If you want to lose weight or gain muscle, it often feels like there’s no room for error, especially when it comes to your diet. However, according to nutrition experts, a streak of eating “perfectly” could actually backfire. “Trying to be perfect with your diet will set you up for disaster; it’s a quick route to giving up on what you hope to achieve,” says Shoshana Pritzker, a registered dietitian and sports nutritionist. Instead, many nutrition experts agree that consistency is the key.
THE PROBLEM WITH PERFECTION
In today’s world, wanting to be perfect is understandable. “Whether it stems from comparing ourselves to other people on social media or simply managing the increasing demands of everyday life, studies show more people are aiming for perfection,” says Patty Coleman, RD.
There’s just one problem: “Perfection does not exist and is not attainable,” notes Lucy Call, RD. So when someone inevitably has an imperfect eating day or “falls off the wagon,” they stop their healthy efforts altogether, she explains. “It becomes this game of ‘all or nothing,’ and once they’ve lost, they don’t try anymore.”
The truth is, one meal won’t make you gain weight, and one meal won’t suddenly make you fit. Still, when we break our streak of “perfection,” we feel like we’ve failed. At that point, we tend to just throw in the towel, making it even harder to get back on track.
Pritzker suggests thinking about it like this: “If you spill a drop of wine on your blouse, it’s fixable right? But the all-or-nothing mentality would be saying, ‘Oh well, I already spilled a drop of wine on my blouse, I might as well dump the rest of the bottle on it too.’” Now, the shirt is ruined. But you could have salvaged the shirt if it only had one drop of wine on it. In other words, you can move on without derailing your progress after one unhealthy meal, says Pritzker. But continuing to eat unhealthy foods the rest of the day will make moving on much harder.
WHY CONSISTENCY WINS
For most people, changing everything about the way they eat is simply too much to deal with all at once. By seeking perfection through a change to the foods we buy, the way we cook, the new dishes we make for every meal, plus starting a new workout routine on top of it all … It’s no wonder when we end up failing, explains Call.
“When you work consistently to change one habit at a time and then move onto the next when it becomes second-nature, we can actually reach our health goals faster,” says Call. “As a dietitian, my experience is that when a client makes one healthy change, they start to make more and more because they are fueled by feeling good instead of getting dragged down by the overwhelm of chasing perfection.”
Aiming for consistency also allows you to eat foods that wouldn’t fit into a “perfect” framework. You’ve probably seen someone who goes on a cleanse or restrictive diet (or maybe even experienced it yourself). During the diet, they’re able to avoid the constant supply of doughnuts in the breakroom at the office. “But once the diet ends, they can’t stop eating doughnuts every time they walk into the room,” says Call.
“Chasing perfection in our diet teaches us that we can’t include foods that regularly appear in our lives (like said donuts),” she explains. “But when we eventually do reach for those foods, we don’t know how to eat them in moderation. When striving for consistency over perfection, we might eat doughnuts regularly, but we have the space to connect how eating a lot of doughnuts makes us feel and can work on eating less at every encounter. Not only do we make a habit of reducing donut consumption, but we learn to build trust with ourselves around more indulgent foods. And that is an incredibly important skill to build for life-long healthy eating.”
HOW TO LET GO OF ALL-OR-NOTHING THINKING
1. MAKE YOUR GOALS SMART (SPECIFIC, MEASURABLE, ATTAINABLE, REALISTIC AND TIME BOUND)
“I suggest focusing on one or two goals at a time,” says Coleman. “For example, set one fitness-oriented habit and one food-focused habit to make small but impactful changes that you can continue to build upon. It is important to make each aspect of a SMART goal realistic and something you truly are interested in achieving, thus increasing your motivation.”
2. DON’T MAKE FOODS OFF-LIMITS
“Putting yourself on a restrictive or fad diet (aka one that requires being perfect) actually makes you crave off-limits foods more,” says Pritzker. “And you’re not being good or bad for eating a certain way; as such, you’re not a good or bad person for eating something. It’s just food.”
3. GET BACK ON TRACK
“Giving yourself permission to eat off-limits foods again puts you back in control. You get to decide in the moment of it’s the right time to eat it or if there’s a healthier choice you could have that would satisfy your craving,” explains Pritzker. “If you eat something not so healthy, enjoy it and move on. Don’t beat yourself up. Get back to your healthy routine at the next meal or snack.” If you’re struggling with this, Pritzker suggests making it a point to think of three positive things about the “unhealthy” meal and about yourself, then move on.
4. SWITCH THINGS UP TO AVOID BOREDOM
“Every now and then, we can fall into a food rut,” Coleman says. “To combat this, try shopping at a different grocery store, farmers market or find new foods to incorporate into your favorite meals. Explore the produce section to find a seasonal fruit, vegetable or even a different whole grain to rotate into your cooking routine every week.”
5. TRACK PROGRESS OVER TIME
Don’t forget to celebrate your progress and accomplishments along the way. “Strategize new solutions for any areas that need work to continue pushing toward broader lifestyle changes and goals,” recommends Coleman. “If you’re consistent and don’t give up when there are bumps along the way, anything is attainable.”