How to Break Free From All-Or-Nothing Eating
Last updated: June 2022
I remember when I embarked upon the very last diet of my life (and you’ll see why you should care in a minute).
As usual, the beginning was exciting: the buying of the “right” foods, the measuring of the portions to ensure accuracy and perfection, the thrill of having a microscopically flatter stomach after a week or two.
Being in control of my food and making consistently healthy choices felt good, but clinging so tightly to the idea that I had to eat a very, very specific way or I had “messed up” virtually guaranteed that if I ate something off plan I’d feel like a failure and go completely overboard.
And that’s exactly what happened: I got stressed out and ate a snack that was off-plan, and after that just threw in the towel and ate everything I could get my hands on for the rest of the day. (FYI: Know how I mentioned this was my last diet? This also turned out to be my final episode of rebound eating. It’s not a coincidence!)
Such is the cycle of the chronic dieter. Once you start following rigid diet plans, it’s very tough to avoid getting sucked into an all-or-nothing eating pattern.
Changing up your diet to meet your health goals is awesome—unless you fall into the trap of all-or-nothing eating.
What is all or nothing eating?
When you decide you’ll eat a certain way every single day (a certain amount of calories, a certain number of carbs, not eating after a certain time of night, not eating a certain food group, etc.), you’re putting yourself in a particular mindset. That mindset is something along the lines of “I have to do it perfectly.” (This is the “all” part of the all or nothing eating.)
When you mess up and eat something not sanctioned by your current eating plan, you may find yourself saying “I might as well give up!” and eating everything you possibly can (this would be the “nothing” part of the equation).
With this type of thinking (also called black-or-white thinking), there is no middle ground; you’re either following a specific eating plan or you’re off it and consuming bricks of Belgian chocolate and downing carafes of nacho cheese sauce like there’s no tomorrow.
How do I stop all or nothing eating?
Well, all or nothing eating is really based on all or nothing thinking. That is, you believe that you must eat a certain way, and if something goes wrong, well, then you may as well throw all caution to the wind.
If, on the other hand, you shift your beliefs a bit, you can let this type of eating go. Try these tips:
- Watch out for “should” and “have to.” When all of your thoughts about food are along the lines of “I have to eat exactly on plan” or “I must not give in and eat any pizza” or “I should only eat green vegetables,” you’re asking for an episode of rebound eating. Those thoughts are absolute, leave no room for errors or special occasions, and are guaranteed to bring on trouble.
- Replace absolutes with gentle guidelines. Try setting goals like “I’ll eat at least 5 servings of fruits and veggies today” or “I’ll increase my fiber intake this week.” These types of goals allow room for all sorts of foods while still focusing on healthful ones.
- If you eat something that’s outside the bounds of your current healthy lifestyle, assess how big of an impact it really has on your overall health. For example, if you gave up sweets, but ended up eating a slice of cake at a birthday party, instead of believing you’ve messed up and will never be able to stay on track (which will probably lead you to eat even more sweet stuff), remind yourself that one simple piece of cake is not going to derail all of the other positive changes you’ve made.
- Know that the “nothing” part of all or nothing eating can’t exist without the “all”; it just doesn’t work. Once you remove one half of the seesaw, the other half falls down.
Do you find it difficult to "eat right" and stick to a nutrition plan?