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ASK THE NUTRITIONIST: How can you gradually adjust to your diet?

In her weekly column, licensed nutritionist Nonie De Long explains how to adjust to a desired diet and maintain it over time

Dear Readers,

In spite of the Canadian weather clearly trying to kill us this week, we’re going to carry on! And that touches on the issue I’m addressing in today’s column. This is the question I received:

I have been reading your column for a while now, and I like some of the things you say and it really seems to make good sense, but here is my problem. I get eating good and turn things around in my life pretty good, and then suddenly, I have a bad day or two, and I feel like I lost all the benefits, and I get discouraged. I just want to give up. I was trying keto, and I just read I can’t have off days on keto, or I ruin it, and I’m getting really down on myself. Can you please tell me if this is true and what I can do when I have a bad day or how to avoid that? How does anyone do this if you have to do it perfectly?

Thank you.


So today, we are going to talk about how to make a dietary or lifestyle change incrementally, imperfectly, when there are bad days and you let things slide.

Or in other words, when you’re human.

Because we’re all imperfect and sometimes impulsive and inconsistent in our efforts, and that’s okay! When it comes to diet, let me let you in on a little secret. It’s called the 80/20 rule. What this refers to is that it’s what you do 80 per cent of the time that determines your results! Nutritionists and trainers refer to this a lot because life happens.

That leaves six days out of every month for royal screwing up without really getting you off track. That’s quite a lot if you think about it. And more than that does not mean you’re doomed. It’s just going to be harder to keep going. But 80/20 seems to be a sweet spot.

Now it’s best if these are scattered about so you don’t lose all momentum in your efforts or fall back into old habits. And it’s even better if you can plan the cheat days, like if you say to yourself Saturdays will be my fork it day. Then you can allow two floaters for when you’re invited out or have a day where you’re snowed in, or nothing goes right. Or you could say from Friday at 4 p.m. to Saturday at 4 p.m. I want to be naughty. But then reign it back in on Saturday night. Or make it Friday night to Sunday morning and skip the floaters. It’s something you can bend to fit your needs because that’s how diets should be. They are meant to serve us, not the other way around!

The point is to do things regularly that improve your health. If you’re used to eating garbage at lunch every day, you can even start there. It really is that simple.

The caveat here is that no, unfortunately, this does not work with a ketogenic diet when you’ve not been doing it for a long time. Cheat days can make it really hard to get into ketosis and to get any benefits. I see a lot of people doing keto like this, never really getting deeply into ketosis and repeatedly needing to wean off carbs again and again. A ketogenic diet, unfortunately, requires a good period of time in the absence of almost all carbs to have any therapeutic benefit. And for long-term benefit, it requires that this be done for a long enough time that the body can shift seamlessly between ketosis and burning sugar for energy, then back again. This is called metabolic flexibility, and it’s actually the end goal of ketosis. Losing excess weight is simply a byproduct of that. So in the long term, ketogenic diets can have cheat days. But in the short term, it really doesn’t work.

But it’s okay if this doesn’t work for you! If you’re a person who needs a cheat day in your life where you are right now, then a ketogenic diet simply isn’t the best fit for you. That’s not to say that it will always be that way. In fact, most people who become interested in health hacking (trying different diets and lifestyle changes for better health) tend to do so incrementally. They start with removing sugar or alcohol or smoking or soda from their life and then take it one step at a time until they are counting their steps or doing polar bear dips and talking about brown fat and experimenting with intermittent fasting.

But it’s a process. And the way you feel should move you forward, not some idea of perfection that isn’t realistic. The people I’ve known who have done ketogenic diets with success have either had professional coaching, or they have had a life-threatening disease - like I did with my tumour. Both spur you to do things you might otherwise not have the strength or focus on doing. But most people get there incrementally.

Hacking your diet should be something you enjoy doing! Who doesn’t enjoy trying a new amazing recipe and learning it’s healthy? Who doesn’t love finding a new product and being amazed that it’s so good? I can tell you my cooking classes always get people excited about weight loss and getting healthy because the food tastes so great! It’s empowering to learn that good food can be delicious! Getting healthier should bring pleasure and tangible results to spur you forward. If it doesn’t, there’s truly something wrong.

Which diet do I recommend for an 80/20 plan? I suggest doing a Paleo or Primal diet as the best way to start to wean off of heavily processed foods and integrate whole, nourishing foods. I suggest things like natural meat, seafood, fowl, eggs, nuts, seeds, vegetables, fruit, herbs, and fermented products. I suggest trying to find new recipes you like and focusing on protein at meals. Doing this for four to six months will change your taste buds and help you start to get really excited about your health journey. Add some superfoods to take it up a notch from there. And if you want to try keto, save yourself the headache and hire a professional coach to give you some help to do it right!

But whatever you do, don’t sabotage yourself with all-or-nothing thinking. Even if you start out with weekdays healthy and weekends a write-off, you will start to feel better and see improvements. Find what works for you and do it intentionally, with goals for progress. And with permission to be human.

I hope this helps with your dilemma. As always, if readers have their own questions, they can send them to me at [email protected]. And you can find me online at


Nonie Nutritionista