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Why diet isn't a binary system

Updated: Dec 30, 2022

Have you ever heard the phrase, “I’m on a diet right now”? Or how about, “I’m off my diet this week”? Maybe, “I’ll get back on the diet tomorrow”? Of course you have. These phrases are said all the time. When we break these phrases down, all they are really saying is that diets only have two options: on or off. But is it really this simple? Of course not.

Nutritional strategies or plans aren’t an on or off switch, there is a wide variety of actions that we can choose to take. If your goal is weight loss, it is difficult to argue that eating 2 cookies over your daily calorie target is the same as eating 20 cookies over your calorie target. These actions are clearly different, and therefore have a variant effect on your success. To further demonstrate the flaw of an all or nothing mentality, let’s consider a more extreme example. In this situation you are driving your car through a crowded parking lot. As you turn a corner you catch a protruding trailer hitch, leaving a small scratch mark on your door. You then proceed to the nearest gas station, where you fill up four canisters of gasoline. Next you drive to a nearby farmers field, step out of your car, douse your car in gasoline and then throw up a match. You jump backward, narrowly avoiding the explosion. This is the mania of all or nothing thinking. Just because one thing goes wrong, doesn’t mean you burn the whole plan (or car) to the ground.

Getting back to the topic of nutrition, it is far more realistic, and helpful, to view nutrition on a scale. In this post we will use a scale from 1-100, just to provide a clear example of how this system can be applied. 1 will represent a series of actions that significantly detract from your intended outcomes or goals. A day/week rated as a 1 would only include actions that considerably take away from your success, with no possible way you could have done anything more counterproductive. 100 will represent a series of actions that moves you toward your goals at the fastest rate possible. A day/week rated as a 100 would indicate that you performed every detail perfectly.

The fantastic part about a system that uses a scale, is that it allows for progress at numbers other than 1 or 100. To make progress you don’t need to be perfect. Many people will get caught in a trap of thinking that they need to be at 100 to make progress. This type of thinking leads to heavy restriction, followed by binge eating. As soon as you vary slightly off the plan you start to think, “oh well I already messed up, I might as well eat/drink even more and get it out of my system”. However, if you think of eating and fitness as things that can be done either better or worse, you avoid this mentality. You can probably still make progress even if your week was only a 60. Maybe a few things went differently than you planned; maybe you had to cut a couple walks short and you ate slightly more than normal on a few days. There is no need to consider the whole week a loss and binge eat. Instead, simply view the week for what it was. It could have gone better, but so could most weeks. Some days may be 90s and other days may be 50s, but that’s ok. Small progress adds up to significant results over time, and that is what counts in the long-run.

Implementing a non-binary way of thinking about nutrition isn’t easy, but it is worth the effort. The key to changing your mentality, like many other skills, is constant practice. Try to catch yourself thinking in absolutes. When something strays from your plan and you begin burning the plan, stop and take a couple of breaths before acting. Ask yourself how much the previous deviation really impacted your long-term success. Ask yourself whether doing this next action is going to increase, or decrease, your score. Ask yourself if this next action is really something you want to do, or is it just a momentary impulse. An even better option is to actually write your thoughts down. This can be done on a notepad or note app on your phone. Simply getting your thoughts on paper will help you clarify your thinking and understand what is driving you in that moment. From this neutral position, you can plan your follow-up actions while thinking rationally and objectively. You have effectively diffused the bomb, of all or nothing thinking, and can now keep making consistent progress toward your goals. You have stopped an 80 from becoming a 30, and that is a tremendous success. Congratulate yourself when you avoid these traps and you will reinforce a much more nuanced and productive way of thinking. Please don’t forget this final step: recognizing your successes is incredibly important in the process of establishing behaviours. Write down these successes, tell them to a close friend or family member, or at least tell yourself that you did well.

Once you have adopted, and mastered, a scale-based way of thinking, weight loss and weight maintenance will become far less stressful. You will know how to make consistent progress and won’t have to worry about losing control over your eating behaviours. You will be able to eat desserts, and other tasty foods, in moderation without worrying about these events turning into a binge. By regaining control over your actions you will transform phrases like, “I’ll get back on the diet tomorrow” into, “I’m going to do the best I can today” and, “I’m off my diet this week” into, “I can eat some foods I enjoy while still making progress”. The Voltaire quote, “The best is the enemy of the good”, sums up the sentiment of this idea well. Don’t get caught up in the allure of perfection because it’s importance is over-inflated. Instead, aim for good and repeat that as often as possible. Big changes come from constant good, not from short bursts of perfect.

Connor Crouse, PN1, PTS

Head Nutrition Coach

KPCC Coaching

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