That covert yogurt: When food gets sneaky

Today’s Whole30 check-in topic comes from a reader’s post. Heather wrote:

“I am currently in the testing part of Whole30 (completed 30 days, and am now reinserting certain foods back in to see how they affect me). One thing I gave up during the Whole30 was my morning organic, sugar-free yogurt with salt-free almonds and sugar free granola. I am now eating Paleo except for this breakfast so I can test the way I feel and my performance during WODs.

I had my first one yesterday and another one today. Physically, I feel good, and I performed well and felt good during yesterday’s WOD… so I would like to know when I can declare my yogurt breakfast okay?”

Heather brings up an important question. You’ve followed the Whole30, and you’re reintroducing foods in a smart, scientific manner, one food group at a time. (Heather skipped the “one food group at a time” part of the reintroduction guidelines – but that’s not the point.) Pretend you’ve chosen dairy as your first test food group. You eat a small bowl of all-natural ice cream two days in a row, and feel no side effects. Your stomach isn’t puffy, you still feel good and you PR’d your deadlift an hour after your second bowl. The dairy hasn’t appeared to impact how you look, feel or perform… so why can’t you just start working a Paleo + Ice Cream diet? Warning: I’m about to burst your Breyer’s bubble.

First, and most importantly, because some foods are sneaky. Say you’re practicing temperance while “off-roading” (limiting consumption to once every week or two, and eating “bad” foods in moderate quantities). After eating those foods, you may not notice an immediate reaction in any of your body’s systems. However, your body is still experiencing some, if not all, of the negative internal effects associated with those foods, such as inflammation, gut irritation, and insulin spikes.

Dallas explains, “”Even infrequent consumption of foods (or food products) that contribute to elevated levels of insulin, cortisol, or the pro-inflammatory eicosanoids will set you up for inflammation-driven disease processes. Most of us already know the effect that chronic consumption of processed carbohydrates has on the development of Type II Diabetes, but this is only one example of how a previously asymptomatic (“silent”) inflammatory process can manifest itself as overt disease. Unfortunately, just eating a bagel and a yogurt for breakfast once a week is enough to trigger grain- and dairy-related inflammation, causing an uptick in all the inflammatory processes in your body for days or even weeks afterward. You might not be able to feel a bagel and yogurt invading your system, but you cannot avoid the pro-inflammatory effects of those foods.”

So Heather’s multi-cheat meal of dairy, grains AND artificial sweeteners (strike one) are each silently attacking her bodily systems from all angles… without her awareness. Sneaky, sneaky, in a very disconcerting manner, right? It gets worse. See, on top of the sneaky factor, the effects of these incidents are cumulative, especially if your “cheats” occur on a frequent basis. (Strike two for Heather’s breakfast routine.) Even if you’re not noticing the negative effects of your dietary transgressions now, there’s a good chance you’ll start feeling the effects after a two or three weeks of regular “cheat food” intake. That old knee or shoulder pain may start acting up again, your skin doesn’t look as clear, your digestive tract is less than happy, and your energy levels aren’t as consistent as they used to be. At that point, however, it’s too late to put an immediate halt to the negative effects – your body is already hurt, and in distress mode. The fix? Spend another 30-60 days going cold turkey Whole30 to reverse the effects – reduce the inflammation, allow your digestive tract to heal, restore insulin sensitivity. Essentially, start over.

Finally, a potential strike three for Heather’s breakfast: Nutritional off-roading on a regular basis, especially if incorporating multiple “cheat” food groups, may begin to trigger those old thought processes and behaviors that led you to crave sugars or sweets, over-eat, under-eat or artificially prop up your energy levels with carbs and caffeine. Remember, a primary goal of the Whole30 is to break old habits and overcome mental hurdles as related to food, eating and satisfaction. Now that you’ve graduated, don’t get too lax in your habits – those old thoughts and patterns are persistent, and may be just as sneaky in their invasion as the cheat foods you’re eating.

In summary, if Heather is digging her breakfast, I am all for her partaking of that particular combination once in a while. But making that a daily occurrence is a bad idea, for all of the above reasons. The good news is that there is nothing in that meal – no nutrients, vitamins, minerals or energy sources – that she can’t get from eating other, better, healthier foods. So put that meal on your F-Off list, Heather, but for the sake of your health and performance, base the majority of your breakfasts on quality food choices.

My recommendation to all of you is to follow these Cheat Smart guidelines when coming off the Whole30, and go “off-road” only when you need to, to satisfy those mental cravings and quality of life requirements. Dallas wraps it up nicely, saying, “Don’t be fooled if you don’t have immediate, obvious symptoms when you reintroduce one or more of these ‘non-Paleo’ foods after completing the Whole30. Minimizing the intake of inflammatory food groups like grains, dairy, and legumes is always the smartest and safest way to maximize your performance and minimize the risk of chronic disease.

Post thoughts, observations, and recent cheat experiences to comments.

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  1. Angie says

    Great post.

    I can say that even though I don't feel the effects of eating some of my planned treats in the sense of stomach distress or feeling ill, I do feel them in other ways and it has made me realize that the treat meal isn't always worth it. Not to mention that I found that I didn't enjoy pizza or nachos as I used to in the past. My taste has changed a bit.

    I have been really good at scheduling my treat meals once per week. A couple of weeks ago, I had sort of a bad week and had 3 non-paleo meals that included Nachos at home one night, mexican dinner out with an excellent stuffed pepper with a cream sauce, tortilla chips, and stuffed pizza.

    The effects were:
    1. My old problem of constipation and bleeding came back right away.

    2. I couldn't figure out why I was struggling with a good amount of water retention because I didn't really consume a large amount of salt. Drinking a ton of water didn't seem to make it go away any faster. Then I looked online and found that gluten can cause water retention. I always thought it was salt, but I knew that couldn't be the cause because I use far less salt than I ever did.

    3. I could feel the effects of inflammation in my problematic knee, which I always in the past contributed to water retention from too much salt.

    As far as my previous post the other day where I stated that I haven't noticed the effects of the Paleo diet, I would like to clarify.

    I didn't have a body fat comp before / after to show any change in composition. I didn't lose any weight either. I initially dropped 4 pounds but then my weight stabilized back to my original weight range about 146-149 pounds (I'm 5'7ish).

    I based that statement merely on before/after photos of myself in my bikini. I didn't really notice any difference in body comp. That is ok because I didn't do this for that reason. I wasn't looking to change BF% or lose weight and I'm perfectly happy where I am right now.

    My pants were looser so I know there was some difference. I just couldn't visibly see the difference. Another thing, my energy level after the 1st 3 week period was significantly higher than usual. Once I started introducing the treat meals, I think I was more tired than usual. However, I do get up most days at 4:30am so that might contribute to less energy as well (although I do get 8 hrs sleep most nights).

    Another thing that Chef commented on re: the body adjusting to your foods and stabilizing metabolism… I believe that is part of my problem too. I don't vary my foods to much. I have the same eggs/banana w/ sunbutter for breakfast, essentially the same salad for lunch with different meats/fruits, and rotated with beef, pork, chicken and that is about it. I know I need to switch it up more, but I just haven't. I have zoned in the past for 1-1/2 years and I just don't feel up to zoning my paleo meals. I don't track them using Fitday either. So I know there are improvements to be made, which I will do in time.

  2. Angie says

    PS- I thought it was funny that the post mentions being Paleo + ice cream, because out of everything, Ice cream custard is what I crave!

  3. Jamie says

    Oh man, I have been doing this all wrong. Thanks Melissa – now I know. And, in hindsight, it was a mental thing. I am totally trying to justify some stuff by saying I cannot feel the difference when adding it back in. But, I was thinking short term and my goal is long term. Can't have it both ways… Duh!

    I dont cheat. To me, a cheat is a spur of the moment thing. Instead I had been doing treats. Those were planned in advance deviations from my base plan. I did not want to react to a momentary pang, instead I was aiming to satisfy a craving that stuck with me for a day – that made it worth it. But, I had gone slightly off of the Whole30 Plan which turns out is something totally different than a cheat or a treat.

    I have noticed a bit of a GI slow down since playing with my food choices and I was just about convinced it is a dairy thing.

    So, I think I get it. Eat Whole30 (Paleo) all of the time and dont really introduce old stuff back in as a regular piece of my food plan. Instead, old stuff would be treats from time to time. Right?

  4. Charlotte says

    Longtime lurker, learning so much here. My question is, this post seems to suggest that no one can eat dairy without an inflammatory response. Yet elsewhere you've commented that everyone is different and responds differently to different foods. Am I misreading? Do you think it's true that no human should eat dairy? Thanks!

  5. Lindsey and Web Smith says

    Great Post…

    Lindsey and I posted about the negative reaction caused by a departure from optimal nutrition on our site, just last night!

    Check it out and let me know what you think. You're on point with your opinion.

  6. Melissa Urban says

    @Angie: Yep, those are a few different (sneaky) effects you've experienced there. Glad to hear you've got that in check now.

    @Jamie: You've got it. I don't want people to think I'm getting all preachy and insisting you eat perfectly all the time. I'm still a big fan of the Healthy/F-Off scale, and I incorporate it in the occasional piece of french toast, dirty martini or handful of Junior Mints. But they're treats, yes… not a part of my daily (or even weekly) diet.

    @Charlotte: Everyone DOES respond to foods differently, yes. I can eat a piece of french toast and feel absolutely fine all day, whereas that same french toast would literally cripple Robb Wolf. But I'm not misled into thinking I don't have the same (although to a much lesser degree) gut irritation, inflammation and other grain-associated effects just because I can't FEEL them.

    To answer your last question (carefully), there isn't anything in dairy that I can't get from another, better, food source. So on a daily basis, why would I risk some of the potential effects of that food group when I can get get all the energy, nutrients, vitamins and minerals from other risk-free foods? Incorporating dairy as a "treat", however, is at your discretion, based on how seriously your body reacts to various amounts of that food group and how much discomfort you're willing to endure for the sake of that extra-cheese pizza.

    Does that make sense?

  7. Kat says

    "Cold turkey Whole30" love it!!

    I did the Whole30 back in July (one exception, vinegar in mustard). Felt amazing, had people asking how much 'weight' I lost (only 4 lbs..heehee), clothes fit better, slept better, had a PR deadlift etc, etc.

    First thing I reintroduced was parmesan cheese. Didn't feel bad. But, like you say about the "mental" part of reintroduction, started putting it on EVERYTHING. Not good. That turned into chicken wings with BBQ sauce every wednesday night. Then the dreaded chocolate covered jubes came back and I was gone!
    I realized it's a 'mental' thing with me if I "cheat". Not saying I won't enjoy a glass of wine or a little delectable treat on occasion, but to say it's "allowed" opens all the other doors that I closed behind me.

    Thankfully, a bunch of us started a Whole30 at our gym and I'm excited to offer my experiences to help the others succeed in feeling wicked!!

  8. Samantha says

    Wow, excellent post. I never thought of things that way… Actually. Just recently my knee started acting up (which hasn't happened from lifting in over a year and from running since my 10-mi run I didn't train for – let's not discuss that one… haha)
    I went "Cold Turkey Whole30" 3 days ago. It took 3 days to finally get a good night's sleep. I think I've gotten rid of all the sugar spiked/adrenaline in my body so I can finally rest (YAY).

    When it comes to introducing (which I'm way far from, I'm just curious) – would following cheats within the Primal Blueprint ( be considered cheating? He allows aged cheeses, wine and dark chocolates in his blueprint of health. I, for one, can't take the dairy – I'm just curious as to what you would say to that.

    Thanks, as always :)

    <3 – Samantha

  9. Kevin says

    Melisa, Thanks again. I was just talking to my wife last night about this exact subject (did the Whole30 some how give big-brother powers over our thoughts…you know exactly what we are thinking now?) and how I have actually noticed a downward spiral in my new found eating. It starts with just an innocent treat or snack once in a while. Then you start saying: "Well it didn't affect me then" so you do it mid week in a pinch…then, and this is the scary part, I actually CAUGHT myself trying to mentally justify eating crappy meals, while craving the stuff I had just kicked to the curb. This is an addiction, and it's even sneakier than heroine… at least with heroine you know you are killing yourself. Cold turkey Whole30 here I come….again.

  10. dawn says

    What are your thoughts on doing a detox? My friend recently went through a program called FirstLine Therapy. The first week you eat only raw veggies and drink a protein supplement. From there she followed a menu similar to that of paleo. Does a detox help kick start your system?

  11. dale j says

    @Kat: I had basically the same thing happen to me. A simple cheat like cream and sugar in my morning coffee would ruin a whole day. My mind would tell me that I'd already blown the whole day with that cream and sugar so I may as well throw a pumpkin spice donut along with that. And well, now I've really gone off the rails so might as well go for the burger and poutine for lunch and so on. I find it far easier to say nope, never than limit myself to say 3 squares of dark chocolate. Instead of getting back on track at the next feeding, I'd wait until the next day.

    Started the Whole30 again last Friday and the first week has gone well. Dealing with cravings by reading my goals and a favorite OPT quote every morning, so it's stuck in my head why I'm doing this. The other part of the 30 days for me is at least 8 hours sleep a night, which I've managed all except one night. Sleep quality has been so-so. Waking up in the middle of the night a couple of times a night, which is pretty standard for me, except I wake up really thirsty, drink water and end up waking up again to use the facilities and have another drink.

    The box I work at is starting the 30 days right as mine finishes, so it'll end up 60 days for me which is not the worst idea. Plan right now is to just focus on sleep and food quality right now and see how things go and how my training goes. Then in the next 30 I may refine things a little bit as far as nutrient timing and quantities. Or if things are going well I'll just keep on doing what I'm doing.

    Big thanks to Melissa for the work done here and all the people dropping comments. Huge inspiration to me and a lot of other people!

  12. Melissa Urban says

    I'm seeing a LOT of similarities in these comments… you start allowing fun food back in, but before you know it, you're back to hoovering "cheats" on a daily basis. I've been there,people. It's all too easy to slip back into those old habits, or let your sneaky brain defeat you. (That "Well, I've already blown the day, so I might as well…" is probably a popular refrain.) Don't discount the program's goal of changing mental thought patterns and habits! It's a bigger part of the picture than you may have realized.

    @Sam: Well, since Mark invented the "Primal Blueprint", he can call Pop-Tarts and vodka tonics "acceptable" if he wants to. Guess what? SO CAN YOU. The W30 isn't about me telling you how you should eat for the rest of your life. It's just designed to get you started, using the principles that have worked for me, Dallas, and our clients. Eventually, you figure out (in a smart way) what works for YOU. So if you want to call butter or corn chips "cheating" or "allowed" for your diet, that is completely your call. If you decide to include dairy despite what you may have read here or experienced for yourself, then go ahead. It may not make sense to everyone, but it's YOUR nutrition plan.

    @Dawn: I don't know much about detoxes, but can you imagine trying to clean and jerk on nothing but raw vegetables and protein powder? If I wanted to "cleanse", I'd just start incorporating some IF on a strict Paleo diet.

  13. Charlotte says

    Thanks so much for your response. Makes total sense. I'm eating paleo+dairy right now and I'm going to see what happens if I cut out that cottage cheese in the AM & milk in my coffee…maybe my stiff knee will clear up! I'll let you know.

  14. David 'Chef' says

    @ Ms. Urban

    YOU ROCK. HARD! I think I'll just post/send that to you everyday so you have an extra 'Wow, I rock!' or two stored away for when you need it most.

    Good analogies for the "it doesnt hurt today but will come back to haunt you later" aspects of falling off the paleo wagon:

    Rounded back deadlifts. Might not kill you today, but talk to me 10 years down the line.

    Smoking. It might not be an issue today, or next week, but when it becomes an issue, it's too damn late to do anything about it.

    As for the sneaky cheat syndrome? It's a slippery slope indeed. That's why I let the animal out of the box once a month, maybe once every two weeks ON PURPOSE! I do my cheat as a planned vacation, or the animal will claw it's way out of the box more and more frequently.

    Here's my take on the whole gig (and the working title of my fist book!) "I EAT WHAT I LIKE: You can eat what you want, when you want, as much as you want… just not today." That 'when' and 'what' is the crux of biscuit, the foundation of it all is it becomes your CHOICE, not something that 'just happens'.

    I think you'll get a kick out of this:

    much respect, as always,


  15. Danni says

    I just wonder if viewing plain yogurt and every non-paleo food, regardless of the solidity of the science behind avoiding it, as a "fun food" capable of sending one a slippery slope straight to the McDonalds drive-through is a sustainable way to live and think about food. Making myself afraid of plain yogurt or beans and it insidiously attacking my insides is scarier to me than the claims of inflammation. I suppose this is part of the individual "whole health" balance.

  16. dale j says

    I think there is a big difference between fear and awareness. I'm not afraid when I walk down the dark alley after work to my car, but I am aware of the potential dangers and act accordingly.

    I'm not afraid of food. I am aware of how certain indulgences right now could affect me and why. In my case it's sugar. Sugar leads me to crave and eat more sugar. And I don't want that because it is hurting me and it's taking me further away from my current goals.

  17. Wade says

    Wanted to say hi. Just subscribed via Google Reader. Hope all is well!
    –Wade (I used to be your favorite teacher)

  18. Sully says

    I feel great with no bread or pasta–it's been a few days and I'm not even 'offically' a 30-day'er yet. We have an army of monster-sized Dorito bags at work yesterday, didn't even consider it twice (my favorite snack, by the way)
    Unfortunately, I am a Beer-avore. Guinness, Harp (or both) with every meal. Thanks everyone for sharing your struggles on this site, as it is helping me find some discipline!
    I was just on Robb wolf's site, and someone there described their ear tinitis, which I've just been living with all my life, just disappeared when they got rid of the grain/dairy stuff!
    For anyone dealing with the 'go ahead, cheat' voice in their minds-my mantra: 'I am an adult with a good job-i can go purchase anything I want to consume at any time….the diet police will not arrest me: so why not wait? (a little Jedi mind-trick I've been playing on myself.

  19. Sully says

    @Hamilton: I read that neat article-thanks. I don't think running for humans and a Paleo diet are a mismatch, though.
    We-our forbears, that is–ran, stalked, threw weapons at, and spent a lot of time chasing food (and running away from predators)

    But from what I understand, it was subsiting on the 'Paleo' style of food sources, no?

    I am cleaning up my dietary act–going Paleo, and my x-fit workouts are improving very rapidly–especially in the strength building arena.
    (but I'm not totally Paleo in my eating yet)
    Were you refering specifically to Met-con type workouts?

  20. jess says

    Hey, love the new ideas on your site, keep it up :)

    I'm big on cooking my veggies up in my good old frying pan with some source of fat, but cooking oil at high heats has been questionable (PAHs and all that cancer talk,) and my lovely friend butter is dairy. What do you think is my best bet?

  21. Roelant says

    @ Jess, I use organic Butter sometimes. You can also get yourself some high grade coconut oil, very stable at high temp, and flavorful.


  22. Heather says

    My personal food addiction is convenience. The Whole30 definitely knocked my cravings (and like everyone else, once I slip it is double the work not to keep sliding). I used to look forward to my morning yogurt so much more before the Whole30 as a yummy treat, along with my flavored (read sugar) coffee.

    Now, when I tried to incorporate it back in, I found it wasn't the treat part I liked anymore (and I ditched the flavored coffee, I am all black coffee with a little cocnut milk now!), it was the convenience and lower cost. I didn't have to get to work, go to the cafeteria everyday and cough up $5 for fresh eggs and sausage.

    Anyone have any suggestions on what I can prepare for breakfast and put into a container and bring to work?

    My husband made some killer carrot paleo cookies with mostly almonds, maybe with some turkey sausage and a small amount of fruit (I do zone paleo)…..

  23. Mer says

    Yay for the Whole30! I'm back in again as of today. That whole "finding myself hoovering daily cheats" thing totally describes what happened to me over the past month. I don't feel good, my skin is looking worse and I'm not performing as well in my exercise routine (or at least, not as well as I'd like).

    Welcome to all the new Whole30ers and it's good to be back! :D

  24. W8liftinmom says

    I needed this post this morning….

    "Eating off the reservation on a regular basis, especially if incorporating multiple “cheat” food groups, may begin to trigger those old thought processes and behaviors that led you to crave sugars or sweets, over-eat, under-eat or artificially prop up your energy levels with carbs and caffeine"

    I ate "off the reservation" all weekend. I tried to stay on track, but was at the mercy of the cook staff at the retreat I attended. I stayed gluten free(except for some warm cookies) and legume free, but couldn't stay nightshade and salt free. Ugg. Everything was so salty! And the minute I walked in the door at home my daughter offers me a Reeses peanut butter cup! Yikes!

    Guess what? My shoulders were talking to me this morning. Time to get back on track…

  25. dale j says

    Question for all the 30 day'ers. What do you do for food logs? What have you tried that worked and what didn't?

    I'm not weighing and measuring, so when I started this 30 days about 10 days ago I didn't think I'd bother logging anything. Just focus on getting my 8 hrs of sleep and staying strict. Keep it simple.

    I'm having some gi issues the last week and I'm trying to figure out what the causes may be. I keep pretty detailed training logs and really preach the importance of this with clients. What I'd do there when a problem came up would be look at the logs, see what changed and what day the symptoms appeared to see if I could connect the dots. Would like to do that with my diet, but no logs exist.

    I've started a simple log today basically including what foods I ate (no quantities) at breakfast, what supplements I took, hrs of sleep and general feeling. I also made a few notes on what the main issue I have right now is and what I think the problem could be (too much fat / too much fish oil / too much fruit).

    I'd love to hear how others have approached this during the 30 days and after when reintroducing foods.

  26. Heather says

    I share your gi problems with the diet. I actually posted on it and Urban said it could be my fat intake (possible since I cut carbs and upped fats in an effort not to loose weight and keep my performance up), or just my system adjusting to the increase in veggies. I believe it is a bit of both but probably more the latter. I'm about 40 days in (I cheat here and there now that I'm done with the Whole30), and while there is no discomfort, I'm not exactly to normal yet.

    As far as a log goes, I just logged everything I ate, how I felt, and hours of sleep I got into an excel spreadsheet. I didn't get caught up in amoutns. For instance, I measured almonds by the handful. 1 handful, 2 handfuls, etc.

  27. Barbara says

    Would you consider editing this article and removing the term “off the reservation”? The term originates from the painful time in our history when Native Americans were not allowed to leave the reservation without permission from the agent. This is akin to saying that someone “escaped the plantation.” Both expressions are considered insensitive and even racist, although I acknowledge that many times there is no harm intended. When a Native American went “off the reservation” they were often hunted down and killed, even if they were hunting game for their starving family. Surely you do not want to be associated with this derogatory term! Thank you for your consideration of my perspective. I know you care about people, all people.

  28. says


    I have edited those references out of this post. I was unaware of the history and context behind that phrase, but of course we would never want to use words that offend entire populations. Thank you for gently bringing this to our attention.


  29. Brittany says

    Sugar-free granola doesn’t necessarily mean it has artificial sugar. It could just be plain granola with no sweeteners added or maybe something a little more natural like honey or maple syrup has been added.