How to Ditch the All-or-Nothing Mindset

“I need to finish this bag of chips so there’s nothing left in the house tomorrow.”

“I’ve already ate three cookies, an ice cream cone, a chocolate bar, AND pizza today so I might as well enjoy a side of fries with my burger before eating healthy this week.”

“Only a few days left of vacation… I better treat myself now because as soon as I get home, I’m going on a major cleanse.”

“I’m cutting out alcohol completely.”

“Diet starts tomorrow!”

Sound familiar? Trust me, I’m guilty of saying these things too and I’ve also been there. I’ve restricted myself from eating certain foods throughout the week only to overindulge on the weekend and feel terrible about it after. Simply put, an all-or-nothing mindset is black or white thinking with zero shades of grey in between. In dietary terms, the food you eat is either “good” or “bad” and the way you eat is either “healthy” or “unhealthy”.

Many of us get stuck in this evil cycle as a way to gain control over our behaviours and our bodies. Have you ever been to a potluck and stayed clear of the dessert table because you knew one square would turn into three or maybe even seven? Problem is, when we tell ourselves we can’t have a certain food, we want it that much more. We might be able to hold off for a little but eventually we say “f*** it” and cave. And nine times out of ten, we have waaay more than we are satisfied with, which leaves us feeling uncomfortably stuffed with a side of shame and guilt. Unfortunately having this mindset can lead you down a viscous rabbit hole and create binging and purging tendencies, as well as an unhealthy obsession with food. Now we don’t want that so what steps can we take to break free? Although this way of thinking may be difficult to escape, I’m hoping these gentle tips will help you ditch the all-or-nothing mindset once and for all.

#1. Notice when you are thinking this way.

Becoming aware of these thoughts is the first step towards overcoming the all-or-nothing mindset. You don’t have to do anything with this yet, simply just notice whenyou are thinking this way. Although it may not always be as obvious as salt versus pepper, the phrases I mentioned above are a) common and b) different examples of an all-or-nothing mindset. You’ve likely used a few of them at some point in your life (don’t worry, we all have). Additionally, if you’re someone who associates “treats” with specific days of the week or special occasions, let’s explore this further!

#2. Recognize when you feel triggered.

Typically there will be certain triggers that perpetuate black and white thinking. Is there a specific time of the day when you feel most vulnerable? Perhaps after a long day of work? Or better yet, is there a specific time of the year when you go all in (*cough cough* January) as a way to make up for going all out (holiday season). Many life events can trigger this mindset too. “I need to lose 30 pounds before my wedding.” “Time to get rid of all this excess baby weight”. “I’ll get back on track once I retire and have more time.” Recognizing when these thoughts likely transpire can help you take appropriate action before it’s too late.  

#3. Understand why you are having these beliefs.

Your “why” is the root cause. Why do you feel this way? Why do you have these beliefs? Is there any truth behind them? Surely your physical or social environment has had some sort of influence. Let’s take a look at the following example: Your having lunch in the break room at work, taking some time to decompress and enjoy leftovers from the night before. Then you hear, “I definitely gained at least 10 pounds over vacation” or “I’m doing keto and I feel amazing” or “Omg, why does everyone keep bringing in treats? I’m going to get so fat.” Diet talk. Fat shaming. I’ve heard it all. Unfortunately you can’t always control your environment but if this is where your thoughts are stemming from, you CAN stop letting them control you!

#4. Reframe your all-or-nothing thoughts.

Now that we’ve become aware of these thoughts and explored when and why, it’s time to shift our mindset. If we refer back to the lunchroom example I just mentioned, is a one-week vacation reallllly going to affect your weight long-term? Not at all. Are you a bad person for allowing yourself to enjoy a cupcake for your colleague’s birthday? Nope. So why are you letting these thoughts determine how YOU feel towards food? Instead of thinking black and white (ie. diet or no diet; bad or good; exercise daily or not at all), try to find the grey area. You can still enjoy the foods you love regardless of the time, day, or year. You don’t have to exercise every single day if you aren’t feeling up for it. And no need to be “good” after you’ve eaten something “bad.”

#5. Give yourself permission to enjoy food whenever.

If you restrict yourself on weekdays, you’ll likely feel deprived by the time the weekend rolls around and one “cheat meal” will turn into a cheat weekend. By giving ourselves unconditional permission to eat all foods (yes, even pizza), we abandon the food rules and restrictions, and learn to eat according to what our body wants, needs, and makes us feel good! I know you’re probably thinking, “I don’t trust myself. Once I put my hand in the cookie jar, I won’t be able to stop” but listen up… I guarantee if you ate nothing but chips, cake, chocolate and cookies for a couple days, you’re going to want some damn broccoli. And that’s because repeated exposure to a food can cause us to derive less pleasure from it each time (this is called habituation btw). The point of this is to take foods off the power pedestal so that they no longer have the same emotional pull. How nice would it be to have this delicious brownie sundae in front of you and be able to stop eating halfway through because you’re actually full and don’t feel like eating anymore? In order to reach this place of food neutrality, I encourage you to slowly start experimenting with foods you tend to restrict. Be mindful and tune into the taste, amount you eat, feelings you have, etc. No answer is right or wrong and it may take some practice before you’re confident with giving yourself unconditional permission to eat but I promise you it’s worth it!

#6. Focus on progress, not perfection.

There is no such thing as a perfect diet! Even those who eat extremely healthy are most likely deficient in some sort of nutrient. Surely a carrot is more nutritious than a cookie, but the cookie releases feel-good chemicals and satisfies your sweet tooth! We strive for perfectionism because we want to feel in control. However, trying to nail a “perfect” diet is a recipe for food obsession, preoccupation, and deprivation. We make over 200 food-related decisions a day so let’s not make it more complicated than it needs to be. Just because you ate a burger from Harvey’s on your way home from work knowing you were in a rush to get your kids elsewhere doesn’t mean you aren’t getting the job done. You fueled your hunger in that moment, and maybe next time you’ll pack something in advance. Finally, if you end up overeating, is it really worth dwelling and beating yourself up about it? Learn from it, let it go and move on. You are more than your diet! You are a wonderful human being with so much more to offer! Ditching the all-or-nothing mindset can take time, especially when you’ve been thinking this way for years but celebrate your progress and let go of perfectionism.