10 Tips to Avoid All or Nothing Thinking

All or Nothing concept on the road signpost, 3D rendering

woman eating pastaHow many times have you thought – “I ate that cookie, I might as well finish the bag and start my diet again tomorrow” or “I don’t have time to do my 5 mile run, why bother running only 2 miles?” or “I’m trying to cut out all alcohol. I caved in and already had a glass – I might as well have another”.  I hear these things all the time from my clients. So many of us are all or nothing people when it comes to behaviors including food, alcohol and exercise. The problem is that this mentality sets us up for failure –  in addition to making us feel downright miserable much of the time. Who wants to feel that you have to live up to unrealistic standards 100% of the time? We are all human and this is just not possible! In order to be successful with weight loss and overall physical and mental health, we need to find a way to get out of the all or nothing mentality because it doesn’t work long term.

If you want to follow a very strict diet or engage in an intense exercise program 6 days a week for a short period of time, go for it. It can get you quick results which can be motivating. But trying to keep up with these behaviors long term won’t work. I can’t tell you how many clients I’ve had in my office who regained all the weight plus more after following a very rigid diet. They never learned how to live in the grey zone. The grey zone is an area that’s in between being really really strict with a behavior and eating/doing whatever you want. This is the middle ground we should strive to get to.

I decided to write this blog post because I’ve had this all or nothing discussion with several clients in the past few weeks. While I will be mainly referring to weight and/or ”dieting” in this blog, the all or nothing mentality can pertain to really any behavior. With a little exploration and practice, it is possible to break the all or nothing way of thinking and behavior patterns.


Tips to avoid all or nothing thinking

  1. Be aware that severely limiting your food intake and completely cutting out your favorite foods causes deprivation and increased risk of binging … and it’s just not fun! Why can’t you have a bowl of pasta on occasion? Setting unrealistic exercise goals also sets you up for failure. The more failures we have, the less confidence we have in ourselves. It is a known fact that a low self-efficacy will decrease our chances of being successful in health related behaviors like weight loss, maintenance after weight loss, regular exercise, etc.
  2. writing in journalKeep a journal. In addition to writing down what you eat (or drink or exercise), write down your thoughts – especially every time you catch yourself with this all or nothing mentality. It’s important to capture when these thoughts occur and exactly what you are thinking. For example, I planned to take the 7 pm spin class tonight. I missed the class and blew off the gym because I don’t get nearly as good a workout on the treadmill compared to the class. Why bother?
  3. Examine your all or nothing beliefs. Why do you feel that way? Where did it come from? Are these thoughts valid? For example: If you ate one cookie, does this really mean you blew your chances for weight loss? In reality, the one cookie has 70 calories. Not a big deal. But eating the rest of the box and beating yourself will likely lead to poor eating the next day(s). This can be a big deal when it comes to losing weight. Why did you feel that eating a cookie was “bad”?  Or if you’ve told yourself you need to avoid all carbs at dinner, and you end up eating 1 cup pasta, why do you think you blew your “diet” for the day?
  4. Think about how the all or nothing mentality makes you feel. Strict deprivation … overindulgence … guilt … repeat the whole process. Is it working for you? How does it make you feel? Would you like to get out of this cycle? How would getting out of this cycle make your life better? It’s important to have a motivator as to why you want to make changes. Possible motivators: feel less stressed, feel less deprived, be in a better mood, feel more in control.
  5. Reframe your all or nothing thoughts. It can be difficult to change the way you think, but it can be done. Once you’ve identified these thoughts, try to find a way to reframe them. For example:
    -All or nothing thought: I need to exercise 6-7 times a week for 1 ½ hours in order to lose weight. Exercising less than this won’t burn enough calories. My body needs this in order to lose weight
    My reframing suggestion: I don’t need to exercise this much.I feel tired a lot and have many cravings. I think my exercise program is contributing to this. I choose to give my body a break and will  exercise 5 times a week. I will incorporate shorter intense sessions, High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) for 30 minutes into my workout routine versus the 90 minute sessions. I have read that these can be just as beneficial (if not more so) as longer sessions.
    All or nothing thought: I can’t have any carbs at dinner if I want to lose weight
    My reframing suggestion: I enjoy eating carbs but know I have trouble controlling my intake. However I choose to let myself eat carbs at dinner 3 times a week. I will choose those carbs I feel confident I can control my portions of  – sweet potato and quinoa. I will keep my portions to one cup.
    All or nothing thought: I am not allowed to eat any dessert if I want to lost weight. I REALLY want to have some of my favorite dessert tonight when eating out with friends, but I won’t let myself
    My reframing suggestion: I will allow myself small portions of my favorite dessert on occasion. Tonight is a special night so I will let myself enjoy a few bites of a shared dessert with my friends. I am in control and will eat it slow and enjoy each bite
  6. Plan an “excursion” from your strict eating plan. If you find it really hard to live in the grey zone, start practicing.  If this makes you nervous, the trick will be to plan.
    For example,  pizza is one of your favorite foods but you made it off limits for yourself because one slice turns into three.  But … you love it and feel deprived when your friends are digging in and you’re eating a plain salad.  This usually leads to binging later in the night. So – what if you planned a night with your friends when you would have a slice of your favorite kind of pizza. You’ll eat it REALLY slow (“mindful”) and order a side salad to go with it. Your friends probably inhaled 2-3 slices while you ate your one slice. The key word here is to PLAN! It’s probably best not to order in a pie while home alone, but enjoy a slice with friends.
  7. Don’t beat yourself up. If you end up eating or drinking more than you planned on, let it go. Does any good come out of dwelling on it and beating yourself up? Does it make you feel better? Chances are that it only makes you feel worse about yourself which will likely lead to more eating. Let it go and move on. One thing you can do is to learn from what happened. Maybe you went too long without eating, maybe you were with a “food pusher” friend, maybe your all or nothing thoughts provoked this episode, etc. More on Learning from Laspses in another blog post.  (pic is of food pusher)
  8. Know yourself. While I’m suggesting that you allow yourself to eat your favorite foods on occasion, I’m not suggesting you open the floodgates. There may be some foods that you have serious trouble controlling your intake of. I call these trigger foods. You may be better off not keeping these foods in the house. Instead, enjoy a small portion when you go outside.Here is an example: I love chocolate and don’t want to deprive myself of it. But … I am REALLY bad with portion control. ( I’ve blogged many times about my difficulty controlling chocolate intake) . So I would never keep a box of chocolates in my apartment. But I do allow myself a few bites of a chocolate dessert in a restaurant or 1-2 mini chocolates like a Lindt truffle found in the check out lines of many NYC markets. This way I don’t feel deprived yet I’m not setting myself up for trouble. I truly believe that I would never be able to control my intake of chocolates if they were in my apartment!
  9. Get the DIET word out of your head. Do your best to drop the “good” or “bad” food mentality. All foods can fit!
  10. Seek help from a therapist/counselor  if you are feeling very out of control with your eating or drinking.


How many of you have the all or nothing mentality? Have you found any tricks to break this mentality? Share your experiences!




I especially love problem-solving, whether it’s helping women defeat issues plaguing them for years, helping a busy executive find practical ways to get heart healthy, or providing tips to help you reverse diabetes. That’s why I’m on a constant quest to expand my knowledge by staying on top of the latest research.

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