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"Why Doesn't an All-or-Nothing Approach to Weight Loss Work?"

Picture It:

You’ve been “dieting” for the last two weeks, and things are going well. You’ve only eaten “good” foods and have managed to stay off the “bad” foods that have been ex-communicated from your house: there’s no ice cream in the freezer, you’ve turned down the office cookies in favor of carrot sticks, and you’ve managed to avoid post-work dinners to eat salad at home. The weight is dropping off – so what if you’ve not seen your friends in a few weeks because you can’t find anything “clean” on the restaurant menu - it’s going well!

So well, that you may as well “treat” yourself. It’s your best friend’s birthday, and you’ve eaten so “perfectly” - you’re allowed one “cheat day,” right? You opt for the starter, the main, and hell, two side dishes, why not. While we’re at it, may as well go for dessert and an extra bottle of wine, too. It’s your “night off,” right?

Queue the next morning: You feel terrible. You’re bloated, feel anxious and you’re pretty sure you’re having palpitations. You’ve “screwed up” your whole diet and can barely look in the mirror – you’ve “failed.” You’ve “ruined” your two-week streak. May as well make a weekend of it – we’ll hop back on the “bandwagon” again on Monday. For now, time for some ice cream to make the most of your “weekend off.”

Sound familiar?
"What Problems Arise from Sticking Too Rigidly to a Strict Diet Plan?"

This all-or-nothing attitude towards food is one of the most common mistakes I see among my clients, whereby healthy eating efforts become sabotaged by often extreme and unsustainable practices, alongside a diet mentality of perfection vs. failure. I’ve seen everything from the Carnivore Diet (nothing but meat) to the Potato Diet (you’ve got it – only potatoes…) - and everything in between.

"Why Is the All-Or-Nothing Approach to Eating a Problem?"

During the “on” phase of restrictive eating patterns, individuals excessively avoid foods labeled as “good” or “bad” – resulting in a laser-like focus and resultant cravings for the very foods they’re trying to avoid. This makes healthful efforts difficult to follow – and excessively stressful. When individuals inevitably “slip,” any benefits from the restrictive practices are often negated by subsequent uncontrolled bingeing sessions on the ex-communicated foods – and the resultant “off” stage of extended over-indulgence. If the diet isn't followed exactly as prescribed (ALL) then surely there's no point doing it (NOTHING) – and any opportunity for moderation or progression is sabotaged, continuing the vicious cycle of “yo-yo” dieting. For others, unsustainable weekday practices are often offset by clock-watching for weekend “cheat” days, which only serve to further promote binge-eating behaviors on nutrient-depleted foods – almost equally as destructive (physically and mentally) as yo-yo dieting.

"How Can an All-or-Nothing Approach Impact Health?"

All said and done, diet culture can feel incredibly daunting, and rather than encouraging a healthy lifestyle, can actually add a significant amount of stress whilst encouraging restrictive practices that can ultimately only lead to “failure.” Oftentimes, there is more harm (both physically and psychologically) than good.

Firstly, this all-or-nothing approach can have a huge impact on our weekly net calorie intake. In a balanced diet, consumption of one meal outside of the usual regime might increase daily caloric intake by, say, 50% for the day. However, during these “all-or-nothing” binge-eating sessions, or even “cheat days,” caloric intake can easily triple, negating any positive impact of healthful eating or carefully-planned training regimes, and often leading to weight gain. And that’s not even taking into account the plethora of negative health consequences associated with excessive bingeing on less healthful food groups: Type 2 Diabetes is just the tip of the pyramid.

From a nutrient perspective, restricted eating limits our sources of nutrition: take the Carnivore diet, for example. While hotly debated, eating purely meat excludes the variety of nutrients (vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber, essential fatty acids, prebiotics) essential for optimal physical and emotional functioning, let alone for prevention of various health conditions, including everything from arthritis to Alzheimer’s Disease. And that’s not even considering the potential negative health consequences of eating excessive amounts of specific foods.

Effects on our mindset might be even worse. In fact, all-or-nothing thinking, sometimes referred to as dichotomous thinking, is in itself one of the most common types of cognitive distortions seen in those with eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge-eating disorder, and orthorexia (rigid and obsessive focus on eating only “healthy” foods). While our brains are wired for this dichotomous mentality - evolutionarily, framing something as “good” or “bad” promoted survival (the lion was fast-approaching, and there were no shades of grey!), in modern culture, there is only perfection vs. failure. Diet mentality is peppered with self-judgment: labeling foods as “clean” or “dirty,” and eating behaviors as “good” or “bad,” only promotes an overarching feeling of diminished self-worth when, inevitably, excessively restrictive regimes cannot be followed to perfection. Small wins and celebrations of progress are lost to the feeling of failure.

"How Can We Overcome the All-or-Nothing Mindset?"

At the root of this, we are simply trying to become the best, healthiest and most comfortable versions of ourselves, and it’s much easier to obtain than you think. By lowering expectations to reasonable levels, avoiding negative self-talk, and simply eating mindfully will help you find joy in nourishing your body and mind.

Eating a balanced diet means learning to have a balanced mindset: learning to incorporate “fear” foods in moderation helps us to avoid maladaptive practices, and accepting that there are no good or bad food choices, only those that are “better,” will ultimately promote a diet that is flexible enough to be sustainable. We might find ourselves in a situation whereby our choice doesn’t fit into our “ideal,” but you can choose “better” options alongside that meal. Going out for a burger after work does not have to be a disaster – why not go bun-less, and swap the fries for a side salad? Rather than gorging during a friend’s birthday meal, why not opt to take some of your main home with you for tomorrow’s lunch?

If we’re able to retain an open (non-restrictive) and balanced mindset, we can learn to make the best choice for each situation, promoting long-term healthful eating into a sustainable lifestyle, vs. an “all-or-nothing” approach that is set up to fail.

"How Can We Build a Balanced Plate?"

By following a few "golden rules," you can promote sustainable, healthful eating behavior vs. embarking on the latest fad. The focus is very much on an “abundance” of wholefood and minimally processed, fresh food varieties vs. any sort of restrictive patterns.

  1. Vegetables and Fruits: The bulk of your plate should largely comprise fresh vegetables and fruits. Focus on green leafy vegetables high in various minerals and vitamins (brussels, broccoli, spinach, kale, asparagus, chard, green beans) and add splashes of color, rich in antioxidants and various phytonutrients, through rainbow foods (think red, yellow, orange, and purple options: purple carrots, red cabbage, beetroot, peppers, squash, sweet potato, purple sprouting broccoli, to name a few). With fruit, focus on the various berries, and fiber-rich options such as apples and pears.

  2. Lean Proteins: Include a lean protein source. Focus on oily fish (the acronym “SMASH” is a good start - salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, herring), rich in anti-inflammatory Omega-3, alongside eggs and plant-based varieties such as beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds. Limit meat consumption to a few times weekly, and focus on white, organic, and grass-fed varieties wherever possible.

  3. Healthy Fats: Add a healthy fat source. Think avocados, unsalted nuts and seeds, olives, cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil, and eggs. This will help you feel fuller for longer, alongside supporting various bodily processes – including overall hormonal balance, cognition, and mood.

  4. Complex Carbohydrates: Add a complex carbohydrate. Quinoa, buckwheat, brown rice, root vegetables such as sweet potato – basically anything fibrous and unrefined. These help maintain a feeling of fullness, provide prebiotic fuel for your microbiota (healthy gut bacteria), and keep your bowel movements regular – amongst a plethora of other benefits.

"What Does Eating Out Look Like with a Balanced Approach?"

Mexican with friends? Opt for the Mexican bowl, with extra black beans and avocado on a base of brown rice - forget the tortilla.

Indian night? Can’t wait – it’s all about the lentil dahl with a side of vegetables, don’t worry about the naan.

Date night at the local burger joint? Opt for the bun-free option, alongside the salad and a side of corn on the cob.

If all of your plates look like this, you’ll reduce your likelihood of disease and illness; you’ll promote vitality and thrive; and you’ll notice your body composition changing and your clothes fitting better as a nice bonus!

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