Having an all-or-nothing mindset around food typically comes from a place of wanting to eat nourishing foods that fuel our bodies, but can often be overly restrictive, which only leads to overindulging later on. In this blog post we’ll discuss the dangers of an all-or-nothing mindset and how to overcome it!
“I can’t have any sugar”
“I’ve already eaten junk food today, the day’s ruined. I’ll eat whatever I want and start fresh tomorrow”
“I can’t eat chocolate today, I ate it yesterday!”
“I better finish this bag of chips today so there’s none left for me to eat tomorrow”
“I’m on vacation! I can eat whatever I want. I’ll detox when I get back”
“I would never add sugar to a salad dressing!” – Then eats a box of cookies late at night
If so, you’re not alone. I’ve been there, too! These thoughts are all evidence of an all-or-nothing mindset surrounding food.
What is an All-or-Nothing Mindset When It Comes to Food?
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 certain foods, and you may have had a ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’ day based on these food choices.
Have you ever told yourself that you’d never have a cookie with lunch, but then find yourself elbows deep in a box of cookies later that night? Or maybe you think that you’re the type of person who can’t have one or two pieces of chocolate without having the whole bar? These are all examples of following an all-or-nothing mindset.
If this is you, I want you to know that this is common, particularly with people who have a history of restrictive dieting. With that being said, you can absolutely overcome it.
Other examples of an All-or-Nothing Mindset
Some examples of an all or nothing mindset when it comes to food include:
- Someone who only eats protein and vegetables during the day, but overindulges on desserts at night.
- Someone who avoids all carbs or fat in their diet, but then eats an entire bag of chips in one sitting.
- Someone who avoids added sugar at all costs, but overeats on sugary foods after a stressful day.
What are Some Common Foods People Have All or Nothing Mindsets About?
There are often particular foods that are deemed ‘good’ or ‘bad’ when it comes to an all-or-nothing mindset. Foods containing sugar, particularly white sugar (as opposed to maple syrup, honey, coconut sugar, etc.) often fall prey to this type of mindset. I often hear clients say that they try to avoid sugar at all costs, which only leads them to overindulging when they do allow themselves to have sugar. Or, they have the willpower to avoid sugar during the day, but overeat at night after a stressful work day or when motivation is low.
In reality, it’s better to allow ourselves to eat the food we love, like sugar, consistently in moderation than to restrict and overindulge later on. For example, having a cookie for dessert and enjoying every single bite, rather than telling ourselves we’re ‘not allowed’ to have it, then eating ten cookies later on.
How Can this Mindset Be Detrimental?
The all or nothing mindset can be detrimental to individuals’ mental and physical health. It often leads to feelings of guilt and shame around food choices, which can contribute to disordered eating habits. It can also lead to feelings of deprivation and restriction, which can lead to overconsumption of “forbidden” foods.
In addition, the all or nothing mindset can be detrimental to our physical health. Food is essential for providing the body with the nutrients it needs to function properly, and restricting certain foods or entire food groups can lead to nutrient deficiencies.
How to Get Out of an All or Nothing Mindset?
Getting out of an all or nothing mindset takes practice and patience. It’s not something that will happen overnight, and there will be occasions where it’s harder to practice than others.
An important reminder is there’s no such thing as falling ‘off the wagon’- This (once again!) is an all-or-nothing mindset when it comes to food. Instead, try to remember that the way we eat is fluid, and one single choice that we make doesn’t play a large role in our health. Instead, it’s the everyday habits that we build that make a huge impact.
Some steps to overcome an all-or-nothing mindset include:
- Begin to understand which foods you place restrictions on. Recognizing this is the first step to being able to catch yourself in this mindset and undo this thinking. Example: sugary foods like cookie, cakes, desserts.
- Recognize that no one food is “good” or “bad.” It’s important to understand that all foods can fit into a healthy diet, and that no single food can make or break a person’s health. When negative thoughts about food or body image arise, challenge them. Ask yourself if these thoughts are true, and come up with evidence to counter them. Example: Will having one cookie really “derail” the entire day, or undo all of the other nutritious choices I made today? No!
- Try to mindfully include these foods that you typically restrict into your everyday eating pattern. When we allow ourselves to mindfully eat the foods we truly enjoy, without guilt or shame, these foods often lose some of their allure. This means that we can include them regularly into our eating pattern when we want, without overindulging past the point of comfort or fullness. Example: Eating a cookie every day, if you crave it!
- When eating foods that you may deem to be not super nutritious, pair them with something else that has protein, carbs, fat and/or fiber. Of course, you don’t need to hit all of these nutrients, but pairing ‘fun’ foods with ones that are more satiating allow us to keep balanced blood sugar, keep energy levels stable, and to feel true satisfaction from the food. Example: Eating the cookie with a chickpea salad sandwich and some baby carrots for lunch.This highlights one of my core principles as a Registered Dietitian, which is focusing on what we’re adding to our plate rather than what we’re taking away.
- Reflect on how this made you feel. Did having the cookie for lunch make you crave them less later on in the day? Were you able to mindfully enjoy it? Did eating the cookie really derail your entire day of eating?
- Focus on overall health. Remember that health is about more than just food. It’s important to focus on other areas of self-care, like physical activity, stress management, and getting enough sleep.
- Seek support where needed. As a Dietitian, the all-or-nothing mindset is something I see regularly in my practice and often work on overcoming with my clients. Feel free to reach out to seek personalized guidance where needed!
The all or nothing mindset when it comes to food can be challenging to overcome. However, practicing mindfulness, seeking support, and focusing on overall health and balance can be helpful in breaking out of this type of thinking. By cultivating a positive relationship with food and developing a more balanced approach to nutrition, individuals can improve their mental and physical health while still enjoying the foods they love.
This blog post has kindly been sponsored by the Canadian Sugar Institute. All opinions are, as always, my own.