I've met a wide range of paleo followers, from the orthodoxy, who consider eating yams and rice as cheating, to the very loose paleoites, who eat bread from time to time. There's a lot of things that can be argued as non-paleo and part of the 20% like coffee, dark chocolate, rice, dairy products, protein shakes, alcohol, artificial sweeteners, etc that could also be considered ok to consume in small quantities but not necessarily a cheat or part of the 20%. Some may also consider significantly over eating of any kind of food as "cheating". Also, do you consider certain lifestyle choices part of your 20%, like skipping sleep from time to time, overstimulation from TV and/or Internet, overtraining, reckless behavior, etc?
Listen...I'm not trying to be orthodoxy myself or determining some "standard" for all of us to use when considering what constitutes the 20%, I'm just curious what choices you make that, in your eyes, are non-paleo or part of the 20%?
I do roughly follow the guidelines of 80/20 Paleo, although I try to hit closer to 90/10. I count things like the occasional serving of rice, sweet corn, CAFO meat, industrial-farmed produce and icecream in my cheats. I also consider anything over about half a teaspoon of honey or maple syrup as a cheat, as is the occasional bowl of popcorn or the salad dressing full of industrial veggie oils that I go ahead and eat when I go out to eat. Obviously these are less than optimal foods, but not the worse things I could eat.
I follow the Primal version of Paleo, so I do not consider butter, cream, full fat yogurt or hard cheeses as part of my cheats. Although I try to eat all organic produce and grassfed meats and dairy, I do not count "mostly grassfed meat" as a cheat, nor do I count the "pesticide-free" although not technically organic veggies I buy at the farmers market. These are the best I can do sometimes and it's too stressful to be strict about only buying optimal foods if those optimal foods aren't always available.
Really, all of our food choices fall on a continuum from optimum to the worse possible thing you put in your mouth. It's difficult to draw hard lines, especially when the best quality and best sourced meats and produce are not always available or affordable. Also, as a single mom and someone who wants to live as stress-free life as possible, a few compromises when out-to-eat (like just getting the damn veggie oil salad dressings) or when with non-Paleo family and friends just makes things easier and lower stess. To me, that's what the 20% is for -- a little wiggle room to keep from getting too stressed out about my choices.
I am in the Jaminet, Kresser, Harris camp when it comes to starches. So I don't view starchy veggies and tubers as cheats. So potato and rice are part of my daily diet. I also feel if you can tolerate diary it is not a cheat, as long as you are getting it from a good source (grass fed, local, raw). Also I think having a bit of alcohol or dark chocolate is not cheating either. Just should not make a good portion of your diet. It's part of living a social, healthy, and balanced life. Not everything that tastes good or not necessarily the best for you has to be looked at as bad or evil. Let's not be puritans here.
Examples of cheating (the 20 part) for me is going out to restaurants and eating CAFO meat, foods cooked in rancid veggie oils, ice cream (which I do try to get from local farms with minimal ingredients), and beer/alcohol. I also think baked paleo foods fall into this category. They are not real food IMHO, but I see no problem indulging yourself once in awhile. I would also consider protein shakes a cheat.
It all comes down to goals and what works for your body. If you're where you want your body and health to be, then I'd throw the premonition of "80/20" out the window and keep doing what works. If you've got a long ways to go to reach your goal, your 20% should maybe be stricter than my 20%.
My 20% includes beverages with calories (except kombucha with a small amount of added fruit juice), nonpaleo condiments, sugar- refined, honey, agave, not fresh fruit but anything else sugary- and homemade long fermented sourdough bread. I use a small amount of dairy in my coffee and I'm cool with it, but I avoid caloric beverages as much as possible- if I'm going to drink my calories, I want a buzz.
I do make and eat (a bit) of traditionally prepared sourdough once every 2-3 weeks. It's mostly for my husband- I'd rather have him eat that than store bought bread- but a couple pieces with some good butter are an awesome treat. Occasionally homemade icecream or a small conventional treat. I don't get worked up over paleo condiments-- I travel for work but bring most of my food, so when I do go out I don't hyperventilate over sauces or salad dressings. I'll also eat a small amount of rice or potato when I'm working out hard and don't sweat it.
My 20% is food like honey, cream cheese (does have some preservatives), occasional dried fruit, and alcohol. I also go out to eat every so often and I will be fairly lenient on what I allow myself to eat. I am in college so this is mostly for social purposes, which are important for health as well!
The 20%, for me, mostly includes anything that is alcohol or sweet. That would include cider, wine, dark chocolate, puddings, honeyed yogurt etc. I personally eat a small amount of rice cooked in bone broth on a fairly regular basis, and at least a few spoonfuls of homemade yogurt a day, neither of which I would consider a cheat. As far as lifestyle goes, I guess I live a sort of 80/20 when it comes to staying up late, having an Arrested Development marathon, or heading to the pub. I don't really track it though- I just generally limit it, sometimes more strictly than others, depending on where I'm at.
My 10-20% may include any combo of the following (NEVER ALL):
1) nongluten grains - corn, teff, rice
2) legumes - chickpeas, lentils, green beans, green peas
3) gluten-free desserts when available - flan, creme brulee, flourless chocolate cake, mousse
4) plantains, sweet potatoes and potatoes (I don't do so well with starches)
5) sweeter fruit like mango, papaya, lychees, guavas, etc.
For me, the word "cheat" refers to some sort of act of infidelity, or breaking rules for personal gain, and what I eat generally doesn't rise to that level of moral question--with one exception I'll get to in a moment. Our diets and bodies are so fraught with emotional, shame-based language, that I always take a moment to take on that view when this comes up. To me, "cheat" is a few small steps away from shame, which is something people feel when they can't stay on a bad diet that's unsustainable, and they feel shame for their "poor character," or for being too fat, or whatever. An 80/20 diet inherently provides room for 20% variation from some guiding principle, and making those variations strikes me more as treating than cheating.
For me, those treats generally serve to make other foods more delicious, from using a little cheese on something, to soy sauce (gluten free), to eating a muffin made of almond flour. I try to avoid wheat and (unfermented) soy no matter what, so a gluten/soy free cookie might be a treat. I do more of a PHD, so I'm already eating rice occasionally. I might eat corn tortillas in a Mexican food context. I'll eat a product with sugar sometimes, but not corn syrup or agave nectar. If there was a guiding principle to my 20% treat foods, it would be that they still reflect whole foods, minimally processed, that could more or less exist without horrendous industrial processes.
What I do consider "cheating" is the purchase of conventionally (CAFO) produced animal products. I made a commitment to myself, and (goofy as it might sound) to the "universe" that if I was going to eat animals or their products, I was going to choose the most sustainable, least harmful products with the best animal welfare practices. If I couldn't afford those, I would do without until I could. It's an imperfect commitment, as I have somewhat limited access to reliable information. But I do the best I can. And when I do mindfully purchase animal products that do not fit this principle, I'm breaking the "rules" for personal gain (price, social, convenience), and THAT'S my idea of "cheating," because it harms others, be it the animals, the environment, the workers who process the animals, the local pasturing farms struggling to compete with the big industrial livestock business, etc.
Good question! I've been wondering this myself. I found what works best for me is to stay strict (according to what works for me and my daily needs) except for one night a week I go out with a friend for a burger and fries. No bun or cheese on the burger, but bacon, avocado, sauteed mushrooms and onions are musts. As are the fries. Beyond that, I've come to realize that I work too hard (I do crossfit and am training for a fairly intense trail run) to throw it away on a very temporary pleasure. Granted, I'm still pretty green, but I love how I've been feeling the past few weeks. After a month of struggling, I feel like I've got it.
I follow more of a 90/10 approach, but my 10% include things like Greek yogurt, sorbet, rice (sushi), and potatoes (Bistro), and the rare serving of casein protein powder... and whipped cream
*note: I include wine as part of my 90%