I received this email last week:
Recently I lost like over 20kg (sorry I still live in the metric world). I have done it with the all or nothing approach. I kept my diet clean of all sugar and high/bad carbs for 6 months… then slipped one time. The slip turned into a full blown binge day. I literary ate everything I didn’t eat for 6 months. Then I gathered myself again, back on the all or nothing eating manner. Then another binge eating day striked, and it is really bad because you eat like no one is watching (which is true… hahaha) until you feel so full you can’t even walk.
My question is: how do you break this binge eating cycle. To know it is okay to eat a slice of cheesecake and not eat the whole house after that? How to get into a healthy relationship with food and not let it dictate everything you do? Because in the end you have to eat to live and not live to eat.
How common is this? I could have written this exact email 6 years ago.
In psychology research, this mental trap—where we make one single slipup mean we are now just “off” and might as well go all the way—is called The What-the-Hell Effect.
You can understand why, right? We indulge in some non-perfect food and then throw our hands up and say, “What the hell! Might as well keep going!”
While this way of thinking is certainly normal—I still find myself falling into this trap at times—not only does it keep us struggling but it actually makes zero sense for results.
Making one poor choice and then saying, “Screw it!” and eating with abandon is like getting a crack in your smartphone screen and then just saying, welp, might as well throw the whole phone on the ground and stomp it.
Why does one single perceived “slip up” take us immediately out of our power and mentally into the land of no returns?
This is fascinating to me, and over the last 5 years, I’ve spent thousands of hours thinking, writing and working with clients to uncover exactly what’s going on, and the tools necessary to turn around our thinking so that we can stop binging and start seeing that every little bit truly does count.
Here’s how to learn to stop eating something at few bites and quit the all-or-nothing mindset:
1) Understand that this is a control issue.
High level, when we think about “perfect eating” what we are really saying is, so long as I eat the right foods, I am in control. And as soon as I eat anything “off plan” it means I am now out of control so why even bother?
When we use food as a control mechanism, anything less than perfect doesn’t feel good enough. It’s nutritionally throwing the baby out with the bathwater. And it doesn’t make any sense.
If control and trust are opposites, then the tool here is trust. TRUST that a single slipup doesn’t make or break your physique. TRUST that you can literally get right back to your healthy eating at your next meal and not all is lost. TRUST that success is not a matter of perfection, but a matter of consistency. TRUST that food is abundant and you don’t have to eat everything right this second. And TRUST in yourself that you can handle whatever the fallout. That you are strong, resilient, tenacious and with the power to move on quickly.
Ask, what would happen if I didn’t eat perfect ever again? Would I be okay? Could I see a scenario where I end up eating better on the whole because I am not swinging from one extreme to the other? Could I see non-perfect eating as a compliance tool??
Control is an illusion and when it comes to nutrition, your body and your process, there is no such thing.
2) Stop ‘Food Policing.’
In recent research, it was found that labeling some foods “good” and others “bad” actually makes us eat worse. To many of us, that’s hardly a surprise. I mean, putting something on the “do not eat” list immediately increases anticipation and mental fixation on that food. So of course we are going to feel deprived, and cravings increase.
This kind of villainizing of certain foods creates teams where you can only be “Good Jill” when you are eating the right foods and you become “Bad Jill” when eating the foods that are off-limits. It’s this very mental setup that perpetuates an extreme approach—there can be no in-between when things are so black-and-white. It’s no wonder we feel like we’re a failure whether it’s a single slipup or days’ worth of binging. We are mentally predisposed to assessing both scenarios with the same amount of disdain and disappointment: a failure is a failure is a failure. If we aren’t able to achieve this single lofty goal of “perfect eating,” then we might as well not even try even a little bit.
Which is all just not true. When it comes to your results, the journey is a million shades of grey.
3) Ask, “What would I be missing out on if I didn’t continue to binge?”
I have a friend who, whenever we go out to a club or socializing and we’re drinking alcohol, always comes home (even if it’s 2am) and pours another drink. She doesn’t want the party to end. While we laugh about it and it’s a joke between us, I can’t help investigate the underlying need to KEEP GOING. While continuing to eat and overindulge is tempting, why do we continue when we don’t really need it anymore?
The key here is your mindset—actualizing mentally, the very real truth that every little bit does truly count. Why keep drinking? Why keep eating? We rationally know it’s not helping us with our goals. So how do you halt that voice that wants to just go all the way?
Well, I have women to email me all the time and say, “Once I start indulging, I find that I just don’t care anymore and so I keep going.”
This is a toughie, because unfortunately the tool here is to precisely to care … but just a little.
Care that tiny bit in the moment, juuuuust enough to go to bed, put away that bag of chips, ask for the bill instead of the dessert menu, turn down the breadbasket when asked, and make a protein shake after dinner when all you want to do is keep eating Oreos.
Harnessing that teensy bit of care in the moment is … mindfulness. And more specifically, a practice in surfing disappointment.
Think about it: if you don’t keep eating, if you don’t keep drinking, what are you missing out on? It’s some need to “have the full experience” that keeps us going. And when we halt that full experience, it’s kind of a let-down, a metaphorical party pooper.
But here’s the thing to remember in the moment (which is why this is a mindfulness practice): when was the last time you went all in and felt amazing afterwards? Or better yet, how about those times you did close down shop early or you did skip the dessert or you did stop after 2 drinks? You probably had to surf about 2 minutes’ worth of disappointment and then later felt awesome and empowered.
Yes, this is tough, but mindfulness is a biggie when it comes to being able to taste anything without having to completely devour it. Here’s how I practice mindfulness.
4) Overindulging feels really good … at first.
Back when I was depriving and then binging week after week, I’d kind of get this sick rush of relief when I started eating anything I wanted. It was like permission to finally eat all the this that I had been wanting to eat, but trying so desperately to white-knuckle myself through.
So when I started eating everything I wanted, it was in some ways euphoric. It was a release. It was a dopamine hit, fueled by the need to mentally “relax” with food and the desire for instant gratification.
So how do you prevent that? Or rather, how do you not get to the point that overindulging feels like the only option?
I’ve written on it many times before, but you cannot wait to the point of complete deprivation. Taking the edge off sooner with preemptive cheats and small shows of nutritional satisfaction help us smooth out the highs and lows in our eating, so that we never reach the point of feeling like we need to go all-in, naturally.
Yes, it’s a practice. Yes, it takes time. A long time! But it’s not impossible, if you just have the courage to try a more moderate route.
Which bring me to …
5) Navigate the middle every time you sit down to eat.
Find a way to feel satisfied now so that you prevent or even eliminate altogether the compulsion to binge later. When you practice #moderation365, you smooth out the highs and lows in your nutritional choices, and there are never any “on” times or “off” times, there are just times. There is just food. You are just “onf.” Always. Satisfaction is the key here.
The more restricted you feel, the more likely you are to overindulge later. The gal who emailed me made it 6 months. I’d normally make it 12 weeks as I was prepping for a show. Now I couldn’t make it more than 1 day!
Perfect eating is overrated. It’s an illusion. It’s an excuse to keep feeling bad about yourself. Perfect eating is bullshit.
And guess what? Being a little less perfect makes you a lot more compliant. Choose consistency over perfection and you’ll be amazed at just how long you’ll be able to hold on, ahem … 365 days a year, forever.
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