Permission Pathways – How We Justify Cheating

For two and a half years I’ve been eating LCHF, save the times I’ve left it for experimental purposes. Generally, I’m pretty staunch on the macronutrient requirements, but I also try to further “do better” on things such as reducing processed foods and items high in polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs).

To give an example, I got hooked on Quest Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough bars. Their ingredients weren’t great, given how processed they were (as is the case with most “bars”). And while it seemed acceptable as a Sometimes Treat, I certainly wasn’t eating them infrequently. I was having one or two of them daily in the week I discovered them, and I noticed my anticipation of eating them was very high throughout the day. So I resolved to quit them cold turkey and haven’t had one since April.

The Breach

While visiting family last week, I found myself falling asleep late one evening. I had left my toothpaste and floss back home, so I fretted about not having either when winding down for bed. As it happened, there was a 24-hour convenience store across the street from where I was staying, so I decided to jaunt over to get what I needed.

I came back with a Quest Chocolate Chunk bar and a Diet Mountain Dew, both of which I had no intention of buying in the first place. Worse, I decided to have them right then and watch lipid YouTube videos for the next few hours instead of the original plan to get some healthy sleep.

So what happened?

If you read this blog, you know I’m pretty disciplined, particularly with my experiments. But while my methodical discipline has me recording 99.999% of everything I ingest, I often point out my diet can be 1/3rd restaurant and fast food, and that I can still struggle with commitments such as these.

Permission Pathways

Fortunately, my overactive mind likes to break down how and why these motivations change and what was involved to make it happen. I call these Permission Pathways because they are often identifiable and usually involve more than one.

In short, Permission Pathways are the series of excuses as to why one would break a commitment made — particularly to a specific diet or lifestyle.

All of these have two important things in common:

  1. They are considered a justification for breaking the original commitment.
  2. They are often assumed to be a temporary — an “exception” that is usually circumstantial.

Sensory Permission

  • “I was passing by the donut shop and the glaze just smelled so good. I need to quit walking that route!”
  • “I heard someone eating nachos at the table behind us and it sounded good. I decided to order one.”

Description: Obviously, our five senses of Sight, Smell, Sound, Touch, and Taste come into play as powerful activators. And naturally, this is one of the most common excuses for breaching a commitment.

However: While the most common, this is the least compelling reason to break the commitment. You’ll likely be in proximity to foods that tempt you the more common they are, and thus your senses will be engaged. But if there are certain foods that are especially activating, you may need to avoid them altogether.

Amended Quantity Permission

  • “Well, I’ll let myself have just three of these…”

Description: A limited, seemingly small number is declared in advance of the action. This makes it seem as though the cheating is more acceptable given there is still some limit in place.

However: The justification is that there is still “a limit” being imposed by this new declaration, but this new limit is really exactly the opposite — it is to ease the existing limit you had in the first place. This is especially bad as it is the easiest to apply in any given situation.

Event Permission

  • “It’s Christmas. I’m only going to be bad until it’s over.”
  • “It’s a concert, I should be drinking anyway.”
  • “I can’t turn down Girl Scout cookies. Good thing they only sell them at this time of year.”

Description: An event or circumstance of some kind leads you to consider it a “special occasion” and worthy of breaking the commitment.

However: This is problematic for two reasons. First, it is often tightly defined what events warrant the break, but gets looser over time (i.e. “Originally I allowed it for just Holloween, but I figured it might as well be all holidays…”). Second, it is often tempting to extend the period of time in question (i.e. “At first I meant Christmas day. But now it’s pretty much Christmas season.”)

Influence Permission

  • “I only get eat this way around Ted.”

Description: This is really more about excusing behavior due to being in contact or hanging around a “bad influence.” The actual statements that influencer makes can be any of the Permission Pathways listed here.

However: You’re acknowledging one or more specific people (or groups) influence you to break your commitment. This can be intentionally or unintentionally on their part. But regardless, you acknowledge this influence as counter to your commitment, suggesting you should either limit where you go with them or contact with them altogether.

Fortunate Circumstance Permission

  • “Oh, look at that! They never make peanut butter cookies here, I should take advantage of it.”
  • “Okay, there’s no way a gas station like this would have a Vanilla Coke. But if it actually does, I’m going to have to get one.”

Description: Some situation or location appears to have an unusual opportunity, or at least, that’s how it is justified.

However: You must recognize these are often attempting to turn cheating into a game, with the “lucky chance” encounter as equivalent to winning. In a roundabout way, you’re making this chance outcome its own reward, which it certainly isn’t.

Earned Commitment Breaking Permission

  • “I think I deserve a break from the diet given how many greens I ate over the last week.”
  • “I’ve been perfect for six months. I think I’ve more than earned a night of unlimited cake.”

Description: The commitment can be broken temporarily as a “payment” for a certain amount of good behavior leading up to it.

However: This is typically considered the most acceptable of justifications for going off a diet. But it is one of the most dangerous given it will likely be a reoccurring excuse for future opportunities as well.

Revaluing the Commitment

  • “I know I said I wasn’t going to go over 50 carbs a day, but that was actually pretty conservative anyway. Keeping below 100 carbs a day is probably more than enough.”

Description: This is a re-evaluating of the commitment in the face of an enticement, minimizing the original goal as unnecessarily high.

However: It is likely your revaluation is specific to the moment and the thing you wish to ingest right then. So if you’re honest with yourself, this long-term choice was brought on by a short-term temptation.

Lemming Permission

  • “Everyone here is having this tonight.”
  • “I guess we’ll all having this for lunch… I suppose it would be rude if I didn’t as well.”

Description: A large number of people in a social situation becomes the key rationale for breaking the commitment.

However: This will clearly be an ongoing issue with anyone who finds themselves in social situations. As with any other diet, you should be able to simply insist your needs are specific and that you can’t participate in something that doesn’t meet them.

Expert Opinion Permission

  • “Claire said it would be fine if I eat these and she’s a nutritionist!”

Description: Having an opinion from someone known as a reason to break the commitment.

However: Of course, the so-called “expert” is often someone who neither knows the full context of your commitment or the progress thus far. The opinion shouldn’t have much impact unless you’re consulting them to reevaluate everything you’re doing in the first place. And once again, this shouldn’t be happening at the moment you wish to cheat, it should be in a session all its own.

Mutual Broken Commitments Permission

  • “Well, if Dale is eating off his diet then I’m eating off my diet.”

Description: Having one or more people engaging in commitment-breaking leads to justification to do likewise.

However: Someone else’s lack of ability to meet their commitment shouldn’t be something you want to emulate.


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Stephanie Holbrook
6 years ago

Good article Dave. Yes, I have given myself a Politeness Permission. I feel guilty refusing food offered. The Carnivore Study was so helpful for me. It gave me an excuse to say NO.

I think giving myself Permission to decline is a helpful way to stay the course.

6 years ago

I find eating ZC and fasting 22 hours easy- no desire to “cheat” but sometimes I doubt myself: maybe this diet of carnivory is bad for me. Surely I must eat leafy greens!? My family is worried about me. Then I cave and have a salad. Vegans think they are correct. The can cherry pick studies- just like I can. Not sure how to deal with being a salmon swimming up stream.

6 years ago

Hi Dave, I’ve struggled with this question. I ended up with a different conclusion.

It seems food purity has been a recurring tendency in history, especially in religions – eg, kosher, halal.

(theory 1) This is probably due to the cognitive load of weighing the pros and cons of each thing we eat. It is much less work to make things black or white: good or evil.

I now have an instinctive aversion for sugary food and other refined carbs. I don’t think it is simply my body adapting to keto. I immersed myself in the keto worldview for 2 years, and continue to do so. I imagine this is how muslims feel about pork, vegans with meat and hindus with beef.

I think this is the tradeoff:
Low cognitive load with rigid simple criteria (puritanism)
High cognitive load with continuous negotiation

I decided to take the middle ground. Low-ish cognitive load with simple-ish criteria:

I only eat non-keto when:
1) it was prepared by family/friends
2) it’s someone’s special day
3) it exceeds my “threshold of deliciousness”

(theory 2) I imagine that among our ancestors, the ones who tended to survive were the ones who developed food aversions based on communal experience.

Whatever its source, I think this tendency to puritanism makes us tend to overestimate the impact of “cheating”.

I think this level of introspection and analysis should be applied more to actual moral questions. Eg, real cheating. I try to reserve my guilty feelings to things I think are morally wrong.

I sometimes fight my aversion to sugar, and my inner puritan, when I’m in the 3 situations above. I deliberately eat carbs to educate my instincts that this is not a big deal.

6 years ago
Reply to  Dave
Jim Jozwiak
Jim Jozwiak
6 years ago

Since it’s the same brain setting the limits as well as giving permission to transgress them, I sense a dishonest narrative. When I sense a real desire to eat crap, I seriously consider that my keto plan is not right and I don’t understand clearly enough how my body works.

Paul Littlefield
Paul Littlefield
5 years ago

One way to use a permission pathway to help is not to promise perpetual abstention, but simply to postpone the negative behavior to a later time. (Hence the A.A. slogan, “One Day at a Time.”) I have successfully abstained from substances using this technique, and so far it seems to be helping with sugar and carbohydrate in general: “Gee, those french fries look/smell good; perhaps I can have some tomorrow, just not right now.”

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