Moving Away From the ‘All or Nothing’ Approach


Unfortunately, a lot of people are still under the impression that they need to be extreme in their approach in order to achieve results. People go through days (sometimes weeks) of restriction and then usually end up encountering the following problems:

1) Periodically binging and overindulging on food and drink after being on a highly restricted diet.

2) Feeling overwhelmed with guilt for overindulging after being “good” all week.

Restrict. Overindulge. Guilt. Lather. Rinse. Repeat…does this cycle sound familiar?

The issues with going ‘all in’ with such an extreme approach is that, a lot of the time, when the willpower runs out, (and trust me the will power will almost certainly run out), the overeating will not only undo a lot of the effort you had put in all week, but can also lead to some pretty destructive eating habits. Once, I went on to an extremely restrictive diet plan, and by the time I got to the Saturday of Week 3 and was at a party… well it all went out the window! I couldn’t stop eating – if any food was in front of me, it went into my mouth. Needless to say, this restrictive diet plan didn’t last long for me and I have since learned from my mistake. However, for many this can be a cycle that goes on for months or even years. For some, the restrict/binge cycle may be less extreme, but in general, those who put themselves on restrictive diets tend to overeat when they are sick and tired of their Monday-Friday food.

There is evidence in support of the idea that a less restrictive diet can be more beneficial for sustained weight loss: “Studies have suggested that greater cognitive dietary restraint—more ability to consciously limit the type and amount of food ingested, in an effort either to lose weight or to prevent weight—is a reliable predictor of weight loss, whereas greater disinhibition—more frequent episodes of overeating, a stronger tendency to eat rapidly and higher ratings of perceived hunger – is less reliable.” (1) (Smith et al. 1998):The Australian Guide to Healthy Eating. Canberra: Commonwealth Department of Health and Family Services.

The drawbacks of an ‘all or nothing’ approach can be seen with exercise, too. It is too often the case that people think that if they can’t fit in a ‘full’ session (i.e. 60-90 minutes), then there is no point in going to the gym / exercising at all.  There have even been cases of people saying they wouldn’t train for the entire week because their week’s training was “ruined already”. However, logically this is clearly untrue. 20 minutes of training may not be as good as 60 minutes (for example), but it is still far better than no training at all. You will reap far more benefits from 20 minutes of exercise 5 days a week than a 1-hour session once per week.

Whilst this is not an easy cycle to break, it is important to try and find some middle ground. The middle ground will be finding a way of eating (a diet) that you can adhere to Monday to Sunday.  You need to find a diet that you can do on a consistent basis – not one with extreme restriction followed by extreme overindulgence. What you need for results is consistency, and whilst it’s not always easy to do so, try adding some foods or meals you enjoy into your week. This will allow you to enjoy your food and take out the need for overeating at the weekend. From a simply caloric standpoint – you are better off eating a little more every single day than very little Monday-Friday and far too much at the weekend! The first scenario is far more likely to result in an overall calorie deficit being achieved.

When it comes to exercise, I would suggest (again) trying to stick to a style or routine that you enjoy. Don’t feel you have to train a certain way or for a certain duration: focus on implementing a style that makes you want to go and exercise (or at least doesn’t make you NOT want to exercise). The only caveat I’d add is to also plan some intentionally shorter sessions as a ‘back-up’. That way, if you are pushed for time, you can still get a session in without feeling as though your exercise was ‘ruined’. This idea could also be applied to your diet – if you can sometimes be pressed for time, then either prepare food in advance, or have some quick ‘healthier’ options at hand – such as fresh fruit, carrot sticks or lean meats so you can ‘throw together’ an easy meal when you’re on the go.

For some, the ‘all or nothing’ approach works well. They either feel they need, or thrive off of, the rigidity and restrictiveness of their diet and training regime. They may prefer to eat very restrictively and have one or two ‘off’ meals per week. Some individuals much prefer to only train for longer periods, and not compromise their training duration no matter what. And yes, some people are able to achieve and sustain amazing results using an ‘all or nothing’ approach. It can work – however, in my experience, these individuals are few and far between. The vast majority of clients I have worked with have benefitted far more from a more balanced, moderate approach.

For many of us, life gets in the way sometimes (and far more frequently than we’d like), and we don’t have the time to do to squeeze in that full hour’s training session, or cook ourselves the healthy dinner we’d ideally want. But, as Voltaire once said “ Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good”; you are far better off doing the best you can day to day then trying to be perfect. Figure out the challenges/obstacles that arise for you most frequently and plan how to overcome these barriers.  Learning to navigate the middle ground will take some time and education. How to fit in certain things you enjoy, how to exercise for 30 minutes and not 60, or how to keep that deficit if you are trying to lose weight.  In the long run, though, navigating the middle ground will be far easier and less of an emotional rollercoaster than the ‘all or nothing’ approach.


(1) Smith A, Kellet E & Schmerlaib Y (1998):The Australian Guide to Healthy Eating. Canberra: Commonwealth Department of Health and Family Services.



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