Why an All-or-Nothing Approach to Healthy Living Isn’t Actually Good for You

In a perfect world, you'd have unbreakable willpower. Maybe that means you'd eat lean protein and veggies at every meal, hit the gym every day of the year and never crave a chocolate bar.

Is your mindset actually hurting your healthy progress? (Image: Liderina/iStock/GettyImages)

But life happens. Most days you won't have the time to whip up a perfectly healthy dinner or work up a sweat for an hour — and that's okay. What's not? Living by unattainable, perfectionist standards that set you up to fail and feel miserable.

Unfortunately, a lot of people think that they need to be "all in, all the time" when it comes to healthy eating and exercise. But going hard 24/7 isn't exactly sustainable and inevitably leads to an unhealthy, unbalanced lifestyle. When we can't maintain perfection, we often experience a pendulum effect — swinging back and forth between extremes.

It's a vicious cycle. Here, experts explain the six downsides of an all-or-nothing mentality and offer healthier approaches to exercise, eating and weight loss.

1. You Binge

You might think eating 100 percent lean and clean all the time is the gold standard of a healthy lifestyle. Unless you're superhuman, you can't maintain a "perfect" diet 365 days of the year. However, the more you restrict yourself, the greater the possibility you'll cave and abandon all self-control the next time you pass the cookie aisle at Whole Foods.

When you deprive yourself of foods you enjoy, you're bound to experience intense cravings which ultimately lead to unhealthy bingeing, says Michelle Gray, associate professor and director of the Exercise Science Research Center at the University of Arkansas.

Some people even schedule weekly cheat days, giving themselves permission to eat whatever they want on that day. These individuals almost always overdo it, says Gray. Then come the feelings of regret, shame and failure — not to mention a bloated, upset tummy.

The key to healthy, sustainable eating is balance. Find your middle ground, and learn how to eat to best suit your physical and emotional needs, says registered dietitian Bonnie Taub-Dix, author of Read It Before You Eat It: Taking You from Label to Table. "A diet that lasts throughout your life should include your favorite foods and help you connect with the sensations of hunger and fullness," she says.

Have a hankering for cheese? Sprinkle some Swiss on your eggs. Sweet tooth? Munch on a few squares of dark chocolate for dessert. When you feel satisfied with what you eat on the regular, you won't feel the need to devour a pound of cheese or fudge come the weekend.

2. You Give Up More Often

Despite good intentions, many will occasionally veer away from health and fitness goals. Falling off the diet or exercise wagon now and then is normal, and what matters is how you respond to your lapse.

If you have an all-or-nothing mentality, a minor setback can likely throw you off course entirely, says Gray. A psychological concept called the abstinence violation effect (AVE) may help explain why, says Jonathan Fader, sports psychologist and director of performance coaching at SportStrata. Also known as the "Screw it Effect," the AVE deals with how you recover when you stray from a goal.

For example: If you promise to abstain from something (like chocolate for an entire month) and then violate your own rule, will you shake it off and get right back on track, or give up and stuff your face with cake every day? According to Fader, if you live by an all-or-nothing mindset, you're more likely to throw in the towel when you don't succeed.

So how can you change this perfectionist mentality? Learn to navigate less-than-ideal situations. Don't order fast food just because you don't have the perfect ingredients in your cupboard, doing your best to make the best decisions you can with what's available.

Also: Be realistic. When it comes to working out, choose reasonable goals that are manageable, says Fader. If you don't have an hour to exercise, incorporate more activity throughout your day. Take the stairs instead of the elevator and squeeze in a quick, brisk walk during your lunch break. When in doubt, remember that something is always better than nothing.

3. You Punish Yourself

If you follow a strict diet all week, you may feel like you've earned a reward once the weekend rolls around. The problem? The flip side. When you eat in a way you perceive as "bad," you might feel guilt, shame and the need to punish yourself.

For a person with an all-or-nothing approach to food, there's no room for error: Either your food choices deserve a pat on the back or a slap on the wrist.

"Often when someone strays from a diet plan, they might deprive themselves even further," says Taub-Dix, explaining that people penalize themselves by restricting calories, over-exercising or skipping meals. This perpetuates the same damaging cycle of over-restricting and overindulging.

To break the pattern, stop beating yourself up for coming up short. You're human, not a robot who's programmed to eat perfectly all the time. "A diet is not something you can turn on and off like a lightbulb," says Taub-Dix. "Some days you might eat more healthfully than others, and it's important to accept that so you don't get caught up in negative self-talk and disappointment."

4. It Takes a Toll On Your Health

With all the ups and downs that come with an all-or-nothing mentality, you might feel like you're on a rollercoaster. This yo-yo syndrome (often referred to as weight cycling) can wreak havoc on you emotionally and physically according to Taub-Dix.

"When you lose weight during restrictive periods, you lose fat and muscle, but when you gain weight back during overeating phases, you mostly gain fat," she says, adding this cycle makes it even harder to drop pounds over time.

It also has serious longterm repercussions. According to a March 2019 study published in the_ Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism_, weight cycling is associated with a higher risk of death. For women, yo-yo dieting could even increase the risk of heart disease, according the American Heart Association.

5. You Can Hurt Yourself

Do you feel the need to exercise seven days a week and work out for hours at a time? Overdoing it at the gym is another sign of an all-or-nothing mentality. If you're extreme when it comes to exercising, you might be one sweat sesh away from injuring yourself.

"A lot of times people push themselves too hard in the short term with a grandiose or huge goal, and it results in injury," says Fader.

Localized pain, swelling and inflammation are common symptoms of over-exercise, says Gray, adding that repeated stress over time to the body will take its toll. "Long-term overuse injuries can manifest themselves in the bones (like a stress fracture), muscles, tendons and ligaments."

Needless to say, over-exercising is 100 percent damaging and counterproductive. In order to prevent injury, you need adequate rest, says Gray. Your body requires time to repair and recharge.

Whether your goal is to lose weight or build lean muscle, you don't need to push your body to the extremes to make real progress. Think of working out like compound interest, says Fader. Every little bit adds up and accrues over time. If your consistent, even 15 to 20 minutes of moderate exercise daily can result in substantial gains.

6. Your Relationships Suffer

Another trap of an all-or-nothing approach to food and fitness: Your social life will take a hit. When you're obsessed with eating or exercising in a rigid way, you might unintentionally ostracize friends and family who don't subscribe to the same extreme lifestyle, says Taub-Dix.

Take this scenario: Your friends invite you to dinner, but you turn down the invitation because you can't miss the gym or the restaurant doesn't offer foods that jive with your diet. Whether you realize it or not, this line of thinking can isolate you from the people who care about you.

Relationships are just as important as diet and exercise. In fact, it's scientifically proven that friendships are good for your health. A January 2016 study published in PNAS compared people without social support to those with thriving relationships, and found that those with someone else to lean on had lower blood pressure, a smaller waist circumference, body mass index (BMI) and lower levels of inflammation.

The same study researchers found that social isolation had a similar effect on your body to lack of exercise. The takeaway? Don't skip out on fun with friends and family to suit your eating or exercise habits. A healthy social life is an essential part of maintaining a healthy mind and body.

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