The Whole9 Guide to Eating Dirty (Part I)

If you’re reading this blog, we all have one thing in common:  we try to eat well, whether we call it “Paleo” or “Whole30” or just plain “clean”. We know the difference between Real Food and Stuff You Can Eat. We eat real food, natural food, nutrient-dense food. We avoid foods that require additives to be “healthy”, high-tech fabrications designed to replace real food, and food-like products made from ingredients we cannot pronounce. And we do this, day in and day out, for the vast majority of our meals and snacks.

But most of us don’t eat like that ALL the time. A perpetual Whole30 is mentally taxing, socially restrictive and just plain not fun. So, eventually, we “cheat”. We go off diet, eat things that we normally wouldn’t, indulge in things that taste good and satisfy our urges. But looking at the big picture, we always want our diets to remain solidly on the Healthy side. Which means we need to think long and hard about how we cheat, what we choose to eat and drink during these cheat periods and how often we go off diet.

Let’s first define what we mean by “cheat”.   We’ll going out on a limb and say that 99% of the time, cheat = high carb, processed, sugary foods and drinks. What else do we cheat with? It’s not meat, fish or eggs, and it’s certainly not fat, as we get plenty of that every day in our “clean” meals.  No, we cheat with dirty, dirty carbs. Beer and pizza, nachos and tequila, cinnamon swirl French toast slathered with Nutella. We cheat with insulin spiking, sugar rushing, energy crashing CARBS.

Now that that’s settled, in this next section, we’ll talk about the physiological benefits of cheating. Surely, you’ve heard that cheat meals or cheat days are a necessary part of your fitness program? They “shock the body”, “keep it guessing”, “jump start your metabolism”, right? So this next section will discuss the science-y details of how going off diet and cheating with things like pizza, pasta, cake and cookies has a positive impact on your physical health, fitness and performance.

This section is short.


To be perfectly clear, a cheat day does not have a single significant, long-term positive effect on your metabolism, your body composition or any other internal science-y factors, despite what you read on the internet. And we’re about to shoot down some common arguments here.

First… for those of you who eat a bowl of Breyer’s every night before bed and suddenly notice you’re looking leaner… that’s not the Breyer’s. It is, however, a sure sign that you have not been eating enough. The ice cream is giving you a caloric boost, and has jump started your metabolism. Which is great, short term. But keep eating ice cream every night for months on end and tell us how that’s working out for you. Or, we’ll argue, how much better would your fat loss and performance be if you instead ate more avocado, chicken and sweet potato to get those extra fat and calories in? In short, the “cheat” may have helped short term, but it’s a bad long term solution, and you could do better. (Pay attention to that last part. You’ll hear it again.)

Second, you may pass off your cheats as preventing metabolic slow-down. Serious calorie and carb restrictions decrease the release of the hormone called leptin. Leptin is important to keeping up your body’s metabolic rate. Increasing food intake drastically, even for a short period of time (like with a cheat day), will prevent the drop in leptin that occurs when dieting. But most of us aren’t seriously “dieting”, are we?   We’re training hard, so we are at least eating enough to support performance. We may have a slight caloric deficit to prompt fat loss, but we are NOT in starvation mode. Not even close. Our metabolisms should be chugging away like a super-powered bullet train. So, if we are already eating for performance, do we really need to “mix it up” and “jolt our metabolisms” with chili cheese fries and an ice cream sundae? (That’s rhetorical, kids.) And if for some reason you are on a seriously calorie-restricted diet… again, we’ll say that you can pull off a better metabolic shock-and-awe with a higher volume of good, clean carbs than you can eating crap.

How about the idea of “loading” or “refeeding” – essentially, replenishing glycogen stores? Glycogen (the carbs stored in the muscles and liver) is the primary fuel source for intense physical activity. When your glycogen stores are low, you won’t be able to train as hard as when you’re fully loaded. For that reason, it’s a good idea to periodically give the body a shot of carbohydrates to keep glycogen stores at least somewhat full. (We do this in the form of a post workout meal.) But again, it comes back to this. You can “refuel” with ice cream and candy… or you can refuel with sweet potatoes and butternut squash. Ice cream supports the basic, fundamental requirement of replenishing glycogen stores… but also messes with a whole host of other body processes, like insulin sensitivity, fat stores, growth factors and autoimmune responses. Again, you could do better.

So there you have it – a cheat meal or a cheat day does nothing for your physical health and well being that couldn’t be done better with good, clean food. But there are a whole host of reasons to cheat that we DO support – and those are all mental. Your taste buds crave things that taste good. Your brain rebels against the rigidity of “can have” and “can’t have”. Your emotions needs a break from the isolation and social pressures of being the weird eater, the difficult dinner party guest, the one who makes everyone else feel bad about the way they eat. You need a mental break, which means you want to stray from your diet. And we are more than okay with that.

So we’ve established that we want our diets to remain on this side of Healthy, but that there are mental and emotional reasons that mean we will probably go off-diet from time to time. And as you might imagine, we have a few thoughts as to how you do that.   We’ll publish our advice for how to strike the best balance possible while still preserving your mental sanity next.

Stay tuned for The Whole9 Guide to Eating Dirty (Part II).

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  1. says

    I find the more I follow the Whole30, the less I crave sweets. Whereas before I didn’t notice the adverse effects of high-carb pigouts, now, the thought of drinking excessive amount of alcohol, or eating a pizza are quite repulsive because I know exactly how it will effect my performance at the gym the next day.

    Clean food has changed my life. And while I may not be your strictest Paleo, I’m definitely off the junk. Great article~ Thanks

  2. Meredith@ CrossFit Eureka says

    I have been whole 30 for so long now my cheat is ( only a zoner could appreciate this) unrestricted chicken breast with macadamia nut butter….or more than a blocks worth of strawberries with a substantial helping of raw baking cocoa and coconut butter. My late night snack 2 years ago might have been granola and yogurt but seriously hardboiled egg whites with sweet potato mash is the go to! The members of my affiliate who are just starting out with their first Whole 30 cant imagine evr getting to that point and I didnt imagine it possible either back in the day- going off the farm is not an option anymore and Im all good with that. Thank you Whole 9 for all the incredible support!

  3. says

    After not having anything with refined sugar in it I now find that stuff like sweet potatoes and carrots taste like candy to me. I will chop up some carrots and cook them up in rendered duck fat with a little dill and man does it taste sweet to me. Ditto sweet potato with some cinnamon.

    I’m making up some for tonight and that’s gonna be my “indulgence” instead of any sweets. I’m not sure I could really eat a candy bar or something now. I can’t imagine how awful it would taste.

  4. says

    This past Saturday, my wife ate just half of her cannoli with chocolate sauce when we were out with friends. I have been eating clean for the past 6 months. I never had a sweet-tooth, so skipping dessert has been easy, but I started craving THAT cannoli. I considered eating it for at least 10 minutes before I did. It was good . The filling was sweet. The chocolate was nice. The cannoli shell was a tasteless container. All in all, the cannoli did not measure up to the enjoyment I get from a good HoneyCrisp Apple.

  5. says

    Great article, we have been more serious about eating Paleo for about 2-3 months now after reading Robb Wolf’s book. Meredith our business partner at CrossFit Eureka, has been doing Paleo much longer than us. Anyway, she is a great resource and uses a lot of your information.
    This article is really helpful especially for those just starting out in Paleo eating. It seems it’s taken me a couple of months to really figure out the ins and outs of Paleo, fine tuning it, even though I have a lot more to learn, I feel we have a much better grasp on it now than we did 3 months ago. All that to say Thank you!
    I think it is crucial, for people mentally in the beginning to have cheats. Cheats 3 months ago for me meant eating a completely non paleo item like Pizza, Pie or what not. Now a cheat is using a little honey, agave or Stevia to sweeten (although even then that’s less of appealing than it used to be), or eating something a I would consider ” loose” paleo instead of strict. I suppose eventually I may convert to strict Paleo, but I find it helps socially if I have an alternative like coconut ice cream, or Fudge babies to eat at a party or social gathering. It helps put others at ease. I’m not into making everyone around me feel uncomfortable about what they are eating or like I am the food police. If they want to know I’ll share with them what Paleo has done for me, but won’t offer unsolicited advice. Sorry, got off subject there, to summarize, I feel cheats are essential to a Paleo success unless you are a classic type A personality, all or nothing, which most of us are not. Thanks again for the article.

  6. says

    For me it is definitely all or none as the little cheat would wreck havoc with my blood sugar and I wouldnt want that. Oh and getting a PR nearly every week is worth so much to me too!

  7. ATB says

    So for post-workout meals, as much as I don’t want to drink a recovery shake, convenience over quality kind of comes into play here. It’s pretty difficult for me to scarf down real food post-workout, especially within 10-15 minutes of finishing something that makes me want to “play dead” but instead drink a scoop of whey protein with a Gatorade. Any thoughts on that post-workout meal? Do the long-term detriments outweigh the immediate glycogen replenishing benefits that I am experiencing when downing whey+sucrose?

  8. says


    I think you probably already know what we’d say: do a little preparation, and eat Real Food. (Your post-workout nausea should subside with 10-20 minutes after your workout, in which case you should be eating…) When we’re traveling, we sometimes make concessions to convenience (or, more specifically, to the TSA security at the airport) by using a unsweetened 100% egg white powder (with no stabilizers or emulsifiers), but that’s because we can’t fly with mashed sweet potato or egg whites. But… I doubt you’re flying to your workout. ;) But to answer your question more directly, yes – the big-picture effects of a processed milk proteins plus sucrose and artificial flavorings/colorings DO outweigh the benefits of gettgin protein and carbs into you after your workout. Good question, dude.


    Actually… we think of the Gatorade and processed milk protein shake and the pizza and ice cream as pretty much the same – highly processed “food products” with many ingredients that make you less healthy, including boatloads of “empty calories” from sugar. Beware the hype that tells you (sells you?) the idea that Gatorade and a shake is “healthy”.

  9. Tom R. says

    This week was Thanksgiving, and despite my best intentions, I ate moderate amounts of non-Paleo dressing and pumpkin and pecan pie. I then kept eating more “moderate” amounts. It’s a holiday, right? I wasn’t even hungry, but pass another slice of pie. A beer? Sure. The ballgame is on. I went to meet my workout crew this morning and didn’t want to do a thing that sounded like it might raise my heartrate. I was a slug.

    After some shoulder press, I sat on the rower and convinced myself “Jackie” was something I could bite off, even if it was an 80% effort. I did set a PR, but I don’t attribute that to eating crap for two straight days. I attribute it to sold diet and training lately, and it has been awhile since “Jackie” and I danced. My point is how easy it is to start eating the junk and saying “what the hell” and then not even wanting to move. The great thing is after knocking off some rust, I’ve come out of the carb haze, feel better and have a pot of grassfed beef chili getting ready for the ballgame tonight. As easy as it is to fall of the wagon, it is just as easy to jump back on. Damn, that chili is smelling good…pass the avocado.

  10. Jason Clark says

    Dallas and Melissa –
    this post caught my attention because of the mention of the Breyers and the caloric boost, I have noticed this recently at times that when I have overindulged i.e. Thanksgiving dinner where I tried to stay paleo..but definitely over did it compared to normal day’s eating. But when I work up in the morning after I felt great and looked leaner/felt leaner than normal so i am curious if i am getting enough calories on a daily basis, my energy levels are good overall and i still make gains in PTP, but it still has me wondering, so how would i calculate the number of calories needed on a daily basis, for reference i am 6’3″ 170 lbs, 33 years old. and am following your PTP program with one basketball game a week in addition. Other wise i am a desk jockey working as a computer engineer..

  11. Katie says

    I’ve been doing paleo pretty clean and trying to seriously restrict the fruit. This Thanksgiving when those around me were indulging in beer, bread, and pie, I indulged with a little more reserve by eating red potatoes with butter and drinking fruit juice (no sugar). I have noticed recently tho that my cravings have changed. Not just that I don’t want the refined sugary stuff that I use to enjoy but I feel nauseous sometimes, don’t want certain paleo foods that I use to like (eggs, chickens are big ones) and do still seriously want some carbs–which I give into from time to time. For example, today after I ate my lunch of thanksgiving leftovers (turkey and the paleo stuffing and green beans from your website) I ate some coconut milk with cranberry sauce for dessert, and then went to the store and bought some tomato soup, an apple and a banana. Then I felt satisified. I didn’t feel like I just needed more food because I was not into the idea of eating more turkey but the carbs helped. What’s up with that?

  12. ATB says


    Thanks for the input. So, what is your post-workout nutrition like? How much protein and carbohydrate do you specifically supplement with after workouts?

    100% egg white powder? Sounds interesting, where could I try something like this?

    Thanks as always, you guys do great work.

  13. says

    @Katie: We know exactly what’s going on with you. We’re actually going to take your comment main-page on Monday, so stay tuned for our thoughts. Thanks for the good question!


  14. says

    @ATB: We cover this in extensive detail in our workshops – in general, a hunk of protein and (depending on your workout and your goals) a carb-dense vegetable immediately PWO is your best bet.

    And we use 100% egg white protein powder when we travel on an airplane to our workouts. It’s a sub-optimal choice, you’ll always do much better with real food, so take the time to hard boil some eggs or microwave egg whites in a glass container after your training. If you are going to go the decidedly lazy route, make sure you find a powder with only one ingredient – egg whites. NOW Foods makes the brand we use when we travel.


  15. ATB says

    Thanks Melissa. Yes, I am actually a coach at Crossfit West Houston and we are huge fans of yours over there. I will be present for your seminars in January.

    Thanks for the good info. Final question. Whats your take on the 80% dark chocolate that Robb Wolf speaks about in his book. I’ve heard good and bad things, wanted to know your honest opinion?

  16. says

    @ATB: 80% dark chocolate = CANDY. That’s about all I have to say on that subject. ;)

    See you in January! Are you coming to our Trainer’s event with Dutch? You shouldn’t miss it!


  17. says

    Love you! That’s the best blog post I have ever read about the so called “cheat meals”. I have a health condition that is SERIOUSLY affected by refind foods and sugar (including most fruits), so I don’t cheat… unless you count the little bites of chocolate I eat. Oh, I make the chocolate candy myself… home made coconut butter (from organic unsweetened coconut), mixed with organic cocoa powder. That is all.