Why restrictive eating plans are bad for perfectionists

No gluten, no dairy, no alcohol, no sugar … “No fun?” many people added when I explained my eating regime.

I denied this adage; at first my denial was true, but it was less and less so as time went on.

The restrictive eating plan began as an attempt at better health. A health professional recommended I give it a try for three months to help reset my body and reduce inflammation that could be contributing to niggling conditions (including migraines, psoriasis and polycystic ovarian syndrome).

I felt so good that I stuck with it for longer; a year and a half later I was still shovelling down vegetables and saying no to cake (unless it was paleo).

Through this time, something sinister was developing in my mind: it began as a little smugness each time I resisted a cheese platter, and it grew into silently telling myself off when I cut myself a small slice of my daughter’s birthday cake.  

As a lifelong perfectionist, the temptation to take this restrictive eating plan as a sign of my personal success or failure was becoming too much. When I tuned into that internal dialogue, I became worried at how far this could go.

Zoe Nicholson, who describes herself as a “non-diet dietitian” at figureate, says perfectionism is a big factor in those who experience eating disorders. “The new eating disorder, which hasn’t officially been classified, is orthorexia, [and] carries that perfectionism trait,” she says. “It’s the idea that there is an absolute right way which fits in with needing to be perfect.”

The perfectionism comes into play when you’re convinced that how you eat is part of what defines who you are. “It’s about how much of yourself you identify with this; how much do you believe this makes you a worthy person?” Nicholson asks. “A lot of perfectionism is tied into self-worth: if you get it ‘right’, then you’re able to feel worthy.”

“When you eat that ‘forbidden’ food it’s like you’ve done something bad, and you’ve failed at being a ‘good person’.”

But being healthy has nothing to do with getting each meal ‘perfect”. Nicholson says that, instead, there are two key ingredients:

Self-awareness

It’s the key to just about everything, including dropping the food perfectionism.

“Become aware of not just whether you’re feeling full or hungry, but your emotions and thoughts,” Nicholson says. “Negative or unhelpful thoughts drive a lot of how we feel about our bodies and about food.”

“You are not your thoughts.”

Self-compassion

Nicholson describes self-compassion as, “The ability to recognise that you do not have to do everything perfectly and, as humans, we all make mistakes or don’t get it right all the time.

“Replace judgment with curiosity,” she suggests. “The judgmental voice would say, ‘You shouldn’t have eaten that, it was stupid’, but if you soften that it might sound like, ‘I probably shouldn’t have eaten that because I feel a bit too full now, but that’s OK because I’m still learning how to figure out what’s right for me’.”

There is certainly a huge cultural wave to do more, look nicer, eat healthier and constantly strive to be better. “If you have perfectionist traits, you can get very drawn into that,” Nicholson says.

That’s exactly what I’ve experienced.

Now, though, I’m back to a balanced diet and, more importantly, a healthier way of thinking about the way I eat.

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