Nothing Everything

The Trap of All-or-Nothing Thinking

Ever feel like you’re running on hamster wheel with fat loss? You’ve tried every diet under the sun, you’ve hit the gym, you’ve done everything you’re supposed to. The effort was there, but you couldn’t keep it up for long. The habits just never stuck.

Do you find yourself coming out of the gate at full speed with every new diet attempt? You’re enthusiastic, focused and ready to crush your goals. You track every morsel that makes it past your lips. You clean out your pantry. You eat only whole foods, eschewing everything “bad.” You cook all your meals at home, staying up late to make sure everything is prepared for the next day or week. You turn down sweets at work and you avoid social situations with food.

You’re finally doing it right this time, and you feel like you’re on top of the world. But even though you’re excited to see the changes that are happening, you start to feel a pang of resentment from time to time. You experience fleeting moments where it all starts to feel like a bit much. But you push on. “No big deal,” you say to yourself. “This is just how it has to be. I’ve got this.”

And then the wheels come off.

Maybe you had a tough day, week, or even month. Whatever it is, the shit hits the fan and then, somehow, that vague whisper of “too much” has morphed into something louder and more distinct. Suddenly, the whole damn thing feels unmanageable. You can’t do this right now. You’re exhausted and you’re over it. “Screw it,” you say, as you go out to pick up a pizza and a tub of ice cream. “I’ve been good for long enough. I’ve earned this.”

You end up gorging yourself, which is not only physically uncomfortable, but emotionally painful too. Or maybe you don’t gorge yourself. Maybe you just quit trying, and revert to your old way of eating. Or maybe you find yourself on the crazy-making merry-go-round of strict eating during the week, with binge fests on the weekend.

In any case, you feel like you’ve failed. Again. You ask yourself, “why do I even bother?” Or maybe you think, “I’m weak. I’m not motivated enough.” Or perhaps, “I’m not capable of doing what I need to do.” And so, you throw in the towel. Or maybe you just stay on the merry-go-round, growing increasingly frustrated and unhappy over time.

That’s all-or-nothing thinking at work.

In the scenario above, the main problem isn’t the fact that you screwed up. It’s what you did with that screw up that got you into hot water. But you’re not alone. All of us have probably struggled with all-or-nothing thinking at some point.

For example, have you berated yourself for missing a workout? Have you felt that regrettably familiar rush of panic over eating something that you perceived as “bad?” Have you done shame cardio for eating too many calories? Have you used your perceived misstep as an excuse to go on an all-out bender? All that is the result of all-or-nothing thinking.

Here’s the thing. You’re probably not weak, unmotivated, or unfocused — nor are you incapable or broken. Maybe you just need to shift your perspective. Because whether we’re talking about diet, training, relationships, work, or anything really, all-or-nothing thinking can lead to some pretty unhelpful behaviors. So it’s not necessarily the case that you are the problem.

Okay, so then what’s the problem?

The problem is often the belief that there is one right way to do this — and that if you can’t do that one thing perfectly, you’ve failed. When your expectation is that you’ve got to get it right all the time, do everything perfectly, or go to completely unsustainable extremes, who wouldn’t freak out?

When you set the bar unreasonably high, it’s far easier stop trying — or not start at all — than it is to face repeated bouts of perceived failure and the depressing medley of negative emotions that accompany them.

Okay, so identifying the problem is great and all, but how do you stop doing it? I’ll start by saying that I don’t have all the answers, as I’m a recovering perfectionist myself. But I can share with you some of the lessons I’ve learned so far, as they relate to diet and training.

Don’t wait for the right time.

Have you ever said you’ll start your new diet next week? Have you ever made one less-than-ideal food choice on a Friday then thought, “screw it, I’ll get back to it on Monday.” Have you ever told yourself you can’t start a new diet right now because you have too much going on? Oh please.

There’s nothing special about Monday.

If you tend to wait until next week to start a diet, is it because you feel you need one final hurrah before everything you enjoy gets taken away from you? If that’s the case, no wonder you don’t want to start until Monday. If you’re bracing for impending suffering, of course you’d go off the rails.

But why does it cause suffering? Have you really explored that? Does it truly cause suffering? Is overeating serving a purpose in your life? Or is it your resistance to change that’s causing the suffering? Both can be overcome, but the latter can be fixed with a simple shift in your perspective.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to give the impression that the lifestyle and habit changes you’ll need to make in order to change your body will be comfortable. It’ll probably be hard, at least at some point. If it weren’t, we’d all have the bodies of our dreams already, and I wouldn’t have a job.

So it’s not going to be all daisies and rainbows. It will take effort, honesty and consistency. It will be uncomfortable at times. But it doesn’t need to cause suffering. It doesn’t need to be perfect. It doesn’t need to be so overwhelming that you need a last hurrah. And you don’t need to go pedal to the metal on day one. One change at a time is amazing. Seriously. Start with just one, and build from there.

You really can’t screw this up.

No matter what happens, each and every meal is a chance to do better. Say you had a few too many margaritas on Friday, then you go home and crush an entire pizza plus a few bowls of ice cream before you realize what’s happening. Or maybe you over-indulged in some other way. Whatever happened, it’s okay. You’re okay. You didn’t do anything wrong, and you certainly didn’t fail.

You don’t need to wait until Monday to do better. You can make a better choice at your very next meal. And if getting right back to it feels like a dreadful proposition, listen to that discomfort. What’s it about? Is it perhaps that you’re approaching your diet with such rigidity that you feel like you need to take the weekend off to brace for impact? If so, is that going to work long-term?

Embrace the gray area.

It’s easy to look at diet and training — and, well, pretty much everything — through a binary filter. In other words, to evaluate things as being either good or bad, while ignoring everything in the middle. This is normal to an extent, as our brains naturally like to place things into neat little categories.

This tendency serves us in some ways, like when we need to identify a potential threat as bad so that we can get away from it as quickly as possible. But it doesn’t serve us in other ways, like when we need to understand topics with a lot of nuance and potential for individual variation.

So when you catch yourself starting to think of things in black-and-white terms such as “good” or “bad,” try to challenge those extremes and figure out what the middle ground might be.

There are no bad foods. Sort of.

One topic that’s been discussed a lot lately with the ongoing tug-of-war between clean eating and flexible dieting is the notion of good, or “clean,” foods versus bad foods. Although thinking of food like that is something of a reductionistic approach, I can definitely see why it can be helpful.

Our brains love to simplify things. It’s probably some sort of survival mechanism, as assigning labels, judgments and categories to objects and ideas makes it easier for us to make choices. This can be both a good thing and a bad thing, depending on the situation.

But when we’re talking about food, what if there aren’t any “good” foods or “bad foods? What if everything just exists on a spectrum and we don’t need to assign values to it? Sure, some foods are more or less nutrient-dense than others. Some foods are more calorie-dense than others. And yes, we should try to make sure that the majority of our calories come from foods on the more nutritious end of the spectrum.

Still, that doesn’t make the occasional pizza, donut or ice cream cone “bad.” It doesn’t even necessarily make it unhealthy. I say this because health encompasses more than just what we eat or how much exercise we do. Our thoughts, beliefs, attitudes and emotions also contribute to our health. It’s all one big inextricable unit.

So if going out for one “unhealthy” meal with a friend or loved one provides you with a profound sense of joy and connectivity, is it really unhealthy after all? I’d argue that it isn’t.

If you’ve been labeling foods as “good” or “bad,” how does it feel when you’ve made a food choice that you’re not pleased with? Does it cause anxiety, stress, disappointment, or even shame? If so, does that reaction cause you to further act out in ways that make you even less happy? Do you end up eating more to deal with the stress, going on a binge, or giving up altogether?

The bottom line is that when you make a food choice that you’re not proud of, it doesn’t mean you’ve failed. It doesn’t mean you’ve done a bad job. Fitness and health are neither created nor destroyed by a single meal. It’s what we do consistently over time that matters. Keep the big picture in mind, and focus on the basics. As for the rest, try to live in the gray area. 

So are foods never bad?

Honestly, sometimes they are. Though I like to think less in terms of “good” versus “bad,” and more in terms of “maybe not the best choice for you, at least at this point in time.” I mean, obviously, you should avoid a food outright if you’re allergic to it. That’s bad.

But on the less severe end of the spectrum, a food may not be a good choice for you if it causes you digestive distress or negatively impacts your health in some other way. For example, some people with IBS don’t do well with high FODMAP foods. It doesn’t make high FODMAP foods bad — in fact, most of them are very healthy foods. It just means that they might not work for certain people at a certain point in their lives.

And then there are trigger foods. If there are certain foods you can’t eat without losing your shit and eating an entire package of them, does it mean they’re bad foods? No. It just means that they don’t work for you at this point in your life.

Sometimes, trigger foods will cease to be triggering after we deconstruct the belief that they’re “bad,” or that eating them means we’ve done something wrong. That would be an ideal outcome. Unfortunately, it’s not always that simple.

So if you tend to overeat a certain food or lose control around it then get stuck in a shame spiral over it, it might be helpful to avoid it for a while. Or at the very least, try to come up with a strategy for dealing with it, such as only buying individual portion sizes of that food.

But like I mentioned earlier, this isn’t because the trigger food itself is “bad.” It just means that we are struggling with something, and that struggle is bleeding into our behavior. And, for better or for worse, we’re tending to engage in that behavior with that particular food. 

Make changes you can stick with.

Do you start each diet with a bang, only to completely fizzle out within the first few weeks or months? If that’s the case, it might help to evaluate whether your plan is realistic. Ask yourself, “can I see myself doing what I’m doing right now a year from now?” If the answer is a resounding, “no,” then maybe it’s time to modify your approach.

Sometimes what gets us is that our expectation of what we have to do to succeed may be more intensive than what we actually need to do to succeed. Accordingly, I’m a big fan of starting with the minimum effective dose. It’s true that none of us gets a free pass. Fat loss takes work. You’ll have to make changes — sometimes big changes.

There are certain realities that we just can’t avoid, and I’ll go over a few of those in the following section. But even if we have the most “optimal” plan in the world laid out for us, but what good does it do us if we can’t adhere to it?

Choose tools that work for you.

As I mentioned before, there are certain truths that we simply can’t avoid, some of which I’ll list below. Having said that, there isn’t just one way to be successful with these principles. Rather, there are many paths that lead to the same destination. Find the way that resonates with you.

You will need to eat fewer calories than you expend.

I can’t deny that calorie counting in an app or on paper is the most direct way to ensure you’re in a deficit. But it’s not for everyone. So if weighing and tracking every last bite drives you nuts, there are other ways to get the job done. You can use a meal template.

You can use your hand to estimate portion sizes. You can work on replacing the most calorie-dense foods in your diet with less calorie-dense ones. Explore different options and figure out a way to achieve consistency with your caloric intake that you can stick with.

Preparation is important, and will help you succeed.

Preparation is something I harp on all the time, but you don’t have to do it to such an extreme that it causes stress. You don’t have to prep twenty one perfectly-portioned home-cooked meals every Sunday if that detracts from time with your loved ones and stresses you out. Find a way that allows you to stay prepared, but that you can actually stick to.

You will probably have to change what you eat.

It’s true that making more nutritious food choices is a crucial part of losing weight and keeping it off. But you don’t necessarily have to throw away everything in your kitchen from the outset. Start with a few better choices, then build from there. You don’t have to eliminate your favorite foods if keeping moderate amounts of them in your diet allows you to stay consistent.

On the other hand, if your favorite foods set something off inside you that predictably results in overeating, then that’s a different issue entirely. In that case, moderation may not be the best choice, at least not with those foods and at this point in time. Maybe experiment with avoidance of those foods, to see whether it would keep you more consistent.

Moving your body regularly in some way has to happen.

Movement is important for both overall health and increasing our energy expenditure. But you don’t have to do a form of exercise that you hate, or exercise hours a day if you don’t enjoy it. For example, I love weight training and think that it’s an irreplaceable part of body recomposition.

But what if you hate weights? What if you’ve tried multiple times to fall in love with lifting, but you just don’t enjoy it? If you try to force yourself to do it anyway, how long can you realistically keep that up? Probably not long.

But is there a form of movement that you do enjoy? If so, do more of that. Yes, even if it’s not “optimal.” And if there’s just no form of exercise on earth that you’ll enjoy, do something anyway. It doesn’t have to be extreme. It just has to be consistent. 

Accept that it won’t happen overnight.

When you’re sick of looking and feeling the way you are and we want it to change right now, it’s difficult to pull back and look at the big picture. It can be tempting to slash calories severely, exercise more, eliminate a slew of foods, go on a cleanse, take a bunch of fat burners, or go to an extreme in some other way.

But try to remember that this is a marathon, not a sprint. If you blow all your energy on the first few miles, you’ll have nothing left for the rest of the journey. More is not necessarily better. Consistency is better. But how can you expect to be consistent when the bar is set too high?

You may be able to maintain extremes for a period of weeks, or even months in some cases. Usually, though, it’s just going to set you up for failure. And that sucks, because this shit is already hard enough without adding an additional layer of disappointment on top of everything else.

Have you been holding yourself back?

To wrap things up, have you been sabotaging your own progress? If so, perhaps a more moderate approach might serve you better. Keep in mind that you can always improve as you go.

Remember that there is no wagon to fall off. Everything exists on a spectrum, and it’s fine to move up and down that spectrum as your circumstances change. Sometimes you’ll chug along in first gear, while other times you’ll be racing down the open road in fourth. But that’s normal. All that matters is that you keep going forward, learning and growing.

Without a doubt, nutrition is more complex than what I’ve outlined here. I don’t want to give the impression that nothing but the basics matters, that you won’t have to try hard, that calories don’t count, that you can eat cookies all day and be successful, or that being rigorous is bad.

Because calories do matter, you will have to work for this, it is more complicated than just the basics, you will need to change what you eat, and being rigorous is totally fine if that’s what makes you happy. In fact, stringency is outright necessary for certain goals.

This also isn’t about apathy. I don’t believe that we should ever simply accept where we’re at, if it doesn’t make us happy. So while complacency, half-assing, and settling for bad choices are not acceptable, we also need to be realistic about what we can be consistent with.

Big changes do have their place.

Going all-out is a totally fine strategy if it works for you. If it helps you to go extreme in the short-term because it allows you to realize some quick success then use the momentum from that success to propel you forward, by all means, do more of that. I tend to be a bit of an extremist myself, so I understand. Sometimes we need a swift kick in the shorts, then we can learn to pull back later on.

The most important part of all this is that you make changes you can actually stick to. If you can stick to a ton of big changes at once, awesome. But if you’re a chronic yo-yo dieter, or if too many changes feel unmanageable, then maybe overhauling your entire life in one day isn’t the best tactic.

Maybe dialing it back a bit and starting small is worth exploring? If nothing else has worked so far, what have you got to lose? You can always add complexity later, if that’s something you’re interested in. For now, just start.

The bottom line? Perfection sucks.

While “optimal” sounds great on paper, we need to set standards that we can actually reach. We need to find a way to enjoy the process. We need to be able to bounce back from disappointment or failure. We need to recognize mistakes as opportunities for growth. But it’s difficult to do any of that when we see things as black-and-white. Striving to be better is awesome, but perfectionism usually just holds us back.

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