“I better finish this bag of chips today, so there’s none left for me to eat tomorrow”
“I’ve already eaten junk food today, the day’s already ruined. I’ll start tomorrow”
“I can’t eat chocolate today, I ate it yesterday!”
“I’m off sugar”
“I’m on vacation! I can eat whatever I want. I’ll detox when I get back”
Believe me, I used to tell myself these things too. But to be honest, these stories are all dieting BS that have absolutely no place in our lives.
These phrases are all evidence of an all-or-nothing mindset.
So what is an all or nothing mindset?
Put simply, an all-or-nothing mindset refers to thinking of food in black or white terms. Food is either ‘good’ or ‘bad’. ‘Healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’. Therefore, you are either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for eating specific foods. You may have had a ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’ day based off of these dietary choices.
An all-or-nothing mindset often disguises itself as an overly restrictive diet. Limiting eating certain foods only on ‘special occasions’ like birthdays, holidays or weekends is an especially common way that many people restrict without realizing it. Basically, you’re either eating tons of a certain type of food, maybe even overindulging to the point of discomfort or past the feeling of fullness, or you’re never eating it at all.
An all-or-nothing mindset can also pertain to allowing ourselves to eat specific quantities of food. A small handful of nuts is okay… But anything more than that is ‘bad’. A few spoonfuls of pasta is acceptable… But definitely not more than that! One slice of bread per day is fine… But two?! Outrageous.
Now, an important distinction to make about an all-or-nothing mindset does not refer to individuals who have allergies, severe intolerances, or who make choices about food for ethical reasons. These distinctions are made because of a bodily function that is out of our control, or because someone has tuned into a ‘greater purpose’ that fundamentally doesn’t have anything to do with food. For example, you can still be vegan and allow yourself to have vegan versions of food that others with an all-or-nothing mindset may deem ‘bad’ or ‘unhealthy’. You can have celiac disease, and therefore are physically unable to consume gluten-containing food, but still allow yourself gluten-free versions of our favorite foods, guilty free.
Why do many people adopt it?
Many people adopt an all or nothing mindset as a way to seek control. Telling ourselves that we can eat certain food at certain times allows us to believe that we have control over our bodies. But our bodies don’t know the difference between a Wednesday and a Saturday, so why do we tell ourselves we can only have certain foods on the weekends?
All-or-nothing mindsets come out of a place of restriction. But the problem is, when we tell ourselves we can’t have something, it becomes even more desirable. We can’t stop thinking about that food, oftentimes hyping it up to be even better than it may actually be in real life. We can hold off, and hold off, and hold off, but undoubtedly, we’re going to have that food. Maybe it’s at a family gathering and you’re feeling a moment of ‘weakness’. Or maybe it’s when you’re alone in your house after a stressful day of work, and you just have to have that food. When we finally do eat that food, we often eat a lot more of it than we typically would if we weren’t coming from a place of restriction. Suddenly, the whole bag of chips is gone before you even realized you were eating it. Or you keep going back to the dessert tray at the potluck, telling yourself this is the ‘last one you’ll eat, the diet starts tomorrow’.
What are the dangers of an all-or-nothing mindset?
All-or-nothing mindsets are a catalyst for binge and purging cycles, constantly either being ‘bad’ or making up for being bad by being overly restrictive. This is a recipe for disaster, and can seriously harm your long term health (both physically and mentally).
All-or-nothing mindsets often actually result in overeating and an unhealthy obsession with food.
Let’s say you tell yourself that you’re never going to eat chocolate again. Day one goes by, and you’re fine. Day two goes by, and you’re starting to think about the chocolate, but it’s only in fleeting moments. Day three goes by… You’ve got chocolate on the brain. You’re thinking about it at work, after work, while you’re making dinner, and while you’re watching TV. But again, you push the thoughts away. Day four comes… You’ve had a hard day at work, and your kids won’t stop screaming. Finally, you cave, and instead of eating a few pieces of chocolate, you eat the whole thing. More importantly, you don’t even enjoy it. The first few bites are heaven, but after that, you can’t even really taste it anymore. It’s not as good as you built it up to be, but you keep eating it because you’re definitely not eating any chocolate tomorrow. Might as well get rid of the bar tonight so you can start fresh tomorrow, right?
But what if that didn’t have to be the case. What if you could have some chocolate, today, tomorrow, and the next day, with zero guilt? Zero shame. And enjoy every single bite.
So how do you overcome an all-or-nothing mindset?
Okay. So clearly this isn’t helping us. So what steps do we take next?
I have a lot of tips to share. In part two of this blog post, I’ll be sharing my top tips for overcoming an all-or-nothing mindset. For now, your homework is to try to recognize any all-or-nothing approaches you have to food. When these thought processes pop into your head, recognize them, and question them without judgment. This may be hard to do in the beginning, but with practice, you will more quickly recognize when you are having these thoughts, and telling yourself a certain narrative in your head.
See you next week for part 2!
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