Whole9’s Guide to Nutritional Off-Roading

A few months ago, we heard a fascinating question from a workshop attendee. Well, to be honest, the question itself wasn’t fascinating, but our answer (or lack thereof) we found mighty interesting. The question posed to us was this: “If you were going to “cheat” and make a bad food choice, is it better to choose something that’s less bad?”

We Don’t Do “Less Bad”

This idea of “less bad” is a common theme at our events; folks hear us present our views on “optimal nutrition” all day long, and then persist in asking what their “less bad” options would be. (For the record, we do not fall into the trap of answering these questions. Our job is not to advise you on the “less bad”, our job is to tell you what is optimal. But we digress…) After pausing a moment, we both answered (in unison), “Not necessarily.” And while our audience gaped at our response (what kind of nutrition consultant would actually advise you to choose the gluten-bomb over the gluten-free?), we did our best to explain. Our best, unfortunately, was pretty inadequate – not because we didn’t have a coherent thought process, but because there are so many factors in play when making a not-so-good food choice.

It’s Crazy, But It’s True

The thing is, eating well isn’t really all that complicated. No, it’s not, despite how difficult it may have been to get yourself to our side of the nutritional fence. If you’ve got our Shopping Guide and MealSimple™ template, making smart food choices is easier than easy. Choose foods off our list, using our “good-better-best”, nutrient-density and fat hierarchy recommendations. Create meals and snacks following the meal planning template. Use our guidelines to help you evaluate for yourself whether you’re eating the right amount to accomplish your goals. Repeat. That’s it – really. If you’re following our clear, concise guidelines, you literally cannot go wrong. See? Eating good food is pretty simple.

What gets really complicated is choosing not-so-good food. Seems counterintuitive, doesn’t it? Eating well is difficult, but eating junk food, comfort food, cheap-and-dirty food has always been easy. And that’s true… until you start thinking about making better food choices. Once you start caring about the food you put in your mouth, the situation flips. Eating clean is now far easier. You’ve got your Whole9 “rules of the road” – your lists, your guidelines, your handbooks. Stay firmly on the pavement and you’re in good shape. But what happens when you go off-road, away from your lists and guidelines and handbooks? That’s where things get muddy, where it’s not so clear-cut, where (until today) we couldn’t offer you any guidelines as clear and concise as those outlined in our “road map” for healthy eating.

But the “less bad” question got us thinking… what is our criteria for making an “off road” food choice? When do we opt for the “less bad”, and when do we eat the “real deal”? How do WE know when to indulge and when to pass? We realized we actually had good answers for all of these questions… we just needed a vehicle to communicate them to our readers, workshop attendees and consulting clients.

Everybody Loves a Good Flowchart

We spent the next month documenting our thought process on taking your nutrition off-roading. What started off as a free-form discussion turned into a handy little flowchart, designed to help you make the right not-so-good food choices for yourselves. The chart walks yourself through a series of checkpoints that all lead to one of three conclusions – don’t eat it, eat the “less bad” option, or eat the real deal. It provides you with structure, a forum for intelligent self-reasoning, a map of “guidelines” to follow in previously uncharted territory.

Walk yourself through this “cheat sheet” every single time you want to indulge in an off-plan food or drink. While many of the questions here might seem obvious, do not dismiss any of the steps. They are all carefully designed to increase awareness and accountability, and at some point will probably keep you from crashing face-first into a box of glazed donuts. You’re welcome.

Print It Out. Refer To It Often. Evaluate Your Results.

The flowchart steps (and conclusions) should be self-evident after a few walk-throughs, but the beauty (and effectiveness) of our Guide to Nutritional Off-Roading is that you use it each and every time you consider indulging in a not-so-good food choice. We all find ourselves slipping back into old patterns and habits, no matter how many Whole30’s we’ve done or how long we’ve been eating “clean”. This flowchart will help keep you honest, and probably keep you eating better (and healthier) than you might otherwise.

We’d love to hear how you use our Guide to Nutritional Off-Roading in your own life, within your gym or with your family. Post comments, questions or your own walk-through results to comments. Looking for other Whole9 resources on “eating dirty”? Check the Resources page, where we swear we have just as many articles on “cheating smart” as we do on eating healthy.

We can help you live the Whole9 life.

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  1. ehayes says

    Waaayyy to neurotic if you ask me. The thing I love about the Whole 9 is they address a way of life, not just food, just exercise, just supplements, but the Whole way of life. If you have to go through the flow chart to figure out what you want to eat, you might have a cortisol (stress) problem. Maybe you need to fix the neurosis first, then you won’t worry so much about food. Be confident in your decisions. It is your decision, and only you will be happy or sad with your in the end. Don’t worry about what Dallas and Mellissa would say, don’t worry about what your friend would say who is gonna ask you everytime, “I thought it wasn’t ok to eat corn tortillas?” Just be confident.

  2. says

    LOVE this. Thank you!

    The best thing about what the flow chat represents is that a big percentage of the time, as I go through my mental checklist, I realize I don’t want to eat something that’s not Whole30-approved after all.

    Thanks, again, for providing us with such great tools!

  3. says

    I think there’s a time and place in someone’s evolution where this would be essential. I know I was there for a long time. (And @ehayes, when I was there, this would’ve been a great crutch to lean on when I needed it. Just because the help isn’t needed anymore, doesn’t make it any less valuable of a tool.)

    Now that the “Whole Principles” have rooted themselves in my life, knowing if/when I’m going to eat something sketchy has become pretty much automatic – and, like Melicious said, the voices in my head sound a lot like this. Not as witty, or hip, as you guys, but similar enough. ;-)

  4. says

    I pretty much make all my food choices based on “is it worth it?” It’s my version of the “Healthy/F-Off Scale.” For example, I know that trace amounts of MSG give me migraines, so most fast food isn’t worth it. I’m working on figuring out if this translates to an overall acute sensitivity to gluten, which would make a lot of other foods “not worth it,” even as a cheat. But really good dark chocolate is definitely worth it. And I can’t really eat more than an ounce at a time (usually less than that) because it stops tasting as good.

  5. Maria says

    Jeff & Mikki (CFKids) had something similiar that I used for my swim team kiddos about a year ago. It was a kid-friendly (and humorous) guide that was spot on in getting kids to “think” about the impact the unfavorable food might have on their sport performance. I was surprised at how effective the guide actually was with several teammates, since they tended to make comments about food “effects” after a lousy performance in or out of the water.

    The positive fallout from this guide, however, was from the parents – I received good feedback from parents on how they were able to utilize the guide as a family to improve their snacking choices.

    I think this is a great idea for the novice still not in tune or familiar with their body’s reaction to food.


  6. Robbie says

    @ehayes, I agree that it’s a bit too much for some. But, in my experiences coaching people off the sugar demon express, this kind of formal, practical, HONEST self evaluation is exactly the right way to go about it. Some people here aren’t going from a mens/womens health diet of supposed healthy foods. They are trying to stop binging on sweets and junk and one bite of that addictive crap can set them off and sink their whole 29 days and 23 hours of hard,dedicated work. Your suggestions are just as valid and I love the no guilt approach, but sometimes it’s not enough!!

  7. says

    We appreciate all the comments so far. However, I think some of you might be taking it a little too seriously. First, this was supposed to be helpful but tongue-in-cheek post. The whole point (of the post and flow chart) is awareness, to prompt people to STOP AND THINK. This is simply the way we think (intuitively) about making delicious-but-not-healthy food choices. By no means do you have to think this way. We just think that taking the time to honestly, critically evaluate your choices is important.

    The idea of just eating “unweighed, unmeasured Paleo” is way too general for lots of people’s comfort, so we created our MealSimple template to provide structure around that very idea. In the same way, the idea of “treat yourself when it’s worth it” is also WAY too general for many folks, and leads a lot of people to eat a lot of stuff they later wish they hadn’t.

    Not everyone will need to use this flowchart, of course. But we’ve had so many requests for additional “eating dirty” guidance that we felt it was important for us to come up with something that provided structure while still forcing people to take responsibility for (and enjoy the freedom of) making their own choices.


    Dallas & Melissa

  8. says

    I love this line: “Our job is not to advise you on the “less bad”, our job is to tell you what is optimal.”

    All too often, when I am running workshops & presentations, the audience thinks it is my job to tell them just how much they can get away with but still gain most of the benefit of eating well. Not my job!

  9. says

    So… I’ve been thinking about these comments all day, and tongue-in-cheek or serious, here’s what this flowchart — and the associated thinking, chart or not – is doing…

    it’s taking the act of eating and removing the emotional component… it’s helping to separate feelings from decisions. It’s important to acknowledge our feelings, but it’s also essential to a healthy, balanced life to examine our emotions with our intellect before acting.

    So I say: well done again for helping people separate their feelings (I want THAT) from their actions by THINKING first.

  10. Libby says

    The flowchart is how I think automatically about this. Will it screw me up? Then it better be awesome enough to warrant it. Will it not? It should still be worth the calories.

    I think I’d add in that my long-standing rule has been: I can only consume so many calories a day. I only have so much space in my stomach. So my food had either be healthy or AWESOME or both. And convenience or “free”-ness or just-there-ness is no longer a good enough reason to indulge.

  11. Matt F says

    I LOVE it someone finally made a flowchart for common sense!

    Not that my common sense always prevails.

  12. dana says

    Love this! Funny yet true, true, true…..For those of you who don’t have voices in your head for long years …..lucky you! For those of us who do…YAY!

    On Easter my hubby and I sat down to a delicious mostly non-paleo meal. It was special..YES! It was at a spectacular restaurant that is a once or twice a year treat…YES! The food was whole, fresh, mostly local and wonderful! Could I savor it without guilt….YES!

    At work, when I think “oh, just….f-it.” This kind of algorithm is a great thing for my thinking. As someone else said, maybe just a little funnier and more insightful…..

  13. says

    OK so my original question on the better, best, less than optimal choices are based on what would you eat if there are no gf meat, wild fish or pastured egg choices and you are away? I dont cheat normally nor do I use the “cheat” word as a rule. I live my life according to Whole9 to the max at all times.

  14. CeCe says

    I’ve been doing the Whole 30 for 10 days so far and feel incredible. Luckily most of my meals are consumed at home. The tough/cheat time for me will be when I am out for dinner and have to pass up a glass of red wine, really no substitute for that.

  15. Andy says

    I like it because it’s essentially the parrot principle. Sometimes you just need to hear your reasoning by telling someone and having them say it back. This does the same thing, allowing you to slow down and walk through the process in your head before making the choice.

  16. says

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