Will Momentary Compromises Derail Your Efforts?

Anyone who’s ever followed the Primal eating plan for a significant length of time has probably made a few compromises along the way. If you live, work, or otherwise commiserate with regular folks, you’re bound to be exposed to grains, sugary desserts, and sodas, and austere abstinence can be difficult to maintain in these situations. It’s not even as if the food itself is necessarily tempting; it’s more accurate to say the social pressure to comply and dig in can be overwhelming. If your boss gets you a cake for your birthday, you’re probably going to have a piece regardless.

With our August Challenge finally coming to a close, I figured it’d be helpful to address whether these little indiscretions will actually throw you off your game completely. I’ve always said that it takes about three weeks – give or take a week or two, depending on your previous diet and insulin sensitivity – to make the transition to a fat-burning metabolism from a glucose-burning metabolism. Newcomers to the PB are probably settling into their new status as fat-burners, having just passed the four-week point of their journey, and I’d imagine the last thing they’re interested in is wasting all their efforts because of some errant food choice – a complimentary donut, a slice of company-funded birthday cake, a bag of popcorn at the movies. Many of you have lost weight, gained lean mass, slept better, improved your sprint times, eliminated processed foods, converted your family/pets to Primal, made your own medicine ball, avoided migraines, or severely cut back on the alcohol intake. Heck, maybe some of you even did everything on that list.

But everybody gets a little worried that all their effort is for naught because of a slip-up. If it’s not the immediate guilt that gets you fretting, it’s the acute stomach pain, the nauseated sensations, the bloating, or the instant drop in energy. You feel like utter crap after eating that candy bar or this muffin – and isn’t that a sign that you’ve just ruined everything? Are you therefore back to square one, left to toil for weeks just to get back to that Primal sweet spot? After all, it took so long just to get your body acclimated to the new mode of eating; doesn’t it follow that the slightest deviation from the routine will send you flying from the tracks?

I’ll be quick to assuage your worries with but a single word: no. Absolutely not. What you are feeling is the heightened sensitivity to carbohydrates and insulin that accompanies a full transition toward a Primal, fat-burning metabolism. Those stomach aches and bloating? Momentary inconveniences that ultimately serve to let you know you’re on the right track. You suffer because you’ve just introduced a macronutrient ratio that is now foreign and unrecognizable to your body. It expects (nay, needs) fat but gets glucose instead – how do you think it would react?

A single meal – or even several meals – of carb-laden foods won’t be able to throw you off your game. In fact, it would take about three or four weeks of junk binging just to get you back to an insulin-resistant, carb-dependent state. Luckily for us Primal Blueprinters, three weeks of feeling sick and having no energy is nearly impossible to pull off. In the new fat-burning state our genes are happy, our body’s leaner, and our internal mechanics have reached a nice level of homeostasis. When you toss a monkey wrench into all that, you’re bound to disrupt the tranquility for a little while.

But the gears keep on turning. They might make a few loud screeches, but it’s only when you provide a steady stream of oversized rusty monkey wrenches that progress actually grinds to a halt.

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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42 thoughts on “Will Momentary Compromises Derail Your Efforts?”

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  1. Great article Mark. I’ve been Primal since the challenge started. It was a bit of a struggle at first but once I got over the hump it has been pretty easy. It just feels right and natural.

    Anyway, I’ve had these thoughts – wondering if a high carb day would put me back to square one. It was a concern and kind of made me the prospect of going Primal a little tough to swallow. Meaning, if it would have always taken 3 weeks or so to achieve homeostasis after only a single high carb day that would be pretty deflating.

    But I completely see your point. It works both ways. Your body adapts to your eating habits and makes the transition either from carb to fat or fat to carb in roughly the same amount of time, so once you’re on the fat burning train it isn’t so easy to get off. This is great to know. Thanks for the clarification and your encouragement.

    By the way, I’ve lost 11 lbs and am feeling better than ever since going Primal. You’re an inspiration. Thanks Mark.

  2. Timely article for me – I’m just about to go on holiday to Korea and Japan. I’m a rollercoaster freak so I’ll be in a lot of theme parks, where food is generally less than optimal for health, and of course I will be doing my best to avoid all the rice and noodles. Much as I’d love to subsist on sashimi for two weeks, I am not nearly rich enough!

    I’ve got my body to the point where it is living of a protein/fat diet with very low carbs, so I’m nervous about the holiday food. Glad to know that the odd compromise won’t destroy my efforts.

  3. After three months I can’t imagine going back to eating grains at all. It is good to know that it would take 2-3 weeks of eating lots of grains to switch back, that fact does make social situations easier to deal with I think. Most of the time it’s not a problem for me to just avoid the grains, but every once in a while you are put in the situation where you have to be gracious and accept gifts you know?

  4. That’s good news, because I put down some beers. Like seven. Last Saturday. And I’m not talking about Michelob Ultra, MGD light, or low-carb Bud Lime. I’m talking about Arrogant Bastard Oaked Ale, Fat Tire, and good old Killian’s. You open a bottle of those and you can almost see the carbs mist out and stick to the walls. So yeah, good to know I haven’t killed the progress.

  5. Such a necessary article! Thank you for you for writing this. I was freaked out that even just a couple bites of some super sugary dessert or ice cream would put me in a bad place. It was like you said – I *feel* worse (jitters, tummy ache, nauseaus) so I figured I screwed myself. This is going to make me a LOT happier!!!!

  6. Good news. Thanks for this article. I’ve been eating primally for about 19 months now, and I am no longer tempted by carbs. I drank a coke last November and I felt so rotten afterward that it has no appeal whatsoever now.

    Still, I have a daunting weekend ahead with community meals for 26 people. But aside from a spaghetti dinner one night (which I am in no way tempted), the perils are easily avoided, as there will be many primal options.

    But the bottom line is, I feel so much better when I don’t eat the carb heavy foods, that it is hard to fall of the wagon, so to speak.

    Just as in the Fathead movie, every time I see cereal, bread, potatoes, etc., I see a bag of sugar.

  7. I tell people that they can only cheat if they KNOW they are going to bounce back immediately. If there’s even the slightest chance that you’ll fall off the wagon into a massive binge, you’re not ready.

    At some point, you fall SO in love with primal eating that you know you are in for life, one way or another. At that point, a well-placed cheat is quite nice.

    My cheat was last night. I worked a 14 hour day, and my ’employer’ bought us pizza at the end of the day. I was starved, out of protein shakes, and already had a primal lunch, so I ate two slices (sans crust, but still plenty of garbage).

    And it was fine, because I knew that by 9AM today I’d have already lifted tons of heavy weights, ate fruits and veggies and dead animal, etc.

  8. Thank you for the confirmation that the body’s adaptation mechanism is consistent.

    It is interesting to get real-time feedback now: I had some sweet potatoes fries yesterday, and my stomach let me know it wasn’t completely happy. No big cramps or anything, but just a little grumbling and aching. I get the message!

  9. Timely article for me. Just yesterday at work I had two donuts (someone’s birthday and someone’s first day on the job). I have NEVER had two donuts in a row. I had a headache and was thirsty all day after that. I’ll be eating 100% primal for the rest of the week!

    1. I also ate 2 donuts in a row a while back; felt sickly, weak, and neurotic right up till bedtime.
      Mark, I gave your book to my diabetic brother and he’s thrilled; he lost 12 lbs., takes less insulin and he can’t stop talking about it. He keeps repeating, “People are not eating real food!” His awe doesn’t diminish

  10. Sometimes I won’t feel top notch afterward, but I don’t even really feel bad psychologically about my binges anymore. The foods I binge on are primal! 🙂

    Of course the fat burning process may slow down (or does it… Leptin) I just let the chow down happen and move on.

  11. I always regret eating that muffin, or the times I’ll have a few slice of pizza. But I’ve found I bounce back with a ‘payback is triple’ mentality and end up eating better than I was before.

    80/20! Of course when I dip into that 20% I come back at 98/2 or 100% Primal. Feels good. Feels real good.

  12. Great article, and very timely. Not only following on the footsteps of the challenge, but for Labor Day weekend. I have a family get together at a family cabin coming up. I always bring extra protein to have around, but the beer and other carbs are part of the landscape. I have fun, don’t feel right, and get back on track after a trip to the family cabin. Sure, it takes a few days to feel completely right again. But, so it goes. There is lots of good too…fresh caught shellfish and fish, fresh air, long walks and beach fun (sometimes beachwood lifting/jumping and sand sprints even, if the mood strikes). I sometimes lug up a kettlebell and a jump rope too! Lots of opportunity for people to snicker at my diet choices being derailed though. Oh well. No one holds me down and pours beer down my throat. Well, they might if I didn’t freely partake! Haha!

  13. Wonderful article and pep talk. I do worry that any confidence at all about my new lifestyle is overconfidence.

    With CW dietary choices, I always slipped back to heavy carb consumption (more sugars than grains) when winter set in. I was used to eating those foods “in moderation”, so adding more would just sort of happen.

    Then spring (meaning sunlight and reality) would arrive and I had to face the dreaded carb blubber, around 10 lbs. It then would take most of the summer to burn off, then the chronic cardio would take its toll, then the weather would cool… Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

    This year is different! I’ve seen a new level of fitness and leanness that I could never obtain with the above described cycle from CW hell. Now I must primally navigate through to spring, before accepting that I am no longer lost. So far so good.

    Thank you so much for the great map, Mark!

  14. I had to look over my shoulder to see if Mark was there:)

    It’s funny because I ate a Hershey’s crunch and a pizza slice yesterday and felt terrible afterwards. I even texted my g/f and said I have a stomach ache and feel like “utter crap”!

  15. Very, very good to hear. I was one of those people who has been admittedly very nervous about this.

    I can now look at my bowl of birthday ice cream and not be (so) afraid. I’ll be back on the strict wagon tomorrow, either way though!

  16. Music to my ears.
    I absolutely abhor the bloating and guilt after a social carb’binge. Yesterday, at a get-together, I had ice cream and sushi and felt like I was pregnant afterwards 🙁
    Loaded on the fats and proteins today, IF, and Im back in business.
    Thanks for banishing the unnecessary guilt.

  17. After a socially obliging weekend or so I end up adding a fast or two to the successive week, it gets me back in touch with my biochemistry. It definitely slows down the process, but living an 80+ PB lifestyle takes the guilt out of such indulgences.

  18. Mark you must be in tune with your followers! I ate like poop this week… Deep dish pizza (I live in Chicago), popcorn at the movies, and a huge amount of sushi wrapped in white rice 🙁 Needless to say I gained 6 pounds in 1 week! I’m not worried though, I haven’t the slightest intention of deviating from the primal path. Even cavemen had to test some food for poison, I guess thats my excuse:)
    A little IF, a little crossfit and some hiking and I’ll be good!

  19. That made me feel so much better for downing the slice of cake at my niece’s Birthday Party.

    Thank you mark!

  20. May be it will not reverse the way your body works, but it will definetely send your blood sugar level sky high, and they will keep there for long, which is in turn extremely unhealthy. So when you are offered with a “social” dish think twice what’s more important.
    Grok’s HgbA1c (glycosylated hemoglobin) was around 4,5 -4.6 , and we should aim for the same. If yours is higher you should cut on carbs and forget forever about social cakes.

  21. I find business travel is the toughest. When you’ve had a long tiring day and you’re hungry but you;re stuck in yet another airport with fast food outlets selling tasteless battery-chicken salads. What works for me is to allow myself the burger/pizza and the beer/s in the knowledge that 2-3 days of junk food won’t cancel out the weeks of mostly good eating I’ve put in. The important thing is not to beat yourself up about it. You’ll soon get back to normal.

  22. This really couldn’t have come at a better time for me. I’ve been as primal as possible since the challenge began but went to a music festival for 5 days over the bank holiday weekend in August.

    my diet inevetably slipped and i’ve been worried i’d lost everything, but this post is kind of my saviour lol. thanks

  23. This is good to know. I actually never really worried about the occasional cheat, but I find that the longer I eat primal, the less tempting and the smaller my binges/cheats become. Primal tastes good, and garbage doesn’t. It’s pretty awesome!

  24. Good to know. But we don’t want to get too complacent, after eating primal for so long there are only a handful of things I would eat that are non-primal a good pizza being the main culprit 😉

  25. My issue is when I get lazy. At the beginning of 2008 I had a good rule: exactly one cheat meal per week. But by the beginning of 2009 I was making excuses: another cheat won’t really hurt. And by April, some of the weight was back and I was headed in the wrong direction.

    So now I attach my intermittent fasting to my cheating. I can cheat, but the next day I fast. Since I want to do both on a somewhat weekly, somewhat random schedule, the frequency works well. And the weight continues to come off…

  26. Atkins started me off in Jan, Warrior to Primal, via Clean only food, mixed with kettlebells and strength training has been wonderful. I just need to be so vain as to look in the mirror at a younger leaner looking man with some muscles popping through, even at my ripe age, to prevent any derailment. My blood work numbers are improving every time and I love sticking them the faces of my doctors who still want me on meds, even though I have ben off all diabetes meds for months and now I’m off my blood pressure meds, too. Minus 46 pounds makes moving forward a pleasure. Wish I did these a long time ago

  27. I’m a misfit, so social pressures haven’t been a huge challenge for me. I don’t work and don’t go to restaurants and usually cook from home, so the temptation to cheat isn’t as striking. If I want a cake, I make a primal cake. In the odd situation where there is cake or pizza involved, I resist. It’s not always easy, but I think to myself, “is the momentary taste of this pizza worth the later time I spend in the bathroom? Or three days of being unable to move due to a migraine from additives?”

    It isn’t. So I don’t partake. It’s easy enough to say “no thanks, I’m not hungry.”

  28. Will the primal transition from glucose to fats still take place if during these 3 weeks there will be like 2-3 carb days? I’m worried that a big bar of chocolate destroyed everything

  29. I guess I’m the exception…..I eat about 80/20 all the time and consume a reasonable amount of fruits.But I still have the high carb “appetite”.And I never experience any of the negatives when I cheat a little. Numbers are all good ( six foot, 168,8 – 9% bodyfat at 53 yrs old). My weekend hobby is bicycle racing and I’m assuming the 2 – 3 hour rides give me more latitude over straying a bit.

    My training has become very “primal” in that I do one, sometimes two extremely hard sessions per week with lots of very easy “fun” rides. I also walk once or twice a week. Definitely not the chronic cardio that many of my peers do.

    Am I the only one who doesn’t have an ill affect from carb consumption?

    1. Though my normal regime has become VLC, I don’t experience any negative effects from occasional high-sugar puddings (creme caramel, figs in brandy…) when I dine out with friends. But I can’t take wheat products any more – I seem to have lost whatever tolerance I used to have for gluten. I don’t think any amount of social pressure would be worth “… the acute stomach pain, the nauseated sensations, the bloating, or the instant drop in energy”. When people offer me birthday cake and so on, I just thank them nicely and say that I don’t eat cake.

  30. Oh, thank god you posted this when you did. This has been a week of torture, A family visit on the weekend resulted in a less than optimal intake of food, at the end of the weekend I became ill with the local cold and got a tetanus shot to which I reacted horribly. I resorted to comfort foods (shh – carbs, why? I keep asking myself that) and by thursday I was so sick with general malaise (headache that gave me nightmares in my sleep and left me debilitated for the first 3 hours of the am), body aches the like of which I have not had since I became primal about 3 months ago.

    If I needed any incentive to continue with the PB lifestyle, I got it. Those regular, nauseating, un-treatable non-migraine headaches suck. A lot. So do migraines which I get a lot less of too! And so does the extra 17 or so pounds that I had lost since the beginning of June or so.

    So in conclusion: PB = good, carbs = bad. Oh wait, isn’t that what this whole website says?

  31. There is never an excuse for eating carbage or eating off plan. I never make allowances for “social” situations. I’d much rather look like me–very lean, muscular with a super flat stomach–than make someone “feel” good by eating their carbage.

  32. I’m so glad you wrote this. I’ve been transitioning to a Primal diet very slowly – week 1, no potatoes; week 2, no rice; week 3, no corn.

    Corn is in EVERYTHING and while I was perfect on the no potatoes and rice I’ve slipped up several times with the corn. HFCS, sweeteners made with corn, corn slipped in as a bulking agent… it’s hard!

    I was getting very depressed over the whole thing, wondering if I’d really be able to do this, when I caught this link that you posted in the comments on the “Why Grains Are Unhealthy” post today.

    I’m not perfect yet – next week I give up regular flour, which means bread, which means my greatest challenge yet – but knowing that once I’ve fully transitioned over the occasional sneaky-corn mishap won’t destroy my hard work… it’s very VERY relieving. Thank you for putting me fully back on track, Mark!

    1. I stay 100% primal all week and then have a cheat treat every sunday evening, which is usually frozen yogurt with as many toppings as I can fit into the cup. This is about a 90/95 principle but knowing that I have my cheat treat at the end of the week keeps me on track the rest of the time, and I don’t feel guilty after having the treat because I feel that I earned it. This article is reassuring. I often find the bloating, cramping and extreme lack of energy the next day to make me wonder if I’m doing more harm than good by having my treat. I know now that staying 100% primal the rest of the week definitely outweighs the bad effects of that little cup of heaven (at least going down, not so much after) on sunday nights.

  33. After a carb binge, in addition to the bloating and general malaise, my joints are stiff and sore…

  34. Great article because I was feeling very bad that I over indulged on cashews–of course because I am Type 1 Diabetic and on dialysis (nuts have too much potassium and phosphates which dialysis can’t get all of it out and can kill me–immediately or eventually). It rose my bloodsugar a little too much and had too take extra insulin. It is hard because I had to go cold turkey off every food I love even chocolate and everything and I mean everything raises bloodsugar so I turned to gum because when I used extra coconut oil to cut cravings it messed up in my gut because I have a complication called gastroporesis which is damage to the vagus nerve and slows absorption of food and messes up the insulin shot and makes my bloodsugar low all night so how do I cut cravings but with lots of willpower and hypnotizing the mind–have to work on that one. The other thing I am using is gum but even it has sugar–no xylitol or anything that ends in ol but I found one that is made with cane sugar and more natural ingredients. Been grain free, gluten-free, low carb for about 6 weeks…blood sugars, blood pressure are all lower. Waiting for the fatigue to leave…

  35. Thanks so much Mark for this brilliant insight. It has helped my mindset immensely!! It’s Monday morning and I’m laying in bed absorbing as much positive influence from the MDA website as humanly possible after falling off the wagon last Tuesday (6 full days of mass-bingeing) For the last year I’ve been 100% Primal (I’m an Abstainer, not a Moderator) and I originally allowed myself 1 meal off, then the sugar hit my system and completely hooked me in!! so here I am, 6 days later feeling thoroughly ashamed, 8lb heavier and massively bloated/ hungry/ anxious/ headachey/ lethargic to be honest, very daunted by the fact that I’m looking down the barrel of 14 days of fish-meat-eggs only to get my body completely back in to fat burning mode. I now have a glint of hope that I haven’t completely destroyed my bodies fat burning state.

    Thanks to Mark and the MDA team again for this particular article, I’m going to get up, make myself a coffee and start Monday morning positively knowing that the pressures off and I can get back to my norm, eating the way I enjoy the most… 100% Primally.

  36. This was a great and timely article. I’ve been primal for exactly a month yesterday. I weighed and i’ve lost 10 pounds. Awesome! So, the next day a co worker brings in apple fritters…. I eat one and then immediately proceed to have an internal freak out over my resistance levels and how I must have destroyed them. Well, this article has really made me feel better. Plan on getting a very primal lunch and dinner and am looking forward to getting back on the wagon. Thanks!

  37. What happens if you don’t feel bad after a binge? We had a huge team lunch today with sandwiches, pizza, sweet pastries, cakes etc. and I definitely overdid it. My body was running just great on Primal food before, but I feel physically fine now, just slightly guilty for falling off the wagon. Is it possible to be in a “semi-state” where you’re adapted to both fat and carbs?