Our Western society is prone to a dualistic mentality of looking at everything in its extremes (i.e. good or bad, right vs wrong, etc) which deeply affects most of our thought processes including what constitutes healthy behavior. As a fitness professional, I regularly see people who have an All or Nothing approach to their diet and exercise routines, which can be detrimental to sustainable healthy living patterns.
The language used to describe eating and exercise habits is reflective of this, with several words implying some form of moral judgement. For instance, many often label nutritious foods “good” and other foods (sometimes inaccurately) being labeled “bad”. Other words such as temptation, reward, cheating, permission, guilt, are all words that I often hear associated with a food or meal, usually followed by a client agonizing over a food choice and offering a justification for her behavior!
The same is true with exercise. When someone plans on a certain length of time to workout, and that doesn’t happen (usually due to an external reason), she might beat herself up for not being able to finish, rather than be content that she was able to get something in as opposed to nothing! Or if an entire day goes by without completing a specific workout, often people will throw in the towel for the week!
Consider this amazing analogy I came across: If we get one flat tire, do we immediately decide to slash the other 3? Of course not, so why do we apply the same all or nothing reaction to our fitness goals? If one tire is flat, we also still have the option of getting the car to a location, but not if all 4 are slashed. Same thing goes for diet and exercise, it is easier to get our bodies back on track after one setback than with several.
For women, an all or nothing approach is especially harmful because we are more prone to feelings of guilt. If we make one less than ideal choice, we overanalyze it and get upset about it to the point where I personally believe the fat-storing stress hormones we raise are even worse than the actual choice!
The key to a sustainable healthy lifestyle is consistency, and that can be achieved best through finding the middle ground. Don’t fall into the extreme mindset, rather try a more balanced, “both-and” approach. Healthy eating can actually exist with indulgence and enjoyment; it doesn’t have to be one or the other. A fit lifestyle includes both movement and rest. A “both-and” mentality focuses on the middle ground, and the realization that there will be overlaps, that no one factor is 100% the only way to go.
If we fall into the trap of extremes, of an all or nothing mentality, we are essentially setting ourselves up to fail. There has to be some leeway, some allowance for life to happen, for less than ideal choices, and above all for some self-compassion and forgiveness. Only then will our choices and habits become sustainable.