Do you ever find yourself eating “on track” all week, only to binge on the weekend? Or perhaps all-or-nothing eating has even shorter cycles, like eating “well” during the day only to binge eat at night…
That was me, before I discovered the psychology of eating.
Despite what it feels like, all-or-nothing eating is not about poor self-control. Extremism around food actually becomes heightened when we spend enormous amounts of willpower on the wrong skills.
So, what are the right skills? You’re about to find out! This article will unpack the top psychological triggers for all or nothing eating, with tips to get back to balance.
At the end of this post, there’s also a free 13-page ebook on eating psychology that you can get. If you want it now, click here to gain instant access.
9 Psychological Reasons for All or Nothing Eating
Extreme swings in eating behavior are rarely the result of low self-control. It’s more like you’re exerting way too much self-control on the wrong areas.
You’re about to discover the top psychological triggers for all-or-nothing eating, and how to stop.
Let’s get back to balance!
1. Society teaches us that our bodies are ornaments, not instruments
Quick summary: Thinking poorly of yourself is correlated with all-or-nothing eating.
We don’t end up eating in front of the fridge late at night because we don’t care about ourselves. Rather, we care too much about looking a certain way; and when we fail to adhere to a diet (that is far too restricting), we end up binge eating as a consequence.
A 2019 study on the predictors of diet failure found that higher dissatisfaction with body and appearance made someone more likely to pursue extreme measures to deal with their discontent.
I’m not an expert in body positivity or body acceptance. But what I can say is that my own process of giving up dieting actually improved my self-esteem. More on this soon!
2. Our culture also teaches us that thinness is a finish line, and it’s a huge distraction from the inner work
Quick summary: All-or-nothing eating tends to be fueled by a (false!) bias that thinness is a finish line where everything is happy and effortless.
Sometimes it’s really difficult to let go of the desire to be really thin because we equate thinness with happiness. But we’re missing an entire side of the story, because not all thin people are happy.
I once read a story of a fitness guru who is internet famous (we’re talking millions of subscribers), and yet she admits that she tortures herself over food in order to maintain a super low body fat percentage.
In her story, she shared about ruining her recent trip to Hawaii because she spent the whole vacation extremely worried about food. So much, that she couldn’t even enjoy a meal with her friends!
After socially outcasting herself to save her diet, she ended up breaking her diet — and she didn’t even enjoy it. She was worried about “ruining” her body every second she was eating — worried so much that she couldn’t even enjoy the good food she did eat! Doesn’t that sound miserable?
3. Our primal brains are wired to seek pleasure and avoid pain, and we won’t stop unless we bring intention to it
Quick summary: Ever heard of the Stop, Drop, & Feel?
Unwanted emotion is another common psychological trigger for overeating, such as anxiety, sadness, loneliness, boredom, and fear. (Need I go on?)
Giving yourself Permission to Feel Uncomfortable helps take the edge off compulsive eating. This sounds simple, but it’s much easier said than done.
This is where my “Stop, Drop, and Feel” method to stop binge eating comes into play.
Of course, this method never feels good, because we avoid these emotions for a reason! An anxious person never wants to sit down and feel anxiety.
But when we open ourselves up to our most-unwanted emotions, it’s amazing how much the feelings lose their power. This means you have a greater ability to be moderate and balanced with your eating.
4. When self-sabotage is involve (as with most all-or-nothing eating) it means you’re actually getting something useful from it…
Quick summary: I know this sounds crazy!! But from all my work as an eating psychology coach, I have seen this to be true time and time again.
Consider this: what are you gaining at a very deep, subconscious level by living out all-or-nothing eating patterns?
This is crazy, I know. But try to actually consider this preposterous statement. What do we have to gain from our struggle with food?
One example could be avoiding fear. If all your time and energy is wrapped up into eating perfectly (in hopes of avoiding all-or-nothing eating), then you’ll have no energy left to chase your dreams.
While dreams are usually really positive, the process of getting there is often really scary. It involves risk and being seen, and not everyone is ready for that without doing some serious inner work first.
5. Some say “feel it to heal it” but I like to say “SEE it to heal it”
Quick summary: Internal beliefs are the obstacles to breaking free from all-or-nothing eating — let’s clean them up.
Earlier I mentioned there are “better skills” to work on for all-or-nothing eating — and self-reflection is one of those skills.
Roll up your sleeves (ideally, with the help of a therapist) and start digging into the deeper layers of compulsive eating.
This process is actually the premise of my workbook on self-sabotage called Why We Do the Things We Do. It helps you discover the positive benefit to unwanted eating patterns, like all-or-nothing eating.
It wasn’t designed to replace therapy. Rather, it helps drudge up beliefs you didn’t even know you had, so that you can bring them with you to therapy for healing.
6. Society (oh society!) also glorifies perfectionism
Quick summary: Aiming for perfection means you throw in the towel after small slip-ups.
Perfectionism is another trigger for all-or-nothing patterns around food. If we can’t get everything right, might as well throw in the towel.
This is irrational though. If you got a flat tire, you wouldn’t go around slashing the other three, would you?
7. For every restriction, there is an equal and opposite binge. The bigger the restriction, the bigger the all-or-nothing eating.
Quick summary: If you tend to binge on the foods that you try to limit, then restriction might be a factor.
For every diet, there is an equal and opposite binge. (Like Newton’s Law of Motion: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.)
Perfectionism with your food choices is a direct predictor of binge eating.
Some of us have the self-awareness to know this intuitively. If we restrict certain foods like carbs, for example, it usually leads to binge eating carbs late at night.
This is because we’re not using our psychology to our advantage. Instead, we’re putting ourselves at war against our biology, and our body’s survival instincts will always win.
8. We’ve been taught that Permission To Eat is the opposite of what we should do
Quick summary: We tend to binge eat the same foods we try to limit — and there’s a reason for that.
Many of us are afraid to stop dieting because we feel like we can’t trust ourselves to be “loose” around food. We treat ourselves like caged animals, so of course we behave like animals when the sun goes down!
The “cure” to this trigger for all-or-nothing eating is to give yourself Permission to Eat. We can’t heal our relationship with food until we stop warring with ourselves.
If you’re afraid this will lead to weight gain, then join the rest of us…
9. We’re all petrified of gaining weight if we begin to make peace with food
Quick summary: If you insist on not being able to trust yourself around foods, then you’ll do things to reinforce that belief.
Many of us are afraid of gaining weight if we allow ourselves to eat whatever foods we want. But if you fully commit to the process, you’ll find that you overeat less in the long-run. This is because you’ve taken restriction out of the equation, and it stops triggering the resulting binges.
I can’t promise you that you won’t gain weight when you stop dieting. Some of us have decades of rebellion pent up in our psyche, and when we stop dieting, we rebel and binge on foods we wouldn’t normally allow ourselves to have. This is part of the process.
To help give you peace of mind, read up on the stages of giving up dieting (rebellion is only stage 2, and the others are much nicer!). Sometimes it helps to know what the mess will look like, so that you can hold space for your unraveling.
The Slow but Steady Path Towards Balanced Eating Behavior
This article outlined some of the core concepts of Psycho-Spiritual Wellness that help address unwanted eating patterns like all-or-nothing eating.
I hope it has inspired you to stop being strict with your diet and let go of perfectionism. This is far easier said than done. Fortunately, doing the “inner work” helps bring clarity to your decisions.
By “inner work,” I’m referring to building your willingness to be uncomfortable. And also, your willingness to dig into the subconscious beliefs that trigger self-sabotage.
If you want more help, check out the free ebook below. It comes with a free 5-day course in Psycho-Spiritual Wellness, so that you can better understand the weird work I do here. It’s good stuff!
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