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.

3 Days in Vegas

I know Phil would never lie to me. He’s confided in me since he could talk, and told me secrets that all turned out to be true—our mothers were sisters, and they had the same relationship; they told each other everything.

So when my cousin Phil told me about his three
days in Las Vegas, I believed him. It sounded like a movie, but it happened to him.

It starts like this: Phil is a junior executive at a big company in Chicago. One day his boss called him in and told him he was going to represent the company at a trade show in Las Vegas. Pretty exciting feather in his cap. He’s single, got a nice little apartment, and just bought a luxury car. He’s doing well—very well.

So, he packed his fine Italian suitcase, which he bought with bonus money his firm gave him, stuck $400 in his wallet, and took off to Sin City, deciding to drive and see a little of the country.

In Denver, he found a book called Beating the Games 
in Vegas. He stayed up most of the night reading it. As he got in his car in the morning, he decided that his game would be “21.”

He detoured to visit Provo, Utah. He liked the name—Provo—there was something about it that made him smile. While there, he found a book that appealed to him as much as the name Provo. It was simply titled Moe on 21. “The book,” the cover said, “will make you a winner at the table.” Phil memorized nearly every line in the book. He arrived in Vegas early in the morning, got some sleep, went to the trade show, checked in and shook some hands, then went to the casino. He got a hundred dollars worth of $5 chips, then strolled along the 21 tables, watching players and reconnecting each of their “moves” to what “Moe” had written. Most of them, he found, obviously did not know how to play the game.

Phil sat down at a table and put a $5 chip in the card box. He won immediately, doubling his bet. He then lost six hands in a row, picked up his remaining chips, and left the table. “Dealers can get hot,” Moe had written. “Never forget, it is gambling.”

Phil played some more and won back his losses. This went well into the night. By 3:00 a.m., he was ahead. Now he sat alone at a table, just Phil and the dealer. He was 
soon joined by a seedy, elderly man with a soiled tie at half mast, badly in need of a haircut and shave, with two $100 chips. He pushed them into play. His face card was a six. 
He asked for another card and turned over his hand. He 
had 26. He busted out.

Phil couldn’t resist giving this unfortunate man some advice. “The dealer had a five up,” he said. “You shouldn’t 
hit on 16.”

The man looked at him in disgust. “How do you know?”

“Here, in this book, Moe on 21, by Moe,” said Phil.

The man nodded. “I know,” he said. “I am Moe.” He got 
up and started to walk away, but then turned to Phil. “Sometimes,” he hesitated, “you gotta forget what the book says and just play a hunch.”

The next day, Phil went back to the trade show, but all he could think of was what Moe said after going against his own advice. Phil had reread Moe’s book, and there it was, in bold print: “DON’T,” the line read, “PLAY HUNCHES! 21 is a game you can win if you play it right.” But this, obviously, wasn’t true. Moe looked like he was done, broke, busted. Why was he now playing a “hunch?” Because it’s more exciting. That was what Phil decided.

That night, Phil went back to his room, got his stash, which had grown substantially the previous night, and went back to the casino. He stopped at a roulette table. “Provo,” he said to himself, “five letters.” He took his entire pocketful of $100 chips and put them on number five. The wheel went round, and the silver ball hopped and spun and landed on his number.

He now had more than $5,000. He walked to the 21 tables. He played only hunches, and by midnight, he’d won $96,000.

But things started to change. At 3:20 a.m., he counted his chips. He had just about $10,000 left. He’d lost. He was tired and hungry.

He scooped up his chips and turned to leave, then collided with someone and the chips flew to the floor. “I’m sorry,” a voice said. And there, helping him pick up his chips was the prettiest girl he’d ever seen. “Hi,” she said. “I’m Gladys and I’m clumsy.” She handed him the rest of the chips and he smiled at her.

“I’m starving,” he said. “Would you like something to eat?”

So, they ate and talked. She said she was in the carpet business in Oregon. No husband. No boyfriend. Just taking a couple of days off on her own. They walked up to his room, and she poured them a couple of Scotches from the mini-bar. … He woke up two days later with a terrible headache. His $10,000 in chips were gone, as were his credit cards, cash, and car keys.

Leaving the hotel that day, he walked through the casino, and there was Moe, clean-shaven and wearing an expensive suit, a pile of $100 chips in front of him. He saw Phil and smiled. “Sometimes you play hunches,” he said. “And sometimes you go by the book.”

Phil went back to the convention and borrowed money from a friend to get home. “I did great,” he told me. “I went to Vegas in a $60,000 Cadillac and went home in a $600,000 Greyhound bus.”

Phil told me that someday he was going to go back to Vegas, play it by the book, and maybe run into Gladys again.

But then he met Blanche, who works in human resources at his company, and they fell in love and decided to get married. He asked her where she’d like to go on their honeymoon. She’d already thought about it.

“I’d like to go somewhere,” she said, “where there are bright lights, great shows, and gambling.”

So they went to Atlantic City.