Is All or Nothing Mindset Destroying your Dietary Success?
Posted on March 31, 2021 by Jenn Espinosa-Goswami, One of Thousands of Health and Fitness Coaches on Noomii.
If you frequently cycle through patterns of deprivation then guilt or shame, you could suffer from all or nothing thinking.
When was the last time you felt really accomplished? It could be after you spent an hour working hard at the gym, eating salad all day long, or even when you took 30 minutes to focus on meditation.
These are examples of big goals that you may have set for yourself, and you deserve to celebrate achieving these goals when you complete them.
Yet, what happens if you only spend 10 minutes working out, or you eat a salad for lunch, but greasy pizza for dinner? Or, when you start a meditation, but then give up at minute 2 and grab a Starbucks on your Target run?
You may be suffering from all or nothing thinking if you feel guilty after a “slip-up”, or if you are consistently vigilant, but then experience a stunning “off the rails” moment (or day). If you frequently cycle through patterns of deprivation then guilt or shame, and back to deprivation, you could be stuck in the all of nothing approach.
(Note: I am not a psychologist, and this post is not meant to replace medical advice from a trained therapist. If you struggle with all or nothing thinking (aka black or white, dichotomous thinking), and it is strongly impacting your quality of life, I recommend you seek a therapist).
All or nothing thinking is not an easy place to live. Those who take the all or nothing approach see the world in extremes, which is fertile ground for self-blame or self-hatred. It is a cognitive distortion, or error in thinking, which can be a hard lifelong habit to break.
I hear this all the time in coaching calls with clients through absolutist language. Absolutist language includes words like “always”, “never”, and in this study, it was more often used in people who suffer from anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation.
If you think you are struggling with suicidal ideation, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a 24/7 resource.
Unfortunately, all or nothing thinking is encouraged in most diet programs. With a focus on restricting calories, lists of approved or non-approved foods, “killing” your workouts like a beast or going sugar-free, how can it not?
It can be hard to feel successful at a diet if you eat “bad” food. If you don’t feel successful, then you may decide it’s not worth trying at all and simply give up. Anything less than 100% commitment feels unsatisfactory and frustrating.
Considering the average women started her first diet at 10 years old, and many women have the honor of being serial dieters, then all or nothing thinking could be ingrained as a lifelong habit.
Since habits are defined as subconscious behaviors, they can be even more difficult to break.
Failure in Dieting
In order to shift all or nothing mentality, you have to reframe failure in dieting. What would failure in dieting even mean?
Failure is defined as “lack of success” or “omission of expected or required action”.
We eat between 3-5 meals a day, which means every single meal is an opportunity to “succeed” or “fail”. Let’s examine a few ways this could play out when it comes to your diet.
Scenario #1: You eat the right foods, in the wrong quantity
Result: You “failed” at controlling your portion.
Scenario #2: You eat the wrong foods, in the right quantity.
Result: You “failed” at eating healthy.
Scenario #3: You eat the wrong foods, in the wrong quantity.
Result: You “failed” at everything.
Scenario #4: You eat the right food, but include an undesirable addition (such as fat, sugar, salt, gluten, etc)
Result: You “failed” at willpower, planning or prep.
Scenario #5: You had a balanced meal prepped and prepared, but give in to eating out with friends or family.
Result: You failed at following through and committing to your diet.
Can you see how all or nothing can be particularly destructive when it comes to dieting? What would “success” look like when it comes to diet?
Success: You eat the right food in the right quantity all day every day.
When we establish strict food rules for ourselves, we run the risk of spending our life hating food, hating meals, or hating what we should do when it comes to eating.
You may have seen this in yourself if you have ever measured 12 carrots as an acceptable snack (not a carrot more!) or skipped a workout one day because you didn’t have 30 minutes to spare.
Getting Clear on your Food Rules
The first way to tackle this all or nothing approach is to get extremely clear on your food “rules”. When I say rules, I mean boundaries for what, when, where, and how much you eat.
That is why I do not align with any specific dietary philosophy when it comes to health coaching. Personally, I have experimented with gluten-free, dairy-free, grain-free, vegetarian, vegan and everything in between when it comes to food. Every time I began one of these approaches, I was very clear on what I was eating, when I was eating, where I was eating, and why. How much was less important for me, because most of these diets were not intended for weight loss.
Food rules need not follow strict or complicated programs. In fact, I strongly believe that the more complicated food rules are, the less likely you will stick to it.
Let’s take a look at how getting clear on your goals can help an all or nothing approach.
When it comes to what you eat, I strongly discourage focusing on superfoods, detoxes, challenges, or specific nutrients, unless you are under the supervision of medical staff.
Instead of focusing on what you should or should not eat, a better approach might be to focus on what you will eat MORE of. There is no need to dig into details with this- you can keep it simple by sticking to food groups or categories. However, resist the urge to apply this approach to everything you eat, or choose a graduated or phased approach with my support.
What scenario #1: Eat more vegetables with lunch
When you eat could be pivotal when it comes to your diet. Mindless snacking is a challenge that many folks experience, especially if they are tired, stressed, or overwhelmed. More than that, if you do not pay attention to your hunger cues or are particularly susceptible to temptations posed by family, you could end up overeating.
Depending on how you structure your day, meals may not be a specific time for you. However, they are probably at somewhat regular intervals that you can plan for (or start to plan for). Or, you could tie your eating behavior to an activity that you consistently do.
When scenario #1: Eat breakfast within an hour of waking up
When scenario #2: Eat a protein-rich snack post-workout or if your last meal was more than 4 hours ago
Where you eat could be a game-changer for you. Numerous consumer health studies have determined that food environment could be one of the leading causes of obesity today.
While you can’t change where you live, your proximity to supermarkets, your access to restaurants with fresh and unprocessed foods, or transportation to and from these places, you can certainly impact where you choose to eat your meals.
Do you eat in front of the TV or computer? Evidence shows that eating in front of a screen could lead not just to overeating, but also to obesity.
This has HUGE implications for folks who are permanently working from home due to COVID-19, and for parents of kids who are now distance learning.
Maybe you eat in the car? ExxonMobile discovered in a study that 70% of drivers admit to eating in the car, and 83% drink beverages.
I must confess- in the past few years, I have been eating more frequently in the car, as I dashed from speaking presentations across the Twin Cities to picking up my kids from two different schools to hopping off a coaching call to take the dog to the vet. While I rarely ate more than a snack in the car, it still resulted in less than smart choices while I made the 30 second decision of “what to grab fast”.
In this article from NY Daily News, up to 80% of accidents are caused by distracted driving, because the driver was too busy eating.
Not only is eating while driving unsafe, but there are actually lists of foods that are “”easiest to eat” in the car. Most of these are snack foods that won’t replace a full meal.
Decide for yourself where you want to eat your meals, and make the event as special as you can. You could use fancy plates or napkins, real flatware, or even get fancy with your water in a wine glass. Note: some meals will be improbable for these rules, so setting a rule around where you will NOT eat can be just as effective.
Where scenario #1: Drink only water or healthy smoothies in the car and eat dinner at the dinner table on real plates.
You may have heard the myth that you can eat too much healthy food. Well, maybe you didn’t pay much attention, since you have trouble eating enough healthy food to begin with.
When it comes to how much food is “enough”, do you know where you stand?
The biggest frustration with most diets is the feeling that you have to restrict or control portion sizes to a fraction of what you used to eat. When your body suddenly recognizes this lack, it might fight back with insatiable hunger. It could also respond by adjusting your metabolism in undesirable ways.
For some people, eating too few calories while exercising could result in weight gain, while a sedentary individual who increases calories could remain the same weight.
There is no chart, scale or measurement that will exactly pinpoint how much food you need to eat in order to lose weight.
Which is why it is even more important that you decide for yourself how much food you will eat while on a diet.
You could choose to restrict your calories.
You could choose to measure your colors.
You could choose to count your macros (my favorite approach).
Any of these approaches could have meaning for you. However, I encourage those stuck in the all or nothing approach to consider how EASY it would be to experience wins before deciding.
Is it easy to restrict calories? That depends on how low you go (it is not recommended to go lower than 1200 calories per day for women), and your biggest struggles when it comes to overeating.
Is it easy to measure colors? If you tend to eat ALOT of white foods, and you have no idea what foods are purple, this may be hard for you.
Chances are good you have some experience with several of these approaches, and you may be tempted by the diet du jour as an new approach for you. Instead of going through a huge learning curve on how to do a program you are not familiar with (and can fail in many ways on), why not stick with what used to work for you in the past?
Here is one way how much can work for your diet.
How much scenario #1: I will eat a mix of protein, fat and carbs in every meal. If I still feel hungry, I will eat one more serving of protein.
You can connect with me in a Discovery call to determine what approach might fit your situation, and if coaching would be supportive for your diet success.