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It’s 3pm and I am HANGRY for my snack. I count out precisely 9 almonds. Not 8. Not 10. Exactly 9 almonds- because my diet said so. Have you ever eaten 12 baby carrots? Or 1 teaspoon of nut butter. Popular diets tend to enforce strict guidelines that don’t have a ton of flex for real life. Can you imagine feeling like a failure because you ate 14 baby carrots? I can and I have!
So, if you have been on a diet, just about any diet, there is no wonder why you may feel a little black-and-white or pass-or-fail about your food choices. When a great day is dissolved by one infraction, you may be a “diet perfectionist”! Not to worry…
In this post, I will give you a few examples of this mindset, so you can see where you stand. Then we will talk about why this tendency may exist in your life And, I’ll send you away with some super-practical tips that you can put into practice right away.
DIETARY PERFECTIONISM IN ACTION
Have you ever found yourself in a similar scenario:
It’s lunchtime and you are meeting a friend for lunch at a local cafe. Earlier in the day, you had a nourishing breakfast and now you are set on ordering a salad, with an apple instead of bread, of course. Your order comes and there is a warm baguette perched between lettuce leaves. You shrug it off and determine not to eat it. But, as the conversation lasts beyond your bountiful salad, you start picking at the bread. Before you know it, it’s gone. Your diet day is ruined and you decide to eat “whatever you want” and start again tomorrow.
You are feeling great about your health and fitness efforts. You are getting stronger and your clothes are fitting better. It’s Monday morning, your weigh-in day, and you step on the scale. Much to your horror, you have gained weight. Ugh! This news crushes you and you spend the rest of the week veering off course because surely your hard work didn’t matter.
It was a hectic day and you hardly had any time to eat. (well, there was the banana you grabbed on your way out the door and you did manage to find a granola bar in the bottom of your purse) You pick the kids up from school and head home, famished. As soon as you walk through the front door, you make a beeline to the pantry. You eat more than you wish and now you are not hungry for dinner. Dinner time comes and you decide to eat anyway because you already”blew it”. And, the eating continues through the night.
Each of these situations shows how diet perfectionism can cause us to lose our senses. We all know that eating more than we had planned is not undone by eating even more. We know that progress takes time, that our efforts do matter, and that something is better than nothing.
Yet, perfectionism can throw off even the most logical mind, leading to less progress and lots of frustration. I call these diet side effects.
IT DOESN’T HAVE TO MAKE SENSE
Contrary to what you may assume, a way of thinking does NOT have to be logical to be personally meaningful. If you were bitten by a dog when you were young, you may fear all dogs. Even the sweetest of them all may cause you to cross the street.
In the same way, if you feel like eating imperfectly is a true infraction, then you will need to acknowledge the power of that mindset to work through your preconceived ideas to overcome them. We’ll look at three of the reasons we may hold onto such beliefs below.
3 REASONS WHY WE MAY STRIVE FOR PERFECTION
1. WE ARE TRYING TO BE “GOOD ENOUGH”
In the bigger picture of our lives, perfectionism can be a way that we look to prove that we are “good enough”, worthy and even loveable. Getting straight A’s or being the employee of the month is awesome, but when our value is determined by our acquisition of such things, we are standing on shaky ground. The same perspective can spill over into our food choices.
If we can just get our diet right, then we will finally lose weight and become the confident and popular person we have always wanted to be.
The truth is, we will never be “good enough” without the saving and sanctifying work of Jesus Christ on the cross. Our failures are expected by God and intended to point us to Christ as we praise Him for being the Perfection that we can never be.
2. IT’S AN EXCUSE TO DO WHAT WE REALLY WANT TO DO
Are you familiar with the popular children’s poetry book by Shel Silverstein, A Light in the Attic? In the poem “How Not to Have to Dry the Dishes”, a little girl purposefully drops plates on the floor, hoping that the dreaded chore will no longer be hers.
Much like this little girl, a perfectionistic attitude towards our diets can be an ideal excuse for going off the very diet we don’t want to be on in the first place. Now, this may not be a conscious thought process BUT, if the only time you are “allowed” to eat some of your favorite foods is when you break your diet- my friend, you ARE going to break your diet.
The truth is, we are always free to eat what we want to eat when we want to eat it. We have the freedom of choice. Using perfectionism as an excuse only shifts the “blame” and keeps us from acknowledging our choice to indulge.
3. WE WANT TO BE IN CONTROL OF SOMETHING… ANYTHING!
When life feels out of control it is only natural to try to take control of those things that are in close proximity to us. Food is within arm’s reach. We may subconsciously feel that if we can’t get our work, our family life, or our relationships just right, at least we can feel good about our food choices.
Or, maybe we believe that controlling our diet and reaching our weight loss goals will be the magic answer to finally fix all that is awry. If not, at least we tried.
The truth is, only God is in control. No matter how quickly our lives are spinning around us, our very existence is perched in and sustained by His hand. The Bible tells us that nothing can happen without the Lord’s permission (Lamentations 3:37). Our attempts at control will only exhaust our ever depleting energy.
BUT, I THOUGHT AIMING FOR PERFECTION WAS… PERFECT!
You may be thinking that if at least you try to follow your diet perfectly, your chances of success will be higher. As the saying goes: “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss you will land among the stars”. Unfortunately, for most dieters, the expectation is ONLY to land on the moon. Skim any diet book and you will see what I mean.
Trying to nail a “perfect” diet is a recipe for food stress, rebound overeating, and ultimately weight gain. This is because setting unrealistic expectations that are inflexible never works– especially when it comes to something as necessary, daily, and emotional as food.
When inevitable mishaps are met with frustration-eating rather than constructive learning, the cycle never ends. There is a better way.
WHAT TO DO INSTEAD
If you are beginning to see diet perfectionism as detrimental, I bet you are wondering what to do next. You are probably pretty aware that you can’t just flip a switch to change your mindset. Yes, it will take time but there are a few shortcuts you can take!
- Keep your eyes and ears open for diet perfectionism. In your daily life, put on your detective’s hat and become keenly aware of all the times that the perfectionistic voice slips into your thinking. Sometimes it will be obvious; often it will be sneaky-sneaky.
- When you notice the diet perfectionism voice and behaviors, don’t try to stop them. You heard me right. Just like a diet that bans bananas makes you crave bananas like a crazy woman, trying to stop a perfectionistic diet mindset will only make it more sticky. Simply notice what’s happening and observe it, as if you were watching the scene play out on a movie screen.
- Gently move your mind to your new truth. If you no longer believe that eating one cookie is a reason to eat 12, rehearse your reasons why. Make a case and use this opportunity to encourage yourself to make a better choice.
- Reset your behaviors. Diet perfectionism tells us that tomorrow, Monday, or New Year’s is the best time to restart. However, if you no longer believe that it’s all-or-nothing then you can restart any hour, any minute, or any bite. Put the past in the past and move into the now. The only time we can actually modify our behavior.
Example: It’s 3pm and you just ate half of a leftover donut in the office breakroom. It was a stressful day and the afternoon slump had left you with your guard down. As soon as the last bite of sugary sweetness crosses your lips you hear it- the diet perfectionism voices reprimands you for “ruining a good day”. It’s blown you think, you may as well grab some M&Ms from the vending machine. FREEZE.
You pause and you notice that voice. “Wow”, you think to yourself, “isn’t that interesting”. Just a few minutes ago you were set on honoring your hunger and fullness and now suddenly that idea is out the window because of 125 calories of a donut.
Something you read resonates through your mind and you are reminded that eating more won’t undo a small dietary detour. Surely, you want to eat more, but you really don’t want to keep stuck in this cycle.
You look at the clock, it’s 3:10pm and you start your day, fresh again!
As you can see, the pull to diet perfectionism is a strong one for those who have dieted in the past. When you went on your first diet you didn’t imagine yourself dealing with the consequences years later. Now you see it.
But, now you know better and now you can do something to change it once and for all by bringing in mindfulness and gentle redirection. Please be aware, it would be easy to get perfectionistic about not being a diet perfectionist. Don’t go there. Rather, let yourself slowly change your way of thinking, for good.
This is the way of permanent change.
You may also enjoy reading: Are your automatic thoughts sabotaging your healthy life? at So Very Blessed.