52 Healthy Habits: Overcoming the All-or-Nothing Mindset

Welcome to the latest edition of 52 Healthy habits where we tackle a new healthy habit each week. A healthy lifestyle is built on a foundation of healthy habits. If we work on building healthy habits slowly over time then a healthy lifestyle and its benefits will emerge. 

You can try to work on the habits I write about each week or adopt your own. Look to make incremental improvements and over time they will snowball into big changes. Slow and steady, baby. 

watch your habits, not your weight.

watch your habits, not your weight.

This week we are talking about a subject that is near and dear, the all-or-nothing mindset. It was something that I struggled with for the better part of a decade. I was all-in or all-out and my weight reflected the inconsistency. I would run a lot and only eat "clean" foods for as long as my willpower would allow, all while telling myself that I was living a healthy lifestyle. (I was not. A healthy lifestyle includes the body and mind.)

I couldn't execute moderation because anytime I fell off the 'perfect' wagon, it turned into an endless pit of unhealthy behaviors. "I already screwed up today, why stop now?" "I shouldn't have ate that. I'll start over fresh on Monday and enjoy the rest of the weekend." "I'll finish this bottle of wine, then I won't buy anymore."

"Hard-core starts Monday" we repeated so many times week after week with no real changes, it became laughable. 

But hard-core isn't sustainable. The problem with all-or-nothing is that if you are not on your diet and exercise routine, then you're completely off.  It's akin to getting one flat tire on your car and then slashing the other three. It's already bad, why not make it worse?

But a truly healthy lifestyle doesn't have to be that way. A healthy lifestyle involves caring about your health and making mindful choices all while enjoying the pleasures of life in moderation. There is no "wagon" to fall off. You do the best you can every day and your best is good enough, even when (especially when) it's not perfect.

Some say moderation doesn't work. And I agree that there are times that one may need to abstain from certain foods. Just like you wouldn't tell an alcoholic to just drink in moderation, sometimes certain foods can be red flag foods. If you have never opened a family-sized bag of chips without polishing the whole thing off, it might be best not to ever open that bag (or only buy single serving bags). If you can't stop eating the pizza at two slices, you may decide it is best to not order the pizza. The key is to know your limits.

If you have eating issues that are beyond your control, I recommend that you speak to a Registered Dietitian to help you work through it. Sometimes the roots of food issues aren't about food at all and a professional can help you get them resolved. There is great strength in asking for help.


We often don't think about mindset as a habit, but establishing a healthy attitude towards food is a habit that can be trained. 

As a recovering All-or-Nothing thinker, these days I aim to look at my choices on a continuum. How can I make this a little bit better? 

You see, it's not about making perfect choices all the time. It's about making the best choice possible in the moment. 

It's a friend's birthday and group of close friends are meeting at a burger restaurant to celebrate. Friends and celebration are an important part of an overall healthy lifestyle. Human connection is essential for happiness. You want to enjoy time with friends but you want to make healthy choices to reach your health and fitness goals. You are not going to show up with tupperware of chicken and broccoli. Don't be that guy (or gal). You don't have to choose between time with friends and a healthy lifestyle. You can settle somewhere right in the middle. 

You have options:

You could order a burger with bacon and cheese, large fries and three beers and then declare that the week is screwed up now and continue to eat poorly for the rest of the day, the rest of the week, until a new Monday rolls around when you can pinky swear to yourself that you will start over.

You could order a burger with bacon and cheese, large fries and two beers and consider it your indulgence meal for the week. 

You could order the burger, skip the bacon, but ask for a whole wheat bun, share the fries with a friend and order one beer.

You could order the burger, skip the bun, order a side salad instead of fries and a diet coke.

You could order a salad and water.

There is no right or wrong answer when you look at your options and ask, "How can I make this choice a little bit better?" It doesn't have to be perfect, just better. 

Another example: A co-worker mentioned to me that he knew he should be eating healthier at lunch. He would usually run out to a fast food restaurant out of convenience, but he said he wanted to save money and eat a little healthier. He said he could bring a sandwich from home and a small bag of chips because it was inexpensive and easy to throw together before work, but he said he thought eating bread and chips every day wasn't that healthy either...might as well keep ordering fast food. 

Yes, maybe eating a sandwich and chips everyday is not the perfect balanced healthy lunch, however, it is a big improvement on a fast food meal. It is better quality food with less processing and calories. It's not perfect, but it's better. Maybe after the habit of bringing a sandwich from home is established, he would be really and willing to upgrade his choices. Just a little bit better. Inch forward slowly.

He didn't need to overhaul his lunch routine with Sunday night meal prep of perfectly balanced macronutrients, because that would likely be too overwhelming and he ultimately wouldn't do it. Making a sandwich, trying to choose healthier components (whole wheat bread, natural meats, vegetables, etc.) is the first step. After the habit is established, maybe he can ask himself again, "How can I make this a little bit better?" Maybe he could replace the sandwich with a salad or the chips with fruit...when's he ready. 

"How can I make this a little bit better?" is the solution to the all-or-nothing mindset. Forget perfect. Work on just a little bit better. Maybe it's portion size. Maybe it's food quality. Maybe it's food selection. There are always ways to make it just a little bit better. 

And just so you don't get too hard on yourself when you are not perfect (news flash: no one is), just for fun, look at the foods you are eating and ask yourself, "What would make this a little bit worse?" It's about perspective. I'm not saying to act on the worse version, just think about what it would look like.

If you are mindful of your choices, try to choose healthy options when they are available and look for ways to make small improvements in all your choices, you'll be well on your way to a healthy body and mind.

Need help with your nutrition strategy? Tired of dieting? Want help developing healthy habits while staying sane and balanced? My nutrition and lifestyle coaching program begins in June, get on the list for a big pre-sale discount. 

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