Defining “Every Once in a While”

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Photo credit: Benjamin Von Wong

You’ll hear the phrase “every once in a while” thrown around a lot from those giving nutritional advice (especially in the Paleosphere) as it relates to allowing yourself treats and cheats. But what exactly does that mean? How do you quantify something as vague as, “every once in a while?” Is it weekly? Monthly? Quarterly? Yearly?

A fairly common practice amongst people in the Paleo community is to follow this lifestyle on a sliding scale. You’ll commonly hear “I’m 100% Paleo, 80% of the time.” It’s like Sex Panther by Odeon. 60% of the time, it works every time. The 80/20 approach (80% clean eating to 20% dirty dirty) is totally fine. If that’s what keeps you on track for the majority of your meals, keep doing what you’re doing. You’re still better off than the majority of Americans.

But let’s look at the 80/20 example a little further. If you eat 21 meals in a week (3 meals a day, 7 days a week), then 80% of that is about 17 meals that you would ideally make yourself. That leaves 4 meals to go off the rails a little. 4 meals in a restaurant. 4 treats for yourself. That’s not too bad. It may work for some people but not everyone because you can still do some damage in those 4 meals. There are a lot variables at play.

Now let’s look at a slightly stricter regimen of 90/10. That’s about 19 clean meals and 2 treats. That’s probably more realistic for anyone who wants to lose body fat/inches but still maintain a level of mental sanity by having something sweet (or less than ideal) twice a week. The big factor in the “every once in a while” clause is that those rare treats are probably things that are more damaging to your health and longevity. While both are sweet and sugary, treating yourself with a bowl of mixed berries is not the same as a pint of Ben and Jerry’s.

If you were to create a timeline for a particular food or drink it would probably fall between 2 to 12 months. So that means you’re having this particular treat 1 to 6 times a year. That’s every once in a while. There is a significant duration of time between indulgences. Monthly is a little too often to be a once in a while treat. The duration between having these particular treats will be dictated by how bad the reaction is to that food/drink, the individual’s goals at the time and self-discipline. For me, I have the worst reactions to gluten-containing foods and drinks. But I’ll willingly have something with gluten in it about one to two times per year. I’ll pay for it in the days that follow, but at the time it always seems like a risk worth taking because it’s a special occasion.

Maybe “every once in a while” should be changed to “special occasions.” That verbiage seems a little more concrete. What is a special occasion? Your anniversary. You or your partners birthday. A close friend’s wedding. You find out on Maury Povich that you’re not the father. Family reunions. Celebrating a new job or promotion. The Pope is coming for dinner. Milestones. Events of extreme significance to you. There’s nothing unique about any old Wednesday.

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