Off the Wagon

When you find yourself suddenly sitting in the dust, a bit dazed, a bit dirty, your confidence shaken and your pride a tad bruised, it can be disheartening. Is it your first trip off the wagon? Your umpteenth? As we enter the second half of our August Primal Challenge, this scenario might sound a little familiar to some of you out there. Anyone happen to be dusting off their britches right now?

Whether you took your tumble this weekend or the second day of the Challenge, the experience of falling off the wagon can be frustrating, humbling, and downright dispiriting. You had high hopes. You put time and sweat and maybe money into the endeavor. Perhaps you told people and felt embarrassed about admitting the setback. Particularly if you’ve found yourself in this position before (with the Primal approach or another diet or fitness program), the stumble can incite feelings of personal failure or precipitate a wave of excuses (“I gave it my best shot. It’s just not doable.”). But hold on there for a moment. We say the story hasn’t been written yet. The proverbial fat lady hasn’t sung. Before you abandon the whole endeavor, take a look at the big picture.

Like an athlete, review your performance during this first half of the month. First and most important question: what’s gone well? Don’t put it in the self-deprecating terms of what was easy. See it for what it was – your exertion, your will, your creative and meaningful action. What changes did you make – in your daily practices and overall outlook? Count them as successes. How are you and your life different today because you took up the Challenge? How did you feel in the course of a day? What did you notice in the spread of two weeks? Discouragement be damned because of this point, my friends: You are not where you started two weeks ago.

Believe it or not, you’ve moved yourself to a new place. The efforts you took – mental and physical have left their imprints. Each life experience, as we all know, changes us. Each choice we make opens up new possibilities, yes, but we’re not just talking about hypothetical potential. The change is already manifest. Along the way, you see, you’ve laid down the tracks. They’re still there. And let me tell you what else is there: the physical benefits of even a brief endeavor. Your blood vessel walls are that much less strained. Your adrenal system that much less stressed. Your pancreas, liver and other organs that much less taxed. You’ve given your body a breather, the chance to function more naturally, more efficiently, more optimally.

If you truly put yourself out there and made a sincere commitment, you should feel pride in that. The risk is itself an accomplishment. That said, genuine commitment doesn’t falter at the sign of struggle. Be honest about what went awry – and why you think it happened. What could you have done differently? But then remember why you took up the Challenge, the cause at the heart of your efforts (for yourself, your health, your well-being, your kids). Put your faith back in your own commitment, bolster your sense of mission and decide what your next step will be. Yes, there’s a next step. The path is still there. Make the choice to direct yourself toward it. No, hopping back on in the middle maybe doesn’t seem as dramatic and exciting as the starting line, but it’s generally easier and more openly promising. You’ve felt the benefits of your Primal endeavors. You know you’ll be going back to those same gains – and more as additional efforts allow for deeper physiological homeostasis, more physical strength and vitality, more emotional balance and energy.

What will your next step be? We’ll be waiting to hear from you…. Comment, throw a question out there, post an update, give a suggestion for a post if you’re so inclined. You’re as much a part of the Challenge crowd as anyone else, and don’t forget it! (We won’t.) And as you get back in the saddle again, be sure to check out these (hopefully!) helpful posts:

Baby Steps

Common Stumbling Blocks

How to Break Bad Habits

How to Develop Good Habits

How to Make the Primal Transition in 6 Easy Steps

Sensible Vices Round 1, Round 2

The 80/20 Principle, Revisited

Finally, by all means use the support of the MDA community. Onward and upward, folks!  Have a great week!

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  1. I was on vacation the first week of the challenge, and even though I ate things not on the PB (but not too much!) we were constantly on the move- biking, swimming, playing paddleball & frisbee, kayaking so I didn’t feel too terribly guilty. But it became clear to me how do-able the PB is especially if you have the good fortune to live close to a beach (Mark!)or in a more natural environment (ie a more rural area). It’s hard to keep up the fun PB exercise part here when tied to a desk and I can only work out at the gym (during the week anyway. But I persevere!

  2. I’ve been falling off the wagon every weekend. But I stay on the plan rock solid during the week and my diet has been adjusting during the weekends. I find myself skipping bad foods and making changes as I move forward.

    Even at the gym I didn’t feel like pushing myself but once I was warmed up and the discouraging thoughts cleared I ended up going all out and leaving a puddle of sweat on the floor.

    I figure at the gym, ‘get in the door’ and see what happens, and the same process has been working for my diet. I think of it as a lifestyle change and not something I will only do for 30 days. Day by day I make changes and swaps. If I cheat, I save it for the weekend and I don’t cheat on stuff if it isn’t just super fantastic to eat or drink.

    Heck, if I can look like Mark at his age then that’s enough for me to keep up the challenge.

  3. I almost lost it last night. It was hot. Really hot for New England. I’d just endured a hot workout and taken a relaxing swim. It was time to cook dinner. My wife said it was too hot to eat in the house. We talked about the truly local places where we could eat. I thought about a pizza place, a sandwich shop, a Chinese restaurant, and a local pub. All of them were full of traps for me. A sandwich here or a cocktail there. I’ve been doing really well this month. I’m using a new belt notch this morning.

    It’s been almost 3 weeks without grains. It’s been 3 months since I decided to stop drinking for a variety of reasons.

    Last night, every reason for doing the right thing seemed to be melting in the heat. But, I didn’t give in. This morning, luckily, I don’t have to claw my way back onto the wagon.

    1. I would say go to the sandwich place and have them make what I call an “un-wich”: a sandwich with no bread. I do this at the sandwich place on my campus and they never give me problems – I just say “Give me all the stuff that goes in X sandwich, in one of those bowls you serve your soup in.”

      Sometimes they look at me funny, but hey, that’s part of eating Primal, right?

  4. I have a question about the “genetic” change from processing sugar to processing fat….

    So if I(we) made it over the hump/transition period, is it now the regular process for your body? If someone following the PB for a year had a cob of corn would they have to go through three clean weeks before getting back to where they were? Thanks!

  5. What an awesome blog post. I actually cried today because I’ve been feeling so frustrated. I’m sticking to it (~3 months), just started trying IF at the onset of the challenge, working my butt off and still…haven’t…lost…any…weight. Not just weight, haven’t lost any inches, fat, whatever. Total plateau. I’ve even tried dramatically cutting my calories (down to ~1500 from ~2400). My body is seemingly a master at adaptation and I sometimes wonder if my baby belly is going to be with me for life. I’m exceptionally fit and muscular everywhere on my body except on my belly, which still resembles my belly when I was 6 months pregnant! I’d be interested to know if anyone else experiences this. It just seems to me that for all my efforts, I should see something in the way of a reduction in belly fat.

    Nevertheless, this blog post gives me motivation to keep at it…

    1. Elana – I feel your pain. I tried IFing last year and whist I liked the convenience of not taking food to work, I ended up putting on 10lbs of fat. I wasn’t even eating bad stuff when I got home – my diet was pretty clean! I ended up going on the Velocity Diet (nothing but protein shakes for 4 weeks) to get rid of it. That wasn’t fun.
      I honestly don’t think all women are suited to IFing. In my case I felt cold a lot during the day (even though it was March/April) which indicates my metabolism had slowed. I won’t be trying IF again.

  6. I had a huge cheat night last night, taking my wife out to dinner for her 30-tenth birthday. However, I abstained from the dinner rolls.

    I also noted that if you’re going to have an “open” meal, have it at an expensive restaurant. The portions are so small that you can’t hurt yourself too badly in one meal.

  7. I fell off pretty bad yesterday.

    So far I’ve managed to go the duration of the challenge with no grains.

    Even showed considerable restraint with alcohol…only drank once since starting the challenge and did so very moderately.

    Yesterday however…what started off as Moderate Drinking #2 turned into a one-man-party for most of the evening.

    Really hurtin’ today and feeling pretty sheepish.

  8. Fell off last night… My fiancée really wanted Whole Foods pizza and for me to eat it with her. 2 slices with feta, olives, roasted red peppers and artichoke. I felt it this morning wen attempting “Angie” (Crossfitters know what I am talking about).

  9. I came crashing off the wagon today at lunch. Went to Pei Wei with my kids and my mom (she was buying). I couldn’t have had the teriyaki bowl WITHOUT the rice, now could I. Could’ve and should’ve but didn’t. I’m climbing back on the wagon before dinner. Eating out with other adults seems to be my downfall. There ARE primal choices on the menus (at least adaptable-to-primal) but the lengthy explanations to an unreceptive audience sometimes isn’t my idea of a fun evening. Methinks that eating at home is the solution.

  10. This was the perfect post since today was a “fall off” day. Working out of a different office, really busy, unfamiliar surroundings, free food….

    Big lesson – my triggers are social.

    Availability also makes a HUGE difference. Easier to make better stuff available in my own space than when I “travel.”

  11. I fell off the wagon months ago when I spent a month in Berlin. I needed this post today to help me get back on track.

    Our garden is in full bloom so I have been eating a lot of good fresh stuff but there has also been such luscious gelato everywhere that it’s been hard to stay on the rails.


    ***Dusting off***

  12. Me and some friends went out to a restaurant last night and had the quesadilla with the tortilla and rice. But while I fell off the wagon with that, I still congratulated myself for not getting a bread starter or a dessert, which are huge weaknesses of mine.

  13. Its been tough -recently went to a trainign class where the food they served was all the kind granma used t o make-the first couple days were good but then it happened -homemade apple crumble cake -i weakened -i stumbled -i fell – i ate the cake. Enjoyed it while it was hot, passed out from the sugar rush and vowed never to stumble again

  14. I’ve fallen off a few evenings for some dark chocolate made with sugar. It’s always dark with a 75%+ cacao content, but I still feel guilty about that sometimes. I’ve had a few pancakes made with oat flour twice this month.

    I almost fell off the wagon and was thinking about giving up, when I went to the doctor and got my weight and blood pressure taken. I’ve lost 6lbs so far this month and my blood pressure has dropped from 130/84 to 110/70. A small change, but even seeing those simple numbers helped me to realise “This is working, however slowly. Just stick with it.” Today, I have some planned sprints, and yoga to do.

  15. Thank you SO much for the encouragement. I really needed it today. I haven’t exactly fallen off the wagon, but I’ve felt frustrated and thought of giving in to temptation. I really buckled down the last couple days and I’m feeling better already. I still need more intensity in my workouts, and you’ve given me that extra shove I need. Thank you.

  16. I somehow find a way to cheat on weekends, usually by drinking too much. Here’s my “how to get back on the wagon” checklist:

    1. Understand what your body is going through. If you cheated with too many carbs on Sunday, know that your brain is going to be begging for that quick fix on Monday but you don’t REALLY need it.

    2. You screwed up, now this is your punishment. Enjoy it.

    3. NO fruits for breakfast the day after the cheat. Go low-carb (omelet with some meat and veggies) from the start. No weening off carbs, get right back into the mode.

    4. Lunchtime nap is a must. You’re going to be miserable if you follow #3.

    5. Caffeine is a life-saver.

    6. WORKOUT. I don’t care if it’s the worst workout of your life, do something besides think about sugar. Pop a caffeine pill 30 minutes before you go if you must.

    7. Reward yourself with a 30g carbs from fruit after your workout, along with a protein shake.

    8. Get to bed early, you’re going to be kinda zonked.

  17. Some days I’m just plain ol’ tired. I’m too tired to exercise or do anything when I get home from work. Luckily, my husband is a wonderful cook and usually has a great Primal meal waiting for me. We eat, have a glass of wine, relax a bit, skip the workout, then go to bed early. I need the sleep, and I’ll work out tomorrow when I’m feeling rested. It’s ok to just do nothing once in a while!

  18. Good article.

    Question though, why are the Worker Bee’s anonymous?

    Are there any plans to introduce the Worker Bee’s, so we can learn a bit about their backgrounds and get to know them?

  19. OMG..did you just see my day..wasnt even a satisfactory cheat day..i screwed up slightly during the day but just cause i got all pissed off with myself i showed myself and ate a freakin bowl of ice cream..oh well i feel like i got it out of my it just had to happen..onwards and upwards

  20. It’s interesting, and maybe it’s because it’s the first week or two for me of Eating Primally, but I find that just thinking about carb-heavy (especially grain-based!) foods makes my stomach turn over. I have to eat a small amount of carbs at night because I’m diabetic and my morning sugar reading goes through the roof, but the other night I had a half peanut butter sandwich on wheat bread and the combination of plain (no sweetener) peanut butter and whole-wheat bread tasted like old, dried-out coffee cake. ICK! I now use cream cheese instead, because it doesn’t make me want to upchuck, and toast the bread to dry it out some, and my sugars are better in the mornings.

    I dread the day when I find myself wanting to jump off the wagon. So far I’ve been pretty successful at staying on it, but the day may come, and I’m worried. I’ve never been a sugar addict, but I love crunchy food, and that means potato chips etc. Ice cream and cake? Couldn’t care less. But crunchy-salty? Oh dear.

    1. Pork rind (Fried pork skin)! Find it in Asian or Hispanic stores. Probably too much salt, yes, but a good substitute for me.

  21. I couldn’t agree more with the “how to get back on the wagon” checklist from the post above! I never felt the effects of sugar until I stopped eating sugar – and now when I commit “carbicide”, I FEEL IT! My heart races, my stomach bloats and I feel awful. Once in a while, it’s worth it though. The thought of NEVER eating cake EVER AGAIN is insane. I just can’t be that inflexible. But the thought of not eating cake everyday or even every week is fine. When the time comes to eat that cake, I make sure it the the EXACT cake I have been craving for and then I enjoy it to the fullest, get it out of my system, and then look forward to jumping on the wagon again.

    What frustrates me is trying to learn the exact rules of the PB. For example, I thought a small piece of dark chocolate was okay once in a while. Well, then I just read in a post above that someone fell “off” b/c they ate some dark chocolate w/ sugar. Sorry, but I didn’t realize there was a “sugar-free” dark chocolate that is the type of dark choc we should have once in a while? There are many more examples of things that I thought were PB safe, but someone says they are not (in the forum). Overall though, I am not hung up on the small details. It’s the bigger picture that I am focusing on.

  22. @ Sofiawahaj
    I don’t think having a piece of dark chocolate (be it with our without sugar) counts as falling off the wagon, at least not for me. Some people aim for the 100% primal, others 90% right now, for me I am happy just to stroll along at 80% on a good day. What I mean to say is, different people have different goals and thuoghts on what primal means to them and how strict they want to be. If dark chocolate is ok with you it’s ok with you and that’s all you have to worry about.
    If you’re new to the PB take it slowly, you’re doing the best you can, you will learn what you can it and what makes your body feel a little iffy as you go along. Do what feels right for you.

    Btw I’ve been horribly off the wagon last week, and I mean bad! I’ve never felt as bad as after those meals either but I did the same thing over and over. I know it’s because of the stress I’m having at work but I’m trying to ignore that now and eat what I know makes me feel more relaxed instead of giving me a migraine and the worst stomach ache ever. This post was much needed. Today is day 3 for me (I had to start over), I am still on 148lbs but that’s exactly where I started 2 weeks ago and that ain’t too bad. Onwards, with a smile and some more patience.

  23. I am a champion at falling off the wagon. But each time is less severe, so I consider that good progress! The next step for me is trying to work out the 80-20 balance without the 20 suddenly turning into an all-out binge. Making it a normal healthy portion of something not-entirely-primal is the next step for me.

  24. Wrote this on another thread, but since you’re soliciting questions….

    I am not primal yet, and have been using this challenge period to learn about PB and its benefits while adhering to the PB “lifestyle” laws (play, sleep better, get more sun, use your brain, avoid stupid mistakes). Even tried a CrossFit workout last night at the local gym.

    Loved everything I’ve read and think Mark and all of you are really on to something very good.

    My only hesitation to adopting full-bore PB right now is that I have committed to a friend that I would run the Marine Corps Marathon with him this fall and pacing him to his PR. I can’t bail out on my friend or our training plan now. I’ve reviewed the materials here about it and think I could handle my dietary requirements but our training will defintely qualify as “chronic cardio.” Any advice? Again, bailing out on my friend, Marine Corps, or our training isn’t an option. Thanks.

    1. Don’t bail on your friend. Keep your carb levels as low as possible while still being able to fuel your activity levels. Still get your carbs from veggies and fruits (sweet potato, banana etc). Once the marathon is over scale back on carbs and go full Primal!

      1. Mark – Thanks much for the reply and encouragement. Refueling with veggies and fruit has been a big part of my nutritional strategy. Once I’m past October I’m going “all in.” I think the extended break in over the next 2 months will make it easier to go full Primal once I get there. In the meantime I know there are a lot of simple things I can do to improve my health even while I help my friend reach his marathon goals. Thanks again.

  25. I was doing so well with your idea of acting as if I were the type of person who would not fall off the wagon, which was how I thought all last month. As soon as I stopped thinking in those terms (this month), I started eating refined sugars by the boatloads (or so it feels). I do have to say that to my credit, I have been keeping it primal the rest of the day, so even if I have sugar, I do go back to eating primal the next meal. Not that it excuses the sugary stuff.

    My next step: go back to being the type of person who doesn’t eat sugar to emotionally cope. I’m just not that girl for the next month. It may have to bee this way of thinking from month to month to allow my body what it wants–which is none of that processed junk!

  26. Fell off the wagon a couple of weeks ago when my father treated me to a tremendous homecooked pasta dinner with garlic bread on the side. My IBS symptoms (which have otherwise been totally vanquished on the primal diet) came back with a vengeance and my fiancee didn’t even want to sleep in the same bed (or room) as me. Now that’s incentive.

    In addition, I found myself remarkably sluggish the next day. I reminded my body of what real food looks like by cooking steak and eggs with a green salad on the side for breakfast.

  27. Thank you! This was uplifting! Been on the primal diet ever since mid-March, when I got a diabetes diagnosis (insulin resistant) at the hospital (glycemia was very high!) I decided then and there that I’d do everything within my power to get rid of this condition, even if it meant eating lettuce for the rest of my life.
    So I started researching about sugar, carbohydrates, insulin and glycemic index. Whitout knowing it, I was soon following the PB diet! I found that out when I stumbled on this blog two months ago.
    Finally, got my blood test results last month : blood sugar is normal (yep: “normal” as in “for a non-diabetic person”!)and my cholesterol figures have improved. My doctor has reduced the Metformin to half the dose and I hope to be off it by Christmas.
    I’ve lost over 50 pounds… a bit too fast though, as the doctor remarked. My blood pressure plunged. I still struggle a bit with too high and too low blood pressure but am not taking any medication for that.
    It may have been due to the quick weight loss (or to Metformin or to both), I lost half of my hair (hope to get it back eventually). I am just starting to feel some energy. For several months, I felt weak and would not exercise.
    I still struggle to get myself to exercise although my weight is near normal now for a woman of my height. I’ve stopped shedding pounds for the last month but I could use losing another 5 to 10 pounds. Yet if I try eating less, I get hungry and I hate being hungry… Is there hope?

  28. Mark — This is an observation of “off-the-wagoning.” I’m 63 years old. I’ve eaten low-carb since 2002 — lost it, kept it off. (Gained it, by the way, by being menopausal and quitting smoking.)

    I have many friends who have asked me to help them get on and stay on low-carb eating.

    The single most common derailment and reason for their falling off the wagon in my experience can be summed up as follows:

    When overweight persons go on a low-fat (high-grain) diet, they can get support from their families, their friends, their trainers, their [overweight] doctors, television, radio, newspapers, magazines, Oprah (how’s that workin’ for ya, Oprah?), the AHA, the ADA, pay-by-the-meal-or-the-month diet “plans,” the obese Kelly Brownell and his ilk, and a myriad of other folks and sources. But it doesn’t work very well (understatement).

    When these same people go on a low-carb diet/way-of-eating/whatever, they get no support, just flak — from all of the above plus warnings about their health and state of well-being — “but your kidneys,” “but your heart,” “but your cholesterol,” “but cancer,” “but [insert disease here].” My recent fave was from a friend’s trainer — “I am gravely concerned about your lack of carbs before a workout.”

    It’s really hard to help one’s friends through that wall of resistance.

    The second most common source of derailment I’ve observed is the “reward” trap — “I hadn’t eaten carbs for a week, so I ate two cups of Ben and Jerry’s. What can it hurt?

    And to wrap this, every single person I’ve known, including myself, IF they have followed a low-carb program, have both lost weight and dramatically improved blood profiles. Those things don’t seem to be as convincing as all the conventional wisdom repeated above.

  29. Marg, so true! I get so many family members that make fun of me, and they think this is just a phase I’m going through. It’s been 8 months now and this is my way of life, whether they like it or not! One family member tells me that it’s ok to not eat flour, but I must eat whole grains, they’re part of a “balanced” diet. Another family member (vegan) has a closet full of soy products and processed things, and says too much protein is harmful to the kidneys. The sugary desserts are fine, since they’re vegan! Another family member, who was just diagnosed with “pre-diabetes”, is popping diabetes pills, following the American Diabetes Association food plan, and wondering why the pizza and pasta still make him sleepy. It’s frustrating to me to see the people I love harming themselves. That conventional wisdom certainly has a grip on so many people. I will quietly continue eating my way to a healthy body, and give advice when asked.

  30. I’ve been on the PB style diet for about 10 months now and it has changed my life magnificantly. I first started when I had a rather bad break of my arm, and wanted to do everything I could to regain feeling, repair bone and get back on the saddle as soon as possible. It worked wonderfully, and I have to thank you Mark for putting the information out there. The physio and doctor was quite impressed at my recovery considering it looked like I’d need a bone graph and lose function of my thumb. I now have full feeling (I’d have to say PB is best for nerve repair) and my thumb is about 1/2 strength which is pretty good considering where I started.

    I never faltered for about 7 months. Even when I started Intermittent fasting I was going great guns.
    My grandmother had a stroke around the time Uni started back up again and it was really hard seeing her in such a state, making all the trips to the hospital for a month and being given a massive workload.

    I now understand why people can get quite obese when something traumatic has happened in their lives, because I started overeating and eating the wrong things left right and centre among other bad habits. I had no self control. My sleep habits were also went quite bad which I think contributed greatly.
    I went from unbreakable hero to zero.

    I’m getting back on the wagon now, sick of feeling like crap and hating myself for splurging. Time to be healthy and live my live to the fullest. I realise now theres no reason to punish myself with the bad foods (commonly called comfort foods), or by staying up too late. I’m going to start treating myself to a good, happy life.

  31. Mark. I love you man. You’re a great man. I can’t wait until I’m half the man you are. I just turned 29 and I fell off the wagon. I hadn’t drank alcohol for 18 days and have been working out and eating great but today I jumped off the wagon. I drank all day, I ate bad food and I just felt like shit about myself. But reading your post made me feel great. Almost brought tears to my eyes. I came home and ran a barefoot mile for punishment of my failure. But I’m back on to the right track just by reading your words. Thanks man. You are really insightful.


  32. Hi
    I am 72 years old,i have had a weight problem most of my life.I started the pb program six months ago,i am a lot fitter
    now,how ever the weight hardly ever changes,i have cut down carbs. to very little,and have been 95% loyal to the protein diet since i started,still the weight is lingering.
    I need some ideas please. Total loss in six months 14 lbs.
    I need to loose 60 more pounds. Help.

  33. After being more like 98/2 than 80/10 for a couple months, I lost it with home-made rolls. I had a miserable night mentally and physically. “Fell off the wagon” is exactly what I did and how great to have found this article addressing the issue. Thank you not only for writing it, but also for keeping it on your site for people like me.

  34. I have been back on primal for 2 weeks had some dark chocolate and wine and got a horrible head and neck ache also my heart has been pounding at night. stopping coffee dairy sugar and grains has left me tired unable to sleep. I felt ok till the chocolate and wine guess I should have given my body more time before adding the chocolate and wine. my gallbladder is sluggish and causes pain when I have sugar or alcohol guess they are triggers the headache neckache started a few hours after the wine and chocolate and could not sleep today still have it mostly in left eye and left shoulder neck area feel like its my lymph nodes. feel crappy hope I did not set myself back to square one cuz I have really been doin good till last night except for the sleep