheating” and “failing” and “starting over.” That’s not the spirit of living Primally. We strive to make day-to-day choices that support health while also allowing for life to happen.
It’s the 80/20 principle, remember? Self-flagellation or shame spirals aren’t part of the plan. Sometimes dessert is just dessert.
That said, there are times when you’ve well and truly fallen off the metaphorical wagon, and you’re ready to get back on track. Let’s break this down into three parts: what you need to do immediately, in the short term, and making plans for the long term.
Just start. Make your next meal a healthy and satisfying one. Pick one of the Primal Essential Movements and do one set. Set a bedtime alarm on your phone and actually hit the sheets when it goes off. Whatever success looks like to you, take one concrete step. That’s it.
Fasting to Get Back on the Wagon
“Start by fasting for a day”—it’s common advice. I’m of a couple minds here.
On the one hand, fasting offers a quick jumpstart. A 24-hour fast (eating dinner one night and then not eating again until dinner the following day, for example) burns through glycogen, accelerating fat burning and putting you on the road to ketosis if that’s your plan. It’s also symbolic, marking your commitment to making today a changing point.
On the other hand, this probably isn’t a good strategy for people who have struggled with disordered eating behaviors in the past. Fasting isn’t inherently problematic, but it can be, such as when someone gets into a cycle of “cheating” then fasting to atone. Also, if you’ve been eating a standard high-carb diet for a while now, you might not be equipped to fast comfortably, at least not for 24 hours. Don’t do it if you’re likely to get discouraged and quit again if you find yourself white-knuckling it through the first day.
If fasting isn’t your thing, no problem. A high-intensity exercise session also burns through glycogen and ramps up fat burning, especially if you don’t replenish with carbs after. You can commemorate your first day by starting a new journal, circling the day on your calendar in red marker, preparing a special meal, making a public commitment to friends and family, or hiring a health coach. Or, as I said, you can just take the first step and not look back.
If fasting does appeal to you, a shorter fasting window, say 16 hours, is also fine. There’s no reason to go longer; a three-day long fast is overkill for this purpose. Twenty-four hours is plenty.
Bask in Your Initial Victory
Once you’ve eaten one healthy meal or done one workout, congratulations, you’re back on track. Now you have to stay on track, but take a minute to commend yourself.
If your inner critic tries to tell you that you won’t really be back on the wagon until you string together 30 sugar-free days, or you’re deadlifting your previous personal best, shut that voice down. Those are great goals, but you don’t have to achieve them before you are allowed to feel proud that you took the first step.
What to Do in The Short Term to Stay on the Wagon
Once you’ve taken that first step, there’s more work to be done. You don’t want to immediately veer off course again! This means getting some systems in place to keep you moving in the right direction.
Start Building Better Habits
Building better habits boils down to this: Make it easier and more rewarding to do the things you want to do. Make it harder and less appealing to do the things you don’t want to do.
Simple, right? Sure, but not always easy. Start by identifying some basic things that, once done, will increase your chances of success. Things like:
Stocking your fridge with on-plan foods, and tossing or donating foods you don’t want to be eating
Picking a few basic recipes to get you through the first few days, or starting your week with a meal prep
Getting your home workout equipment out of the closet and putting it someplace prominent
Buying those new running shoes and leaving them where you see them first thing in the morning
Moving the TV and the phone and tablet chargers out of your bedroom
What is my biggest obstacle, and what can I do today to remove that obstacle, or at least make it easier to avoid?
What are two or three things that I can do today to make it easier to stick to my goal?
This is optional but recommended. Keeping written track of your behavior is uber-helpful for two reasons. One, it gives you a visual representation of your progress. Just like earning gold stars in kindergarten, you get positive reinforcement from seeing your “good days” accumulate. Two, it allows you to troubleshoot when necessary.
Basic food and exercise logs work well for accountability. They’re even better when combined with journaling about your internal states—hunger, stress, emotions—plus sleep, menstrual cycle, and any other relevant details. The more info you have, the easier it is to spot patterns and make connections. For example, you might learn that carb cravings increase at certain times of your cycle, so you decide to experiment with carb-ups. Or, you might realize you often eat poorly two days after a bad night’s rest. That tells you that you need to work on sleep, not just diet per se.
What to Do in The Longer Term to Stay on the Wagon
One silver lining to falling off the wagon is that it’s always a learning opportunity. That’s what we should all be doing—learning and adapting. It doesn’t mean you’ll never fall off the wagon again, but hopefully you can avoid repeating the same patterns over and over.
Sometimes it’s obvious what happened. You went on vacation, or got sick and stopped working out, but never returned to your healthy habits. Other times it takes some more digging and soul searching to understand how you got derailed (again). It’s never just a lack of willpower or desire. There’s a root cause that needs to be addressed.
Some common reasons people fall off the wagon are:
Caving to social pressure
It’s hard to stay on track when you’re surrounded by naysayers, or if you’re frequently in situations where your willpower is tested. Develop strategies that allow you to deal with these people or situations constructively, or avoid them if you must.
If you change your diet, but everything else about your modern, high-stress life stays the same, you’ll inevitably falter.
Digging yourself into an energy hole
Not eating enough, not eating often enough (too much fasting for your body and activity level), and not sleeping enough will land you in the red, energy-wise. Your body will respond with hunger and cravings that become impossible to ignore. Motivation to exercise plummets, as does performance. Chronically depriving yourself of the fuel and rest you need is a recipe for disaster.
You’re guilty of all-or-nothing thinking if you make one “bad” choice and then decide, “Forget it, I blew it. Might as well just give up.” The actual health consequences of your choices were probably small to negligible; the resulting guilt and shame spiral are what really hurt you. With all-or-nothing thinking, you create unrealistic standards of perfection, when what you should really strive for are progress and growth.
Trying to live a life that you don’t actually enjoy
Falling is inevitable if you don’t enjoy your food or your workout routine, your choices are causing friction with your partner, or you’re otherwise missing the joy in life. Sure, you might choose to suffer through a period of restriction to lose weight, especially if you have hardcore physique goals. Making short-term sacrifices in the service of a larger goal is one thing. Trying to commit to a “lifestyle” you hate is quite another. There are many roads to health. Find one that works for you.
Do the Deeper Healing Work
If self-sabotage is a repeating pattern for you, there is deeper work to do here. Therapy is fantastic for people dealing with unresolved past trauma, disordered eating tendencies, or feeling unworthy. You deserve to live your healthiest, most vibrant life. It’s your birthright as a magnificent human.
Psst, It’s Not Really a Wagon
This is where I admit that I’m not a fan of the whole “falling off the wagon” analogy. If you fall off a wagon — and I’m assuming we’re picturing a haywagon or something of that ilk, not a child’s wagon — it keeps going without you. If you don’t get back on quickly, you miss your chance. Your health gets more and more out of reach, and it gets more and more discouraging.
I think a better analogy is falling off a bicycle. When you fall off, the bike is still there, ready to be ridden at any point. Some falls are pretty gentle, like tipping over at low speed into soft grass. Some falls are pretty spectacular, like flying over your handlebars and tumbling down an embankment. In any case, though, you can usually climb back on and peddle away, if gingerly perhaps.
At the same time, bike owners know that the longer a bike sits unridden, the more work it requires to get it in tip-top shape again. It’s better to keep riding it and do regular maintenance.
It doesn’t really matter which analogy you use, of course, as long as you feel empowered to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and set your sights on the road ahead.
Lindsay Taylor, Ph.D., is a senior writer and community manager for Primal Nutrition, a certified Primal Health Coach, and the co-author of three keto cookbooks.
As a writer for Mark’s Daily Apple and the leader of the thriving Keto Reset and Primal Endurance communities, Lindsay’s job is to help people learn the whats, whys, and hows of leading a health-focused life. Before joining the Primal team, she earned her master’s and Ph.D. in Social and Personality Psychology from the University of California, Berkeley, where she also worked as a researcher and instructor.
Lindsay lives in Northern California with her husband and two sports-obsessed sons. In her free time, she enjoys ultra running, triathlon, camping, and game nights. Follow along on Instagram @theusefuldish as Lindsay attempts to juggle work, family, and endurance training, all while maintaining a healthy balance and, most of all, having fun in life.