“Falling off the wagon” sounds so harsh – let’s just call it a “detour” off the straight and narrow. Maybe it was a planned detour and you don’t regret a minute: that’s completely fine. Sometimes an experience or a special occasion is important enough to make nutrition a lower priority – that’s a sign that you have a full and engaging life. Everyone should have something in their life that’s more important than avoiding sugar. On the other hand, maybe your detour was a little less serendipitous and you’re waking up the morning after with a stomachache or worse. Either way, here’s how to manage it.
Let it go.
You cannot change anything you have already eaten, and beating yourself up over it just keeps you stuck in the past, with that food, instead of moving on to be present with a meal that’s actually in line with your goals.
The key to a successful re-entry into the Paleosphere is to avoid the crazy emotional rollercoaster of guilt. You know this one: first you try to do penance for your non-Paleo choices by restricting food or working out harder the next day; that makes you so miserable that you can’t stand it any longer and end up rebounding right into the arms of a chocolate-glazed donut, which of course just fuels the guilt and the promises to “make up for it” in even more miserable ways…
This is awful to go through, it doesn’t help you stick to Paleo choices in the long term, and it’s just not necessary. Don’t try to “atone” by exercising (and this should go completely without saying, but purging is 100% off the table). Take a deep breath, let go of the need to punish yourself, and get ready to move on.
Think big picture.
One weekend of bad choices is 2/365 of your year. That’s 0.5%. That’s nothing.
Even a whole week of vacation is still only 1/52 of the year, or about 2%. That’s still insignificant compared to the other 51/52!
When you take that weekend, or that week, in the context of your whole life, it gets even tinier, until it’s really not worth noticing at all. It’s your regular habits that determine 99% of your health, not the occasional indulgence. This is especially important if you’re feeling guilty or ashamed of whatever you ate: don’t let the bad feelings right now drown out the big picture.
Prepare, prepare, prepare.
No matter why you took a turn off the Paleo road, when you get back on, your first stop should be the grocery store. Stock up on all the Paleo staples, so the kitchen is full of healthy and delicious food just waiting to jump onto your plate. Throw away any non-Paleo food that’s left in the house, or if you can’t toss it, at least put it somewhere out of sight.
Eat the next time you get hungry.
No matter what you ate, no matter how guilty you might feel about it, and no matter how strong the urge to fast or starve yourself is, remember: you are letting this go, and you are moving on. “Moving on” means getting back to your normal, nourishing diet pronto – and a nourishing diet does not include going hungry to atone for some past sin.
The next time you feel hungry, eat as much as you’re hungry for. No sneaky tricks like trying to fill your stomach up with cucumbers or drinking coffee as an appetite suppressant. Just give yourself permission to eat normally, and get back to healthy eating habits right away.
Cook something extra delicious.
Don’t just eat the next time you feel hungry; cook yourself the most delicious Paleo meal you can dream up. Even if you feel like you don’t deserve a treat, fake it till you make it and treat yourself like royalty: you might just find that when you act the way you want to feel, the feelings follow by themselves. Refusing to punish yourself helps you get past any lingering guilt, move on, and get back in the Paleo groove without the crazy emotional rollercoaster. And besides, it’s a great way to convince yourself that this whole Paleo thing can actually taste pretty good.
Don’t exercise in penance.
It’s fine to do a light workout – in fact, if it helps you mentally re-set, it can even be beneficial. But exercising to “burn calories” is futile in the first place, and it’s not a very loving way to treat yourself. And if you’re feeling sick or gross, don’t try to push yourself through some crazy high-intensity interval session: throwing up on the floor of the gym is not an auspicious way to re-start your Paleo journey!
Instead, try a long walk, a bike ride, or whatever else you feel up to at the moment. And if all you feel up to is some gentle stretching, that’s perfectly fine.
And now…what to eat
This is the part you probably thought was coming first, but in reality “what to eat” is a lot less important than “how to eat it.” If you’re eating Paleo food without guilt, judgment, or restriction, then you’re already well on the way back to life in the healthy lane regardless of whether that Paleo food is a steak or a smoothie. But in case you need some ideas, here you go:
If you feel bloated or uncomfortably full, but you’re still hungry (yes, this happens!)…
- Eat something with a relatively low volume: this is not the time to go for a massive raw salad.
- Don’t skip the vegetables, but go for the ones that cook down very small, like spinach or other leafy greens. You can get the nutrition, but without adding to your stomachache. Cooked vegetables are also gentler on the stomach than raw.
If you’re struggling with rebound sugar cravings…
- Some people find that sugar cravings disappear when they eat some healthy Paleo carbs, like a sweet potato. Other people have more success with a high-fat, low-carb meal. Only you can know which type you are.
- Resist the urge to nibble at dried fruit or Paleo treats. These foods won’t help you get back into the habit of eating healthy, balanced meals.
- If you want something sweet, eat it with a meal, not as a snack. For example, add a handful of blueberries to your salad or try some pork chops with peaches.
If you only want non-Paleo food and nothing healthy looks good…
- That’s OK. Healthy food will start looking good again when your body is hungry.
- If you feel nauseated or sick, it's OK to wait to eat until you feel better.
- Drink some water or tea, take a nap or do something to take your mind off food, and let the hunger come when it comes.
Summing it Up
When it comes to recovering after a non-Paleo adventure, the most important thing to do is to move on. Remember: one weekend, or even one vacation, of less than stellar eating is not going to derail your life unless you let it. Resist the urge to do penance for your nutritional transgressions by fasting or overexercising: food is not a religion, and punishing yourself will accomplish nothing.
Instead, take a trip to the grocery store, stock up on healthy food, and get right back into the swing of things even if you don’t feel like you “deserve to eat.” You deserve to eat by virtue of being alive; it’s not something you have to earn with good behavior, and it’s not a right you can forfeit with a bag of Oreos. Let it go, cook yourself something yummy, and get back in the driver’s seat to take charge of your health again.