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How to Put the 80/20 Rule into Practice


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There is more to life than food, which is why I'm a big advocate of the 80/20 rule. Follow an approach for 80% of the time and you'll get the majority of the results you're looking for. Pursuing that additional 20% isn't always worth the sacrifices you make in other parts of your life. Find out how to find the right balance.

Revolution Health Radio podcast, Chris Kresser

I talked about this in my book and I’ve been an advocate of this for a long time in terms of diet. I think other things affect how we even process the food that we eat, like stress levels and our sense of pleasure, joy, fun, social belonging, and connections with other people. So if sticking to a diet 100% of the time means that you’re completely socially isolated, you don’t go out with your friends anymore, you can’t travel, you just basically stay at home and cook all of your meals all the time, then we have to ask the question: Is the benefit that you get from making that choice really worth what you’re giving up in that situation?

In this episode, we cover:

4:30  What is the 80/20 rule?
9:02  Three caveats and things to consider
17:57  Hitting the reset button

Steve Wright: Good morning, good afternoon, and good evening. You are listening to the Revolution Health Radio show. I’m your host, Steve Wright, co-author at SCDlifestyle.com. This show is created by you and for you, but it comes to you via 14Four.me. If you haven’t heard of 14Four.me, this is Chris’s new program that he’s put together that can really help jumpstart your new year into a new, healthy lifestyle. It’s a 14-day reset program. If you’ve been following this podcast for a while, you know that sleep, diet, exercise, and stress are things that we talk about on a regular basis. Chris knows, based on the questions that you submit and all the comments on his website, that it’s sometimes really hard to integrate all of these at the same time. So he created a step-by-step program that also walks you day by day over 14 days, where you really begin to integrate these habits. When you exit the 14-day reset, you’re going to be all set up with new sleep patterns, a diet cleansing, stress reduction, and new movement plans. If you haven’t checked out 14Four.me, go over there right now. Give it a look. It’s a great new program. It’s a really interesting idea, if you haven’t found the one thing that you’re going to do in January. Chris, thank you so much for creating 14Four. Welcome to the show.

Chris Kresser: All right. Good to be here, Steve. I guess this one will be coming out after Christmas and the holiday season, maybe just before New Year’s. So I hope everyone had a good holiday season and is looking forward to 2015. How about you, Steve?

Steve Wright: I would agree with that. I hope everybody had a very happy holiday, whichever you celebrate, and everybody’s looking forward to a great new year, because I know I am.

Chris Kresser: Absolutely. We have a good question today. We’re going to talk a little bit about the 80/20 rule. That’s what the question is about. It’s one of my favorite topics. Let’s give it a listen and we’ll go from there.

Chris: Hi, Chris. I love the podcast. I’ve got a quick question about the 80/20 rule. I tried the 30-day reset, as per your book. Due to family commitments and meals they were eating and also traveling, it didn’t work out. After a week, it all went wrong. Generally, I have been trying to eat a mainly sort of Paleo diet. Whether I get to 80/20 or not—it may well be more like 70/30 or something like that. I just wondered, is there any research or what’s your opinion on the fact that if someone’s generally heading in the right direction, but also eating maybe stuff they shouldn’t every so often: beer, pizza, porridge, whatever? Is the fact that they’re generally in the right direction a positive, or is it potentially a bad combination to be eating a high-fat Paleo diet with a load of stuff they probably shouldn’t from a Western type diet? I just wondered if you had any thoughts on that. Thanks a lot.

Chris Kresser: Thanks for sending that in, Chris. It’s a question we get in some form or another pretty regularly. So I want to not only answer your question, but also kind of expand the answer to talk a little bit in general about the 80/20 rule for those that aren’t familiar with it, and then just some thoughts that I’ve had over the years about the 80/20 rule and how to put it into practice, what some caveats are, and things you might want to consider in relation to it.

Steve Wright: Hey Chris, before you get started here, I just want to remind the listeners that you can be featured on this podcast as well. You can get your question answered. All you have to do is go to ChrisKresser.com/podcastquestion. Go ahead and submit your question. That’s how we do these shows.

What Is the 80/20 Rule?

Chris Kresser: And you can take over the podcast for an episode. So 80/20 rule, I’m sure a lot of you are familiar with it. It’s not something that I made up. It’s used in a lot of different disciplines, not just diet. It’s used in the productivity world. The concept is that if you follow an approach for 80% of the time, you’ll get the majority of the results you’re going to get from it, and the remaining 20% is often not worth the additional effort. Put in a different way, in pursuing that additional 20%, you may have to make sacrifices in other parts of your life that sort of make the results that you get from that additional 20% less valuable or take away from them in some way.

Steve Wright: There’s a law of diminishing returns potentially.

Chris Kresser: Law of diminishing returns, absolutely. I talked about this in my book and I’ve been an advocate of this for a long time in terms of diet, because I think there’s more to life than food. And I think other things affect how we even process the food that we eat, like stress levels and our sense of pleasure, joy, fun, social belonging, and connections with other people. So if sticking to a diet 100% of the time means that you’re completely socially isolated, you don’t go out with your friends anymore, you can’t travel, you just basically stay at home and cook all of your meals all the time, then we have to ask the question: Is the benefit that you get from making that choice really worth what you’re giving up in that situation? Because those things that you’re giving up aren’t just kind of fluffy, you know, things that are nice to have in life; there are studies that actually show that they directly contribute to our health and well-being. In fact, I talked about a study in my book that showed that social connection is a greater predictor of life span than even things like smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Steve Wright: Wow, they measured it to 15?

Chris Kresser: Yeah. In other words, lack of social connection was a greater predictor of early death than smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Steve Wright: Well, that really makes sense. I was actually having this conversation with a friend recently that if you look at some of the Blue Zones studies, the book The Blue Zones. My takeaway from that book was essentially that 100 years ago, we were still really good friends with our neighbors. Basically, every night, we would hang out with the people around us. It was an open door policy, where we socially connected every day.

Chris Kresser: Absolutely. Many people lived in extended family arrangements with their parents and even grandparents. Now, of course, some of us might not think that that is desirable at this point, but it had its pluses and minuses then, as I’m sure it would now. But the point, as you mentioned, Steve, is human beings lived in a tribal manner for the entire evolution of human history. That’s only really changed in the past 100 years, and even more pronounced in the last 50 to 75 years in the US. In many parts of the world, people still do live that way. So we’re only talking about one part of the world, and we’re only talking about the last 100 years when that shifted. We’re getting a little off-track here, but I think it’s a really good point. And it just goes to show that things like that actually can directly affect our experience of life. They can directly affect the way that we digest and process food. I’m sure people have had the experience of eating when they’re really stressed out, feeling a lot of fear, feeling isolated or alone. They might eat a certain food that they digest pretty well in other circumstances, but when they’re feeling that way, they don’t digest it well at all. So we need to remember that there are other things that are important to focus on in life than just diet. That’s really a big piece of the context around the 80/20 rule, is that in some cases, but not all cases, pursuing that extra 20% leads to sacrifices made in these other areas that can actually have a greater impact on your overall health and well-being. That’s the general gist of the 80/20 rule.

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Three Caveats and Things to Consider

I do want to mention a few kind of caveats and things to consider. First of all, there’s nothing magical about 80 or 20 as numbers. It’s just a kind of rough guideline and it’s a way of talking about it. In reality, it could be 85/15, it could be 90/10, it could be 95/5, it could be 75/25. Everyone has to find what their own unique ratio or relationship is between the amount of effort they put into maintaining a clean diet and the payoff that they get from that, and then maintaining social connections, having the freedom to go off the reservation every now and then, eating mom’s home cooked whatever it is that really brings you a lot of pleasure, taking a trip, going to a Third World country or somewhere where they’re not necessarily going to have the kinds of foods that you eat somewhere else, and just being free to eat those foods is part of the experience that you have. I mean, these are all things that make life richer and more full. But the thing that determines where you fall exactly on that 80/20, 90/10, 95/5 ratio is, well, one of them is your current health status.

For example, if you’re relatively well, you don’t have any major health concerns, you’re not intolerant to any particular foods, which I’ll come back to in a second, then 80/20 might be a good ratio for you. That’s generally a good guideline for people. If you follow a Paleo template type of diet for 80% of the time, and then 20% of the time maybe you bring in some dairy, legumes or other foods like that, or maybe you go even a little further off the reservation during some of that 20%—if you take a trip, you’re out at a restaurant or you just feel like having a kind of Sunday dinner ritual where you eat something that you wouldn’t normally eat, I mean, these are all things that I don’t think are really going to interfere with your health if you’re healthy overall. In fact, it could even enhance your health.

But if you are under treatment, for example, for a condition like SIBO, intestinal permeability, leaky gut or you’re dealing with autoimmune disease or you’re dealing with any kind of chronic illness situation, oftentimes, you’ll probably need to stay closer to 100%, at least during the period of time where you’re trying to address something therapeutically. Or maybe it’s more like 95/5. So that’s one thing, your health status and what your goals are.

Well, maybe what your goals are would be a second thing. If you’re training for a competition or you’re really trying to increase your performance and squeak every last bit of performance that you can out of your diet and lifestyle, then of course, maybe something more like 95/5 would be a better fit for you. Or let’s say you just got out of law school and you’re studying for the bar. In that situation, you probably want to really elevate your game to the highest possible level. You’re going to want to stay more like 95/5 at that point, if you feel like that really helps you to maintain the mental clarity you need to do well on the test. So what your goals are, that’s another important consideration.

A third consideration would be if you have any food intolerances or allergies. Let’s say you’re gluten intolerant and you have celiac or non-celiac gluten sensitivity. You can still do an 80/20 rule, but gluten is not going to be part of that 20%, right? Like, for your kind of day off where you’re cutting loose and relaxing, it’s a bad idea to go out and have beer and pizza. That’s because the repercussions of that are just going to be so dramatic and long-lasting, the suffering you’re going to cause is not going to be worth whatever social connection and sense of pleasure and joy you got out of going out for pizza and beer. So your particular sensitivities matter in terms of the 80/20 rule. I often tell patients when I do gluten intolerance testing or other food intolerance testing and it comes back positive, I say, “It doesn’t mean you can’t do an 80/20 rule, but it means that wheat and gluten-containing foods are not going to be part of that, because it’s just not worth the physiological damage that that can cause.” Those are probably the main considerations in terms of not only what that particular ratio is with the 80/20 rule, but also what foods might be included or excluded during the 80/20 rule.

Steve Wright: I think that’s a big point to make there. You mentioned a few times earlier that part of your 20%, 5% or whatever might be going out to a restaurant. So you might just decide to order something and not specify the exact oil and not get the veggies sautéed on a certain part of the pan or whatever and things like that. 20% or whatever that other percent is doesn’t always mean cookies, cake, ice cream, pizza.

Chris Kresser: Doughnuts, Cheez Doodles, and Super Big Gulps. But you know what? I rarely even have to say that, because once people start a Paleo type of diet and stick with it for a little while, they don’t feel good when they eat that stuff. Like, they don’t even want—it only takes a couple of times usually for them to go, “Oh, I’m going to have a doughnut. I’m going to have a Big Gulp or something.” To prove that they can, right? Then they do it, and they’re like, “Wait, this makes me feel terrible. I don’t want to have this at all.” In fact, that’s true for a lot of foods that aren’t even necessarily that unhealthy. I’ve often had the experience where patients will tell me, “Oh, I had this meal that I used to just completely love, and it just tasted way too sweet,” if it was a dessert, or, “I woke up the next day and I didn’t feel terrible, but I just didn’t feel great. I miss the mental clarity and other things.” They might choose to do it again in the future if they were out socially or whatever, but it’s not this real push-pull relationship that a lot of people have initially with food. Once you get on a really clean diet and you’re not telling yourself that you can’t have something all the time—I mean, this is another interesting thing about the 80/20 rule, and it’s very important psychologically.

Most human beings, in my experience, don’t like to be told what to do, even if it’s themselves telling themselves what to do. Right? As soon as you create a rule, there’s a kind of almost natural impulse to break that rule. So if you say, “I’m never going to eat a doughnut again,” most people will just never stop thinking about doughnuts, and then they’ll have this really unhealthy relationship with it. Part of the thinking behind the 80/20 rule is, with the exception of food intolerances that I mentioned before, you say to yourself, “I could have a doughnut, a Big Gulp, and Cheez Doodles as part of my 20% if I wanted to. But I don’t really want to, so I’m not going to have it.” That’s the way it usually happens in my experience, Steve, working with patients.

Steve Wright:  It’s like reframing it from set rules to choices. For instance, it’s kind of like parenting your inner child.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah.

Steve Wright: If you tell children, “Don’t touch that,” the first thing they pretty much do is touch that because it’s just how we work.

Chris Kresser:  Oh yeah. Anyone with a toddler knows that.

Steve Wright:  But if you kind of start thinking, “I choose something else because that makes me feel better,” or whatever reason you want to put behind it, but you just look at everything as choices rather than rules, then you can also get rid of any guilt if you do choose the doughnut and you feel really bad the next day.

Chris Kresser:  That’s exactly right. It seems almost like it’s so transparent that it wouldn’t work, but it actually does work. Even when you know the psychological principle behind it, it still works. So back to Chris’s question.

Hitting the Reset Button

His question is slightly different. It involves the 80/20 rule, but his particular question is—so we have research that like a higher fat diet with lower carbohydrate intake isn’t necessarily harmful. So if you’re eating a Paleo diet with natural, real food carbs like sweet potatoes, it’s still going to be relatively low in carbohydrates compared to a standard American diet. But what if you’re eating a really high-fat diet and then also eating a lot of processed and refined carbohydrates? There’s definitely some research that suggests that that’s probably not a good combination. One of the problems with the standard American diet is the combination of the high fat plus the oxidized, rancid fats and the highly-refined, processed carbohydrates like flour and excess sugar and stuff. You put that all together, and it’s a really bad mix. But I think that’s a little bit different.

It’s a little bit different to say what the effects of a standard American diet with really high fat intake are versus like eating Paleo 70% of the time, and then 30% of the time eating a standard American diet. I still think someone’s going to be better off doing that. If you compare it to eating a standard American diet 100% of the time, versus eating Paleo 70% of the time and standard American diet 30%, it’s pretty obvious that the latter’s going to be better, right? Yeah, we could also say that eating a Paleo diet 100% of the time is probably going to be healthier than eating 70/30, especially if you’re really going off the reservation during that 30%, like eating pizza, doughnuts, and schwaggy desserts and stuff like that. But there are a lot of different paths to the top of the mountain.

In the Paleo world, the 30-day challenge or something like the 14Four are very popular, where you just hit it hard—I mean, there might be a ramp-up period, like in the 14Four. That’s one of the reasons I designed it the way that I did. There’s a two-week lead-in period. Whereas with a lot of the 30-day challenges, it’s just like one day, you’re on your old diet, and the next day you’re starting the full Paleo thing. Those are helpful and they work well, because they really help hit the reset button. So if you’re not feeling well and you switch to 30 days of Paleo or 14 days of Paleo, in most cases, you’re going to have an amazing response and you’re really going to feel different. Then the energy that comes from that and the change in how you feel provides the motivation and encouragement for you to continue to do that over a longer-term period. That’s why so many people recommend that as a starting place. But that’s not necessarily going to work for everybody. Different people have different ways of making changes.

So sometimes, as what happened with Chris, you start with those kinds of intentions, but then life gets in the way somehow, and you end up only doing it 70% of the time. I still think that’s great. But what I would encourage you to do is keep going. Get to that 100% and maintain that for at least 14 days and preferably 30 days to really see how you feel when you do it 100%. I think everyone needs to have that experience at one point. Then they can decide whether how they feel is worth the effort that it takes to maintain that 100%. Or if they can slip down to maybe 90% and maintain 99% of how they feel, then it may make sense to go down to 90/10. Or maybe if they slip down to 80% and they maintain 95% of how they feel—you know, that’s the whole calculation. But you can’t know that until you’ve had that experience of doing it 100% and seeing where it gets you. So whether you get there by doing it cold turkey and just starting, or whether you kind of take a more circuitous path to get there, the important thing I think is that you do get there. Because there’s no way to know what your personal 80/20 ratio will be unless you’ve had that 100% experience.

Steve Wright: Yeah. I’m so glad that you made that point, because that was something that I was going to try to make if you didn’t, which is that I think a lot of people, when they start this path, they’re a little scared to go a full 100%. But the reality is that, for instance, in my journey, I had no idea how good I could feel. Humans have this ability to adapt to every level of health really quickly. So if you don’t spend 30 days or so full 100% in, there’s no way that you could ever know exactly how good you could feel. With the 80/20, the biggest mistake I see is people never actually try full-on. They just say, “Oh, Paleo’s great,” or, “Oh, this real food diet is great. Well, I’ll do 80/20. That fits. That’s way easier.”

Chris Kresser: Yeah, that’s true. And the point about how adaptable we are is a good one. I know we’ve talked about that before. That’s an evolutionary mechanism that’s helped us survive some pretty challenging circumstances, so it’s not necessarily a bad thing. But the bad part of it is that we can really settle for less than we should, because we just get used to feeling a certain way and we see around us, “Hey, most people seem to feel about this way too, so maybe this is just how it is.” And that whole meme and mentality around aging is that way. It’s like, “Oh, I’m 50 now, so I should be having a bad back and I should be feeling tired all the time. Yeah, everyone starts to gain weight at this point.” So there’s this whole kind of cultural acceptance of that that we have to work with.

Just to repeat that, it doesn’t matter how you get there so much. Just get there, spend those 30 days, and then you can work backwards from there. I think once you do that, you’ll have a much clearer sense too going forward of more confidence in your approach. A lot of people, before they do that, are really confused by everything that they’re reading and what they’re doing. They’re not really clear on how strict they need to be. Part of that is because they’ve never done that full 30 days. Now in some cases, people will do the full 30 days and they’ll find that they don’t feel that much different than they felt before. Then it’s certainly not worth the struggle necessarily to maintain that 100% in that case. But what’s often needed there is there may be something going on that’s not necessarily solvable just through diet. In that situation, you may need to find a functional medicine practitioner, do some testing, see if you’ve got SIBO, gut issues, any other condition that may require not only specific changes in diet that go above and beyond just the 30-day strict Paleo approach, but may also require specific lab testing, supplements, herbs, and maybe even medications in some cases to resolve the problem. Because diet is really important, but it’s not the only thing.

I’m often having to remind my patients, you know, when I see someone who comes to me, they’re extremely sick, and they’ve already done tons and tons of diet experimentation—which is often true in my patients by the time they get to me—one of the first questions they ask is, “What should I eat?” I often say, “Well, just continue what you’re doing now, what you figured out that works for you now. This is probably fine. The big change you’re going to get is not likely going to come from just tweaking one little thing in your diet here and there. It’s going to come from us dealing with the SIBO that we now know you have, the impaired methylation that we now know you have, and the severe adrenal fatigue that we know you have.” So addressing all of these things is what’s going to really bring you forward quickly. It’s not making one tiny, little tweak in the diet that you haven’t done yet that’s going to make the big difference. In fact, addressing all these other problems is going to expand the range of foods that you’re able to tolerate going forward. So that’s not necessarily directly related to the 80/20 rule, but it is indirectly, in that sometimes making adjustments outside of diet, like we’ve talked about earlier in the show, is really what’s necessary to take the next step forward in health.

Steve Wright: It kind of circles back to your point about what’s your current health status.

Chris Kresser: Yeah.

Steve Wright: If your current health status is much lower—diet’s important, but typically, if you’re trying to move up that ladder quite a bit, then once you get a semi-good grip on what your diet is, what works for you, then you have to 80/20 your time towards something else actually.

Chris Kresser: Yeah. So I realize we might have confused people. I want to be clear. Because earlier, I said if your health status is low, you might need to be closer to 100%. That only goes for people who haven’t yet tried that. But if you’ve already tried 100% and it didn’t really help you, then maybe settling back down to 80% or 90%, like Steve was saying, then focusing your energy on looking at other potential causes that could be getting in the way of you feeling better would be a better use of that energy. Hopefully, that distinction is clear.

Steve Wright: Awesome. I think this is going to help a lot of people as they come out of the holidays or as they are going through the holidays. Thanks, Chris, for putting all the time in this year. It’s been a great 2014.

Chris Kresser: My pleasure. Thanks again, Steve, for your presence and support. Everybody, we wish you a joyful and successful 2015.

Steve Wright: In-between shows, if you’re wondering what Chris is researching, what he’s looking at, what are the new studies that are coming out, make sure you’re following him on social media, because that’s where he’s typically releasing the latest and greatest things that he’s looking at. So go to Facebook.com/ChrisKresserLAc and Twitter.com/ChrisKresser. Just one more reminder. This podcast is generated from your questions, so we need you to go to ChrisKresser.com/podcastquestion and send us what you’d like us to talk about.

Chris Kresser: Hey Steve, there’s one more thing. I always forget because we record these episodes in advance. I’m not sure when this is going to be published exactly, but on December 30th, the paperback version of my book, Your Personal Paleo Code, which was the name in hardcover, is being published. It’s been renamed The Paleo Cure. Same book. If you didn’t get it in hardcover, make sure to check it out in paperback. It’s a great resource for people who are interested in using the Paleo diet and lifestyle, or customize a personalized version of it to heal chronic illness and recover their health and vitality. It’s available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, all the typical places.

Steve Wright: So if you don’t have Chris’s book, you can either get Your Personal Paleo Code or The Paleo Cure. Go pick that up, because it’s definitely going to help you with everything that we’re talking about on the podcast here. It’s the foundation that we don’t mention all the time.

Chris Kresser: All right, everybody. Take care. See you next time.

Steve Wright: See you.

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Join the conversation

  1. I was glad Chris that you commented that clients will tell you that they feel worse usually when they have indulged in non-Paleo foods. I have had several clients tell me that.

    I also find that having clients record their blood sugars and what they eat and drink daily also educates them about the impact on their health when they indulge too much in non-Paleo foods. A prediabetic client who is trying to get into the normal range and lose more weight could see the impact of eating 3 slices of pizza and a few sweets right there in black and white the next morning.

  2. I started GAPS about a year ago and then went Paleo. It helped with many of my symptoms including numbness and heartburn. I lost about 20 pounds. About 3 months ago I stopped getting my period. I want to start eating carbs again but I have leaky gut and suffered with candida. How would someone like me transition back to eating a diet with a moderate amount of carbs???? Please help. If anyone could explain to me how low-carb diets cause amenorrhea that would help as well…. I do work with a holistic practitioner, but I don’t depend on her for everything, and try to do my own research, so please don’t tell me to find a qualified practitioner…..she thinks it could be PCOS. But amenorrhea doesn’t necessarily mean PCOS, and weight gain is usually a sign of PCOS (which i don’t have since i lost weight) My testosterone level was also quite elevated…..

  3. I’m confused about your use of the 80/20 rule. The actual rule (also called the Pareto Principle) says:

    “The Pareto principle (also known as the 80–20 rule, the law of the vital few, and the principle of factor sparsity) states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.”

    So, if your diet is using the 80/20 rule that would mean that only changing 20% of your diet would give you 80% of the benefit and the remaining 80% would only affect 20% of your health.

    Perhaps you mean a different rule?

  4. Is there a way to Pin this article and others? I find having a board about Healthy Living is the easiest way to share this info with others. Thanks!

  5. Somewhere is the Paleosphere, was sternly warned by a blog commenter: “Don’t eat carbs with saturated fats!”.

    There is that segment that repels from the idea of “safe starch”. I happen to think I need some carbs to feel my best. But, I can’t find details on the dangers of mixing carbs and saturated fats. Is it pure crap, or is there something to it? I am typically eating starchy white or purple potatoes, or white rice, with plenty of butter, ghee, tallow, etc. I think I can probably eat as much fat as my digestion allows, but, maybe I should limit the carbs to between one and two cups per meal?

    What do other have to say on the healthfulness of combining saturated fats and safe starches?


  6. Thank you for this! It really takes the pressure off, especially as a mom of teenagers.

    Question: I have had the Cyrex array 3 testing done and I did have some antibodies show up (particularly transglutaminase) and there were some foods in the Array 4 that showed a problem as well. I went off all of these (including gluten) for 3 months and my chronic mild health issues did not resolve. I went back on gluten, and nothing felt different. Is this test reliable? Is it possible that everyone has some of these antibodies, and it is natural? I really would love to have my soaked einkorn bread, but I won’t if it is poison to me.

    Thank you!