How to Quit the “all or nothing” approach to eating

Over the last 13+ years as a personal trainer and more recently nutritionist, i have heard hundreds of struggles that clients experience with their nutrition, examples are:

  • Obsessive counting & measuring: macros, calories, protein, grams, water, points, minutes on cardio equipment.
  • A mental preoccupation with eating & food:When will my next meal be? How much more time until I can eat? Am I getting enough protein? Is this too many carbs? What if I get hungry later? What will they be serving at this event? What if I don’t have “my food?” What if I eat too much? What if I can’t control myself?”
  • Urgency & scarcity:Will there be enough? I should just eat it all right now because it will be off-limits when I start my diet. What if I never get to have this thing again? I should do extra cardio in anticipation of the eating I’m going to do this weekend. This might be my last chance to eat this. I should just hurry up and finish the whole thing just to get it out of my way.”
  • Fear of gaining weight & what that might mean about them: If I accept myself as I am or 5kg heavier, that means I am fat, weak, lazy and undisciplined. I am no good. I need to control my eating and exercising completely because if I don’t, the wheels will come off the wagon and I won’t be able to stop myself!

I understand because I see my old self in all of these scenarios, too.

Thinking about food and exercise used to feel like a full-time job to me. Never mind the actual time it took to prep food, hit the gym, eat 5-6 times a day, etc. If I wasn’t engaging in eating and training, I was thinking about it.

I finally got so exhausted, miserable and fed up with “dieting” that I vowed to figure out how to eat healthy forever.

And over the next 2-3 years, I moved from someone who only operated in “on” or “off” mode to someone who embraced “onf” all the time and ate moderately 365 days a year. The same on Saturday as on Monday. The same on holidays as non-holidays.

And I want to share my journey with you.

There are two questions I get asked most often on the topic of “moderation/flexible dieting”:

  • I want to learn to eat moderately, but I am so scared because what if I gain weight? When I’m counting and measuring, I feel in control and I’m terrified of losing control.
  • How do you do it? It feels impossible. How do you even start?

So, I thought I would share some big actions that helped me move from all-or-nothing to moderation: how I did it and how you can, too.

Firstly, I was terrified.

The idea of never having a time when I would diet again meant that the times I could “let loose” and “relax” with food and eat anything I wanted were also over. See, when you eat with an all-or-nothing approach, it’s the times you know you are going to start a diet again that mentally allow you to have times when you can eat whatever you want. This is why we feel urgency to eat all we can on Sundays, as the fun of the weekend is winding down. The impending “Monday morning” is looming. So we eat.

The dieting times fuel the binging times, and vice versa.

You feel the freedom to eat to your heart’s desire with the safety of knowing that you will start a diet again soon.

It’s thing Ping-Pong effect that becomes habit, until we don’t even understand the concept of eating the same thing on Monday that we do on Saturday. Trying to eat moderately every day feels impossible. The key, and the thing that people miss is that … you reach a point that you actually don’t want or need to. You naturally don’t feel that inclination anymore precisely because you have been working on reducing those times of deprivation.

Remember, preventing a binge starts much earlier than the second you are in the pantry ready to go nutso.

Preventing a binge starts with removing feelings of deprivation because those are the feelings that lead to overindulging later, whether it’s this weekend, next month or in 12 weeks after you’ve finished a “bikini body blitz”

And so, I garnered a little bit of courage and asked myself, “What’s the worst that can happen? I try this more moderate way of doing things, and allowing myself some things that would normally not be “on plan,” and … I gain weight. Okay, what would I do then? I mean, the old way of 2 hours of cardio and going back on a diet will always be there, so … I could just do that if I started to feel out of control, right?”

Obviously that’s not ideal, but when I gave myself mental permission to have an out (i.e. the old way), it allowed me the freedom to try a more moderate approach. It offered the control that I was scared I was giving up.

And so I started slowly incorporating non-diet foods into my day. Things like cheese, chocolate, mayo, nuts and a glass of wine with dinner. It still felt very much controlled. It was like “controlled cheating.” But I was doing it daily.

And over the course of months, something magical happened: my physiology started changing.

Meaning, I started to naturally feel less inclined to want more sweets or feel the compulsion to eat more, because the preemptive cheats were doing their job! They were taking the edge off!

So not only was I mentally feeling more satisfied, but my body was catching up and the huge cravings and hunger I used to feel slowly started to dissipate. I KNOW THAT’S HARD TO BELIEVE! Ha! I literally couldn’t even believe it when it was happening to me. I remember laughing and saying, “Oh, THIS is what it feels like to not be starving all the time!” Because prior to that, I would have said I had the largest appetite of anyone.

I trusted the process, and it started showing up for me.

Did I gain weight? Yes, I gained about 4-5kg over 6 months and then stabilized. But what a tiny price to pay for the mental relief of not feeling controlled by food every second! Since then i have been able to lose that gained weight just through smart exercise, eating to my own hunger and satiety cues.

Also remember: eating 80% healthy 7 days a week will ALWAYS beat 4 days 100% tight, followed by 3 days of binging–in both sanity and actual results.

So since then, I have worked different preemptive cheats into my eating routine —and I’m not scared of having bites of anything when I want them. Feeling like I want a bite of a sweet isn’t scary, I just take one. And it’s precisely because I allow myself that bite (or two) that later on, I am not craving even more.

Think about it. It’s the times we try to prevent and white-knuckle and deprive and put things on the do-not-eat list that the cravings for them become unbearable, and we end up eating way more than we might have if we had just tasted what is was we wanted in the first place, then moved on.

Restriction is not kind.

And preventing feelings of deprivation is the main strategy in preventing a bigger/worse overindulgence later. So the tool is not to just “try harder to resist” but instead to preempt your cravings earlier so that later on, you’re just good.

Resisting is not a strategy. It’s a Band-Aid.

Get preemptive. Get mindful. Get moderate. And watch as your urgency, scarcity and obsessiveness around food dissipates over time. A few strategies to try:

  • freely share your food more
  • remind yourself that food is available to you at any time
  • don’t force yourself to eat because “it’s time”
  • stop getting scared of being hungry, these cues allow you to navigate your physical sensations: hunger, cravings, energy balance
  • pick 1-3 daily nutritional commitments and just do those
  • realise that your physique is not made, or broken in a day, a week or even a month
  • take 1-3 bites of something, be mindful and stop if you are satisfied

Remember, this takes time and patience! You have to be consistent (not consistently perfect!). Strap in for the long haul, learn to enjoy the process through being investigative and getting to know yourself for ones. Garner that little bit of courage and learn to trust yourself around any food, any time. THAT is the ultimate in control!

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