Cultivating a healthy mindset is crucial to achieving your health goals – whether that’s weight loss or simply cultivating longevity. When it feels like you’ve done everything under the sun and tried all of the fad diets, trends, workouts, and even a few crazy cleanses and you’re still not reaching your health goals, it might be time to take a look at the mindset with which you approach each of these new attempts. In this article, we’ll delve into the top 3 reasons I have found that are keeping patients stuck in a frustrating cycle of lose a little, gain it back, plateau, lose a lot, plateau, gain more, etc…
“All or nothing”…usually results in nothing
All or nothing thinking, or black and white thinking, is when you set up restrictions on your diet or health-behaviors that leave no room for anything but perfection or failure. You’re either eating perfectly all of the time, or you veer off track once then dive head first into a binge because “what’s the point, I’ve already messed up?”. It’s strictly either fasting for 18 hours and steamed broccoli and chicken breast for every meal OR 3 cookies, an extra helping of casserole, and everything smothered in gravy for breakfast, lunch, second lunch and dinner. It’s 100% or 0%.
This rigidity in your thinking creates an emotional rollercoaster ride that often results in constant stress on your mind and body. When you feel like you’re “on track” and strictly following your plan, you may experience a sense of control, achievement, and even euphoria. However, when you deviate even slightly from the plan, you may feel intense guilt, shame, or disappointment. This emotional turmoil can lead to unhealthy relationships with food, negative self-image, and even binge-eating behaviors, which can further hinder weight loss progress.
Interestingly, all or nothing thinking also conveniently gives you an “easy-out” because it sets up inherently unrealistic expectations that you know you won’t be able to achieve. No one eats perfectly 100% of the time, so by that measure, you might as well indulge when you want because there’s no way you can adhere to the strict rules you’ve set for yourself, anyway. Tricky little brain!
The Fix: FLEXIBILITY
While you might think that flexibility in your diet as just another word for “falling off the wagon” and a recipe for gaining weight, I often find that it is the opposite with most patients. Binge-type eating and cheat meals that set you back, are the result of restricting your diet so much that you feel out of control when presented with the slightest temptation.
The trick to building flexibility into your food habits is differentiating between restricting your diet and having adaptable food choices. Restricting usually puts things into one of two categories: good/right and bad/wrong. When you categorize food like this and try to regulate your eating based on strict rules, you start to associate those terms with yourself: “When I am good, I eat the right foods. When I am bad, I eat the wrong foods.” Did that feel as deflating for you to read as it was for me to write? Liberate yourself from this rigidity once and for all. You can be disciplined by ensuring you have healthful snack options available at work and you can have flexibility and adapt by enjoying a homemade dessert to celebrate a co-workers birthday once in a while. Neither of those choices are good or bad, they are just a food choice, period.
This approach allows you to develop resilience, empowerment, and self-compassion, which are vital for navigating the ups and downs of a weight loss journey and maintaining healthy habits over time.
You “Treat Yourself”…every weekend
How many times have you said one or more of the following:
- “My daughter’s birthday is this weekend, so I’m just going to start over on Monday.”
- “My best friend is getting married in two weeks, so I’ll start my ’30 days of no alcohol’ next month.”
- “I already ate a candy bar this morning because I was running late and starving and my boss is a jerk and the kids didn’t get up in time and I spilled my coffee…so I’ll start tomorrow.”
We treat our health as if it is something we need to take a break from. Take this for example: “I’m taking the holidays off” – as if your health is a 9-5 job with two months of PTO that doesn’t roll over in the new year, so you better use it or lose it! Bad news: You have to pay all that PTO back in January and potentially over the rest of your life.
The reality is: there will never be a perfect year where you have absolutely no celebrations, nothing unexpected comes up, you have infinite time to meal plan, and you have 100% motivation for a full 365 days.
The Fix: BALANCE
“Balance” does not equal a strict “calories in/calories out” plan during the week, followed by an excessive “cheat day” then starving yourself on Monday. First, let’s get rid of the phrase “cheat day” because it already has a negative connotation. You associate anything you have on a cheat day as “bad” or indulgent. I have friends who teach their kids different ways of thinking about food, such as occasionally putting dessert items on the plate right along side their chicken and green beans. This removes the idea of them being super indulgent and they learn their own way of balancing “sometimes food” and “growing food.”
Some people find the 80/20 rule to be a good way to balance their health goal intentions with reality. However, the trick to this is not defaulting to the weekends always being your “20%”. I like to call this Monday Dieting: you do well all week and then binge on the weekends and get back on track on Mondays.
If you find this ratio-style thinking a helpful way to find balance, try applying the 20% to the birthday party at work, the dinner out with friends, or the late night at your kid’s baseball game, rather than every Saturday night.
A better way to approach 80/20 balanced living is to think in averages and general trends. This is more than just one week at a time; think week over week, month over month, and year over year. Are you overall trending toward meeting your goal this month? When you reflect on the last 5 years of your life, what is your average success with maintaining good health?
Get yourself out of the mindset of thinking that a single dish or single day will undo an entire week, month, year or lifetime of effort. AND remember that you didn’t get to your current state overnight, so it’s not going to change overnight.
You’re giving your brain confusing instructions
Your unconscious mind is like a 7 year old – you have to give it very clear directions and it will always take you very literally. Here are a few words that confuse your brain when it comes to giving direction: tomorrow, not, won’t, shouldn’t. Let me explain.
When you say “I’ll start tomorrow,” you’ve put the energy into the literal meaning of tomorrow, which is not and never will be today. Tomorrow never comes…so, when will you do it? Your brain can only act upon things right now or in the very immediate future (usually based on momentum). If it’s Thursday and you have an event Friday and you are going to “get back on track” on Monday, there’s a whole lot of dead-space in between now and then where your energy floats away. You are having to literally start all over each time you think this way.
Now, how about negated statements like: “I’m not going to eat cake at the party.” “I won’t skip my workout tomorrow morning.” “I shouldn’t finish this whole pint.” Let’s try this: If I say, “Don’t imagine your favorite childhood pet in a tie-dye sweater sipping a cup of tea right in front of you.” I’ve given you directions that make no sense to your brain because do not is contradictory and I’ve also given you all of the pieces to visualize. Your brain behaves just as I directed you to picture that scene. Apply that concept to the previous sentences and your mind is going to behave as if you said eat the cake, skip the workout, and finish the ice cream.
The Fix: BE INTENTIONAL
The benefits of being intentional goes beyond just your health goals but it is a great place to start. Going back to the tomorrow example, switch to putting your efforts and energy into what you are doing today, rather than what you plan to do later. Recognize that planning is important – but don’t rely on a perfectly executed week of meal prepping to determine your success. Focus your intention on the choices you make each day and right now. This means that you can still succeed even if something comes up on Sunday and you aren’t able to prep your meals. Think of your health and goals on a continuum rather than “starting over” each week or each time you enjoy a dessert. Set yourself up for success by having good options available and adapt and choose the best option you can when things come up.
When it comes to being intentional and direct with your mindset, get in the habit of phrasing things in the form of what you do want and are doing, rather than what you don’t want and aren’t going to do. Here’s an example: instead of “I’m not going to eat XYZ at the party,” try: “I’m going to eat a filling meal right now so I can make better food choices at the event tonight.”
This shift in mindset takes practice, so be patient with yourself.
Putting it all together
Flexibility, balance, and intention are key to not only reaching your health goals, but also to maintaining them. So often, we focus so much energy on achieving the one goal that we never think about what comes next – this is the exact reason why quick fixes and pills don’t last (and often set people back even farther when they come off of them). They skip the foundational change in mindset that is crucial to sustaining lifelong health and wellness.
If you’re someone who has “tried everything” and are still struggling to meet your weight loss or other health goals, it might be time to dig a little deeper than surface level symptoms. Finding a health and wellness coach that isn’t just about the numbers, can make all the difference in the world. You don’t have to be miserable or do it on your own! Learn more about our holistic approach to treating the whole patient and getting to the root cause of your health concerns.