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Living In the Gray — Saying Goodbye to Black and White Thinking/ All or Nothing Approach to Diet, Exercise and Weight Loss

June 9, 2015

In our culture of quick fixes, everybody loves a clear-cut solution to a problem, and that is certainly true when it comes to diet, exercise, and weight loss.  Most weight loss programs involve a very rigid routine based on limiting calorie intake and exercising a certain number of minutes every day.  There is a reason the old adage of calories in and calories out is so popular in weight loss circles. It’s popular because it works! For weight loss that is. Often maintaining weight loss is an entirely different story, and despite how good you are at counting calories and eating perfect only a small (small) percentage of the population can keep that up their entire lives. At some point you must transform this Black and White Thinking if you want to sustain your weight loss. That thinking is often an asset in weight loss, but it becomes problematic and can actually set you up for failure in your maintenance journey.

The danger of black and white thinking while losing weight

You see, we don’t live in a black-and-white world.  Everybody has good days and bad days, and many other days that are somewhere in between. When you’re on a personal journey to lose a large amount of weight (or even a small amount, for that matter), it’s inevitable that there will be setbacks.  The problem with a black-and-white, all-or-nothing approach is that it ropes up into setting incredibly high standards for ourselves. “I need to lose 3-4 lbs a week. I need to work out for an hour 6 days a week. I need to follow my diet every meal every day this week until I reach my goal.” If All or Nothing thinking had one friend in the whole world it’d be perfectionism, and on the journey of weight loss and maintenance no one is ever perfect.

Once you view weight loss in black-and-white, all-or-nothing terms any setback or (perceived) failure to hit certain benchmarks seems like a huge personal defeat. The reality is that even these so-called “failures” can represent incremental progress towards your weight loss goals.

For example, if you’re using the “all or nothing” mindset you might have a few days when you just can’t do a scheduled 30-minute workout or eat as healthy as you should for some reason.  In this case you would feel a tremendous amount of shame, or discomfort, or anxiety…and as I’ve mentioned in other posts, shame actually can be the silent killer to weight loss.  All too often I’ve heard from clients that all it takes is the shame from one unplanned “cheat meal” to turn into a snowball effect leading to them giving up and abandoning their diet entirely. “What’s the point…I already screwed up—like I always do—might as well just go all in on eating what I want.”

How the “all-or-nothing” approach makes keeping the weight off more difficult

As dangerous as black-and-white thinking is during the weight loss process, it’s even more harmful when trying to maintain your new, lower weight after significant weight loss.  To a certain extent, losing weight can fit in with a black-and-white approach, but this is not the case with maintenance.

I do a lot of work with patients who are at weight loss centers or gyms where they are on medically monitored diets. All these diets are calorie restricted and in some cases people are aggressively achieving their goals with even liquid diets consisting of only 600 calories or so a day.  During the 4-6 months they’re losing weight, they have the mindset of “Ok, food is totally off limits for me, and all food is bad.”

As I mentioned this method, like many different methods for weight loss, does the job in getting the pounds off. Yet after they lose weight on a strict diet and reach their goal weight they now are released to the wild with all kinds of options for food that were previously off limits. This is often incredibly overwhelming. And, if they’re not intentional about shifting their black and white mindset they can quickly go from “all in” on their health journey to “nothing” which means eating everything else that was once off limits.  They must make choices about their diet, and due to human nature some of those choices will likely not always be the healthiest choice.

If they are not intentional about no longer viewing food as good or bad then when they make those “bad” choices, they fall into the shame spiral and the pendulum swings from “nothing” to “all”.

Life in the gray area

When you recognize that we live in a world of gray, everything changes. The truth is that yes, some food is healthier and others are undoubtedly unhealthy. But, living in the gray acknowledges that there is an in between. When you live in the gray, you don’t just see food differently, you see struggles differently too. Instead of seeing every setback as a personal failure, you will recognize them for what they actually are—bumps in the road on your long weight loss journey. Suddenly lofty standards become goals that you strive to achieve throughout your journey.

When you live in the gray, when you have a bump in the road, there is a bit of guilt, but it’s not the end of the world.  In fact, guilt can be a good motivator.  It will help you focus on your anchor for change, and help you remember that it’s not just about reaching a number on a scale—it’s about getting healthier, having more energy, and making incremental progress.

Here’s a few real-world examples of how you can apply this new “gray” thought process:

Weight Loss Journey Scenario

Black & White/All or Nothing

Living In the Gray

You set a standard of following your diet perfectly for every meal this week, yet you get stuck in the office for a catered work meeting without your diet food.

Skip food all together OR“Oh well the day is screwed up, might as well eat whatever is being catered and since my diet is screwed up eat whatever I want the rest of the day.

“No need to panic. Let’s assess what’s available. What’s the best choice I can make given the circumstances? I could do a side salad with that extra protein bar in my car, or even a turkey sandwich, hold the mayo. All is not lost.”

You set a goal to lose 2lbs a week but this week you stepped on the scale and see that you didn’t lose anything.

“This is the end of the world, you screwed up big time. What did you do wrong!? Next week you must lose 4lbs OR “Yet another major defeat. Why do I even try? What’s the point? I might as well give up.”

“This sucks, and there’s no way around that, but it’s not the end of world. I need to remember my Anchor—why I want to lose weight. This is about more than weight loss. I feel better and my clothes are not as tight. That’s what matters.”

You said you’d run 3 miles tonight at the gym but 2 miles in you just ran out of gas.

“Finish the 3 miles or else! OR just get off the treadmill and head for the showers, you’re finished.”

“Most days I have this, but today I am just running out gas. No big deal. At least I got 2 miles in. Let’s walk this last mile and then finish up the rest of the workout strong.”

As my research with NBC’s The Biggest Loser showed, the biggest victories in your weight loss journey will actually emerge in the weeks that you hit a bump in the road. By Living in the Gray you never lose sight of the big picture and you keep on going. Weight loss is not all about the outcome; it’s about how you respond to the outcome.

For many more ideas about how to avoid the trap of “all-or-nothing” thinking, check out my 8-week program that addresses that and many other topics related to the psychology of weight loss.  And don’t worry if you only make it through six weeks…remember, we’re living in the gray!