Monday, August 22, 2016

The Trap of Plant-based Diet Perfection

It feels really good to be writing again. Elizabeth Gilbert is so dead on when she says that as long as you show up, the magic happens.

Today I'd like to share with you an e-mail I received from a reader who is working very hard to stick to a "clean" version of a plant-based diet. Is there a better word for this other than "clean?" I hate to imply that other plant based diets are dirty, because they are certainly not. Maybe I should just stick with "SOS free?"

In this particular reader's case, I believe her intention is to eat a plant-based diet free of sugar, flour, oil and salt. This type of diet is not necessary for many folks, but for those of us who tend toward overeating, even on healthy foods, it does have the possibility of relieving that urge to overeat because food is no longer hyper-palatable.

Here's what she wrote:

"Hi Wendy,

I'm having a problem. I feel that as I focus more intently on changing my habits and attitudes and actions and thought processes - I am having very extreme reactions when I veer off path. A typical pattern is that I'm organized, motivated, feeling 'in control' when I'm eating properly. Tend to do this 8-10 days at a time, then go 'off track.' Eat sugar, have ice cream or make banana bread for friends, end up eating some, then I'm off track for a few days before I mentally get myself back on track. This has happened several times recently.

With this current episode I feel myself falling into an extreme self-loathing. Like the harder I try to change the more I hate myself when I fail. It's pretty bad. I have had times of being depressed in the past but since I started exercising regularly and especially trying to improve my eating habits, I've been very stable until now. It's a little disturbing.

It's weird. I'm learning all of these new tools and solutions, yet when I fall, I'm falling further and harder."

Hi Anonymous,

I too suffer from perfectionism and I know it too well! I also feel like the harder I try to be more and more "perfect," the harder I fall emotionally when I fail! It's crazy making!

Perfection is a myth but unfortunately perfectionism is alive and well. 

It's too often a road that leads to quitting. So in order to prevent myself from throwing in the towel, I have developed a lot of coping strategies.


What helps me a lot is to focus on living in the present. Not in the past. Not in the future.

Whatever we did yesterday, five minutes ago, or even 30 seconds ago NO LONGER EXISTS and DOES NOT MATTER.

Also, and more obviously, the future doesn't exist at all.

Try this exercise: Hold your hands up in front of you with your palms facing (like you were about to pray, only your hands are not touching). Imagine that to the left of your left hand is the past, and to the right of your right hand is the future. All you have is what is in between your two hands. All you have is this present moment.

The rest doesn't exist.

Take a deep breath and inhale that knowledge.

How do you feel right now?

If you feel like crap because you ate crap yesterday or 5 minutes ago, you can choose to appreciate the reminder of how eating crap makes you feel like crap, and you do not have to beat yourself up at the same time. It's not a requirement to getting healthy. It's just feedback from your system. You can choose to be grateful for it.

I want to repeat that. YOU DO NOT HAVE TO BEAT YOURSELF UP in order to be healthy.

All anyone can ever do is the next right thing.


Maybe the next right thing for you at this moment is to go grab a glass of ice water or a hot cup of tea. Sometimes taking a shower or a bath feels good.

Like my husband Randy always says, "Emotions are like buses, there is always another one coming along."

So when you become aware that you are beating yourself up, you can just get busy doing something, ANYTHING, and watch this negative emotion disappear into the ether.

Perfection really is the enemy of the good.

If we expect ourselves to be perfect, we tend to beat the crap out of ourselves when we are not. Beating ourselves up leaves us feeling icky and bad. Feeling bad leads to more overeating and compulsive eating of crap . . . why?

Because that is how our human brains are wired. It's part of our survival instinct. As soon as we feel "bad," our ancient brain (think fight or flight) takes over. It tells us to DO ANYTHING to stop the bad, because it equates bad feeling with "I am going to die!" 

And one of the easiest, most satisfying way to stop feeling bad, if only for the moment, is by using food as a drug. For the few moments while we are eating, usually something sweet and fatty or salty and fatty (or sweat, fatty AND salty for the perfect high), it is pure bliss. Heaven on earth. Who's feeling bad now? Not me.

Until . . . wait for it . . .

We wake up from the food trance and we realize what we have done. And then we feel bad all over again and need to eat more off plan food in order to take this bad feeling go away.

And on and on the cycle repeats itself.

What a sad cycle.


When we obsess about our failures, we tend to lose total sight of all of the things we have done right. You said it yourself that you had eight to ten days of "clean" plant-based eating. Well, that's AMAZING! How about celebrating that with yourself and walking around on a high?

I would try to let go of the idea that you need to do anything perfectly in order to do it well. Doug Lisle says 80% is a good target. The only screwing up is quitting, and incidentally I'm also an advocate for quitting when something is clearly not working for you.

Another way that perfectionism rears it's ugly head is by creating fear around making new healthy commitments to ourselves. "I set some goals for myself. I'm scared....what if I screw up like I have in the past?" Many, many folks don't even get out of the gate because fear of failure overtakes them.

I love this quote from Elizabeth Gilbert, "There is this really pathological misconception we have in this culture that you are not supposed to do something until you are really good at it and I'm just not sure how you are supposed to do that. I don't see how that could ever work. You are supposed to start before you are ready and before you are good at it and that's how you get ready and how you get good at it." From the podcast Magic Lessons with Elizabeth Gilbert, Episode 203.

Doing anything good for your health each day is so much better than doing nothing! Try putting all of your daily targets into a checklist. You can print out and use a new checklist each day. Maybe you start out with some simple targets such as eat one salad per day, drink X number of glasses of water, move your body X number of minutes, no salt on my food, etc., etc. Can you see that you don't need to get it ALL done every day in order to be a really healthy version of yourself? Your checklist may evolve as the weeks and months go by, as you figure out what works and what doesn't work with your particular lifestyle and circumstances. There is no end to this being a healthy person, it's a journey that will continue for as long as you are alive.

Just get up every day and do your best that day--which might include having stated daily targets. Without getting a formal system going, it's too easy to forget that you even have health goals!


Lastly, I want to mention comparisons. It's so easy to compare ourselves to other people, especially with the proliferation of social media like blogs, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram where folks are only showing a carefully curated version of themselves. It's so easy to think,  "'they' are doing it all perfectly so I can or should be too!" The ONLY person you can compare yourself to is the you that you were yesterday. That's it. No one else.

I just love this quote that I heard yesterday while binge listening to the Magic Lessons podcast.
"It never stops. The failure never stops. And you learn to embrace it . . . from a technical point of view, failing will always instruct you much more than succeeding. Success almost never needs to be analyzed. When you succeed, you go, 'Oh, I did it. I'm good at this and therefore I'll just keep doing what I'm doing.' When you fail it forces you, if you want to not fail the next time to look on a very technical and granular level at what you are doing and to try to understand what is is that you did that resulted in this horrible outcome. And it forces you to adapt and make adjustments and move the ball forward because you have no choice. I've come to look at failure as a gift. I hate it. It's a gift that I would exchange if I could, every single time, but it is a gift and you have to look at it like that."
Comedian Michael Ian Black from the podcast Magic Lessons with Elizabeth Gilbert, Episode 203

It's a huge challenge to let go of beating yourself up, but as far as I know, the only way out of hell is through.


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