- All or nothing thinking: This is the “perfect diet” trap – the “I’m either on a diet or I’m off a diet”. Perfection can lead to disordered eating or even a full-blown eating disorder. No one can maintain this kind of perfection. When you try to be perfect, you invariably mess up and “go off” your diet and feel bad about yourself. When you feel bad about yourself, you eat more. Do you see the cycle here? People with binge eating disorder and bulimia often started out as extreme dieters.
- Dichotomous Thinking: This is the “good food, bad food trap”. No one food is going to kill you. Nor is any one food going to cure you. There are no magic foods and there are no evil foods. Of course some foods are healthier than others. And there are certainly foods you should limit. But barring a medical condition, no one food is unsafe in any amount. Sadly, even some pretty smart scientists have fallen into this trap – labeling sugar toxic or red meat a killer. It’s ridiculous – and it can be a dangerous precursor to binge eating.
- The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: If I eat one bite, I’ll eat the whole bag. I’ve had many clients fall into this trap. Many years ago, I had a client who came to me because her diet wasn’t working. Her diet forbade anything with sugar in it. She told me that one day she ate one Oreo cookie and then ate the whole bag. I asked her what she said to herself after eating that one cookie. She said: “I felt that eating that one cookie blew my whole diet, that I was a failure, and that I might as well just eat that whole bag”. One Oreo cookie has 40 calories. It doesn’t blow your whole diet. It’s fine, really. Eventually she learned that she could “eat just one” - and that one cookie doesn’t blow your whole diet.
- Including something you perceive as “bad” in your food choices every day. That’s right. Every. Day. Strive to be healthy but also strive for some imperfection. Don’t look at these foods as “treats” or “something special”. They should be normal parts of your diet in amounts that fit into your calorie needs.
- Stop saying and thinking “I can’t eat that” or “I shouldn’t eat that”. Replace that with “do I really want that?” and if you do, then “I’ll just eat a small amount of that”.
- Slow down and enjoy your food. Avoid eating on the run, in the car, or on the way to a meeting. That might lower your physical hunger, but it’s unlikely to satisfy the need to enjoy your food.
- Watch out for inaccurate self-talk. One cookie or even one or two days of overeating doesn’t ruin your healthy diet. If you do overeat one day, do strive to make better choices the next day. But don’t try to make up for that day by being overly restrictive. You could end up in a cycle of overeating/starvation – and that can lead to disordered eating.
Assistant Professor, Nutrition Sciences
University of Alabama at Birmingham