Healthy Weight, Healthy Mind: Avoid “All or Nothing” Thinking

We are pleased to bring you this regular column by Dr. David Creel, a licensed psychologist, certified clinical exercise physiologist and registered dietitian. He is also credentialed as a certified diabetes educator and the author of A Size That Fits: Lose Weight and Keep it off, One Thought at a Time (NorLightsPress, 2017).

Do you have a weight loss question for Dr. Creel? Email him at [email protected]. He may answer your question in a future column.

For just a moment, think about the first Monday of January. This is the day when people return to work and school after the holidays. Those who vowed to get in shape this year set their alarms early to nudge their bodies onto the treadmill or to the nearest gym. For many, this is the first day of their “diet.” Radio, TV, and the Internet are flooded with advertisements for weight loss programs and products. Many people who went to bed as late-night snacking slugs hope to awaken in the morning as die-hard dedicated dieters and fitness fanatics.

This type of all-or-nothing behavior is great for the $60 billion per year weight-loss industry because, in addition to first time customers, companies depend on restarts. The restarts are the people who join another program, buy an additional piece of exercise equipment, join a different gym, purchase another book, or hire a personal trainer. Often these consumers are declaring their “all in” mentality. This is the year they will change — just like last year, and the year before that.

Motivation, drive, and excitement can be instrumental in helping us accomplish important goals such as losing weight. But when we look at things in a polarized way, we end up repeating cycles of weight loss and regain. Whether related to health or other aspects of our lives, this all-or-nothing thinking can be frustrating, inefficient, and even catastrophic. Can you imagine what life would be like if people took the all-or-nothing approach to driving? Some days, people would drive under the speed limit, stop at red lights, and yield to pedestrians, but on other days they’d ignore all traffic laws — sort of like downtown Boston.

In reality, most of our behavior is on a continuum, even if our thinking isn’t. For example, if you think someone is a terrible person, that thought can easily become a belief that will impact how you respond to him or her. Although you probably won’t behave in an all-or-nothing way (hugging versus physically harming), your all-or-nothing thoughts (great person versus terrible person) have a significant effect on interactions. You certainly won’t go out of your way to know this person better.

When we think, “I’m either on a diet or out of control,” our behavior is likely to drift in that direction as well. Here’s an example of three all-or-nothing thoughts that might impact your eating and physical activity.

Let’s look at these thoughts. What happens if we believe the first example? Does that mean if you’re one calorie over the goal you have totally failed? Do you get discouraged at this point and perhaps overeat even more?

If you believe exercise is only useful if it’s intense for 30 minutes, how often will you miss the opportunity for a 10-minute walk that will reduce stress? How often will you ignore the benefits of exercising during TV commercials?

Is it really true that once you get started on sweets you can’t stop? Does this happen in all situations, no matter what?

Sherry’s problem was salty, crunchy, fatty foods. She told me potato chips were the worst, or best, depending on how you look at it.

“If I have one, I eat until they’re all gone,” she told me. “That happens every time?” I asked.

She shrugged. “Pretty much.”

Coincidentally, our weight management center was conducting research on preferences for regular versus baked potato chips during this time, so we had a stockpile of both kinds in the office.

“Hang on a minute, I want to test your theory,” I told Sherry.

I went to the back and filled a Styrofoam bowl with the regular, full-fat chips. I placed the bowl of chips in front of Sherry and said, “I want to try something with you.”

With a here-comes-a-magic-trick expression on her face, she agreed.

“I want you to eat a chip,” I said.

Sherry smiled, selected the largest chip, and willingly crunched, chewed and swallowed. Then I waited. I looked at Sherry in anticipation of her next move. Finally, she got a little uncomfortable.


“Aren’t you going to eat the rest of them?” I asked.


“Why not?”

With an uncomfortable laugh, she said, “Because you’re here!”

“If I leave the room, will you eat the rest of them?”


“What about on your way home? Will you stop and buy more?” I asked.

“No, I don’t think so,” Sherry said smiling.

“So it really isn’t true that once you eat one chip you can’t stop?”

“Well, I usually eat chips at home in front of the TV. I take the whole bag to the couch and before I know it, they’re all gone.”

“So when you eat chips in that sort of environment it’s hard to control yourself?”


Sherry’s belief that she couldn’t stop eating chips once she started wasn’t true. In fact, she could practice a lot of restraint in certain settings. She had options with potato chips. She didn’t need to accept the idea that they controlled her. Instead, if she wanted to eat chips in moderation, she could set up her environment to increase the likelihood for success. Maybe she could buy a vending machine size bag, or pre-portion her chips into smaller containers. She could commit to only eating chips at the kitchen table where she could truly pay attention to the pleasure from one serving. Or, she could only eat chips when she came to her weight management appointments. Lastly, Sherry might decide that keeping chips in the house was just too much work and the chips weren’t worth it. Whatever she decided, the crucial element was believing she could control herself — and we proved that during our session with the chips.

Countless other all-or-nothing thoughts can impact eating, such as:

Whether the thought is about the weight loss process itself or another area of your life, it can impact your health behavior. If you’re so distraught by your worst day ever at your job that you can’t stomach the idea of going home, preparing dinner, and cleaning up the mess, you may end up ordering a pizza. If you feel nobody cares about you and your life is without purpose, why bother taking care of yourself?

This all-or-nothing thinking is one of many thought patterns that can get in our way, and we’re going to look at options to combat it. But before we do that, in the next articles we’ll examine other categories of thinking that derail us.