Picture it: you’re trying to eat healthy, and things are going great! You feel strong and upbeat, and you’ve lost a bit of weight. You’re coasting!
Then one night, your friends want to go out for dinner. You really don’t want to turn down the invitation, because you’ve been so ‘perfect’ with your diet all week long, eating only ‘good, clean’ foods, and you deserve a treat! You’ve also been diligently avoiding dinners out because your diet doesn’t allow a lot of the foods that are on restaurant menus.
You go for the meal, dessert, a second bottle of wine, and who knows what else.
The next morning, you wake up feeling bloated and defeated. Just because you overindulged the night before, you feel like you might as well extend the party though the weekend. Off you go to brunch, and later on in the day, the cookies come out of hiding. The next day, you feel so crap about yourself for ‘failing’, you can barely stand to look in the mirror.
You decide you’ll get back on the diet wagon…on Monday. But right now, you’re craving some ice cream…and why not? You’ve already blown it. Might as well get it now before you’re dieting once again.
This all or nothing attitude towards food is probably the single most common way I see my clients sabotage their healthy eating efforts. Stop! Let’s get rid of this destructive cycle! Here’s how:
Stop expecting perfection.
I consistently tell my clients that ‘in nutrition, there’s no such thing as perfection’.
One thing that tends to drive all or nothing behaviour is the quest for perfection, but perfection actually doesn’t exist in life. We just need to find the perfection in imperfection, not to sound like a creepy Hallmark card or something.
When you expect some sort of divine perfection in your eating habits, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Even the healthiest of eaters (like, *ahem* dietitians, perhaps?) eat junk food and blow the doors off sometimes. A ‘perfect’ diet is not only undefined (what is perfect, anyhow?), it’s unheard of. You learn from each slip, each stumble. Take those learnings and use them to change your habits, but also remember to breathe and relax. I love the new focus on ‘healthy-ish’ and ‘good enough’ – those are great goals for eating, because they give you some wiggle room. ‘Perfect’ never does, and that’s unrealistic for anyone.
Remember too: No matter what you eat, and even if your diet is ‘perfect’, you will remain the same person inside. You are not your diet.
Change your tape.
We all have a tape, and by ‘tape’ I mean, that voice in our heads that tends to tell us negative things about ourselves. This tape can be really destructive to our feelings of self-worth. Some people don’t even realize that they’re constantly putting themselves down, they’ve been doing it for so long.
Instead of calling yourself a failure and other nasty things when you feel like you’ve messed up with your eating (or anything else in life), think about this: would you say those words to a friend? Would you tell someone you love that they’re no good, that they’ve failed, that they’re not enough? Probably not. So why are you saying those things to yourself?
Berating yourself for what you’ve done wrong vs focusing on what you’ve done right is a common thread for all or nothing eaters, and this tends to result in them giving up their quest for healthier eating habits.
Instead of getting into that vicious cycle when you feel like you’ve slipped up, show yourself some love. Tell yourself what you’d tell your friend – that it’s okay, that they’re a good person, that they’re NOT a failure. Focus on your wins, however small – each step is a step in the right direction, because, once again, you learn from everything.
And remember: Your diet, your food choices, or your weight do not determine your self-worth (see a pattern here?)
For an all or nothing person, a restrictive diet is the road to guilt and shame. If they’re not on a diet, they’re off one – and by off, I mean OFF, no happy medium.
My recommendation? Don’t diet. I know it sounds scary, but hear me out.
I don’t mean that you shouldn’t eat healthily, but what I do mean is that you need to find your ‘healthyish’ or ‘good enough’. Forget about the diet mentality of restriction, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods, guilt and shame around food, and linking your value as a person with what you eat. It doesn’t make you feel good, and it never works in the long run. Life and food are supposed to be enjoyable!
Restrictive diets – the ‘on a diet’ stage – are usually not sustainable, and tend to result in cravings and binges on the very foods you try to avoid. When you inevitably have a slip, the resulting guilt may actually cause you to eat more. Then comes the ‘off’ stage of overindulgence. It’s exhausting!
The diet mentality can also be full of judgements about food like ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’, ‘clean’ or ‘dirty’, that you transfer onto yourself as a person. Not okay.
Let’s just put it out there: you are NOT your diet. Eating unhealthy food does NOT make you unhealthy, and it doesn’t make you a failure or a bad person. The food you eat – healthy or unhealthy – has ZERO to do with your self-worth. Why are we moralizing eating (that’s an entirely different post)? How did we become only as ‘good’ as our food choices?
Your inability to sustain a diet is also not about your lack of willpower (read about why, here). So let’s forget about that one, too.
The diets are failing YOU, not the other way around. So let’s get rid of them, okay?
And FYI: Getting rid of the diet mentality also means that you get rid of the concept of ‘cheating’ – a term I absolutely can’t stand. Even ‘cheat days’ perpetuate that good/bad thinking in relation to eating, and this I can’t get behind. The negative connotation of ‘cheating’ and the implication that you’re doing something so terribly wrong if you breach the rules of your shitty, restrictive diet is so loaded and so destructive.
I have news for you: Normal eating doesn’t involve making yourself feel bad about your food.
Instead of going on one diet after another, try to change your mindset. Understand that eating healthy AND less-than-healthy food is all part of a normal diet. Some days are better than others, and that’s okay. Having one ice cream cone isn’t going to make you gain weight, and it certainly doesn’t mean that you’ve failed or that you’re a bad person. Having a hundred ice cream cones doesn’t mean those things, either. Nope, nope, nope.
Trust your body. Know that nothing bad is going to happen if you let go of the reins a bit and eat mindfully.
Making small, sustainable changes to your diet and lifestyle is a better way for most people to maintain a healthy, enjoyable way of life. Eat mindfully, lower your expectations to reasonable levels, stop punishing yourself, and find joy in nourishing your body.
SO much better than counting and weighing everything and driving yourself nuts.
If there’s a food you absolutely can’t lay off of (for me that’s nanaimo bars or cake), keep it out of the house.
One last tip:
Blow the doors off with a bunch of unhealthy food choices?
Just start eating healthy again instead of calling it quits. You’ll be so much further along if you keep going, rather than if you start again after a prolonged period of feeling like a failure and continuing to make more unhealthy choices. Undoing two days of eating junk food is a lot easier than undoing two months of it – physically AND emotionally. Trust me on that one.
You can’t unring a bell, so keep moving forward and stay focused on treating yourself with love and care, not punishment.