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How to Have the Perfect Diet

Learn why there is no such thing as the ‘perfect diet’

What It Means to Have the Perfect Diet

“What’s the perfect diet?” It’s a question I’m asked more often than you might think, along with, “What’s the perfect workout?” But like so many things in life, there’s no one-size fits all answer. Some people thrive as runners, but that doesn’t mean running is the “perfect” exercise for everyone — and running doesn’t make sense if you’re ten-times more likely to enjoy walking instead.

It’s the same with food. Everybody is different, with unique preferences and needs. Maybe your body blooms on lean protein or on a strict vegan diet. Or maybe your sweet-tooth brings flavorful joy to your life. No amount of Google searching or polling friends will magically reveal the “one diet to rule them all” — and trying one “perfect” diet after another only wastes your time and can leave you feeling like a failure. 

We need to reframe the question: “What’s the best diet for you, right now?”

Why Perfection Doesn’t Work for Healthy Eating (or Anything, Really)

Striving for perfection isn’t harmful in and of itself. It can be hugely motivating toward meeting lofty goals and seeking new challenges. But when it’s interfering with your life and making you feel like a failure, then it’s absolutely a problem. The “all or nothing” mentality of perfectionism often coincides with extremely high standards that can’t be met, so your work is never done. Perfectionism leads to high stress levels when you’re always worried about mistakes. Fear of failure can prevent you from making a start, taking risks, and expressing yourself creatively

 "The “all or nothing” mentality of perfectionism often coincides with extremely high standards that can’t be met, so your work is never done."

Perfectionism can also leave you in the unhappy place of being highly critical of yourself and others. You might believe you’re unloveable if you’re not perfect in every way. And when you’re exposed to so many competing social media posts about how paleo, keto, veganism, or plant-based foods are the “perfect” diet for all human beings, it’s easy to get confused. The truth is that everyone is different — and there’s no one healthy diet that’s a perfect fit for everyone. In a King’s College London study on metabolism, even when fed identical meals for two weeks, more than 1100 participants — including several pairs of identical twins — showed wild variations in metabolic response. Because everyone reacts differently, we can all benefit from individualized eating plans.

The 80/20 Rule — Is That Good?

What about all things in moderation?

The 80/20 rule allows room for your favorite foods 20-percent of the time, while you adhere to healthy eating the rest of the time (80-percent). Here, “healthy eating” means unprocessed or minimally processed foods, with lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein. There are no “bad foods.” You can still enjoy the occasional pizza dinner or slice of cake. The 80/20 rule offers flexibility and relief to those who’ve burned out on restrictive diets.

"There are no “bad foods.”

This approach takes the stress out of food choices and removes the guilt when you indulge in a treat. There may be health benefits such as reduced risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, and cancer. However, the 80/20 rule requires significant preparation and planning, and centering 80-percent on super healthy eating can be more expensive. And it might not leave much room for spontaneity, like dining out or going to a party. If you’re feeling pressure to hit a “perfect” 80/20 balance, this approach may be just as rigid as restrictive diets. When a client gets upset that their 80/20 looks more like 70/30 or 90/10, and when worries persist about “losing control” around favorite foods, it’s a good bet that something deeper is going on.

But What about Intuitive Eating? That Must Be It!

Intuitive eating is simple and straightforward: You eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full. There are no “good” or “bad” foods. You listen to your body and pay attention to what it needs. It’s a great solution for those who want to release the diet mindset once and for all, but even intuitive eating can be problematic if perfectionism comes into play — if you’re constantly monitoring and micromanaging your behavior, and chastising yourself for the tiniest slip-up.

"Intuitive eating is simple and straightforward: You eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full."

Instead of letting go of the idea that your body needs to be a certain size or that clothing needs to fit a particular way, perfectionism requires strict adherence to rules in the pursuit of often unattainable ideals. This can result in beating yourself up if you eat just a microgram more when you’re already full, criticizing your food choices, or waiting until your blood sugar dives off a cliff before allowing that you’re “hungry enough” to eat. Rather than rejecting diets — which is the intention behind intuitive eating — a perfectionist might instead end up replacing one set of restrictive eating rules with new ones.

The Only Real Answer: Eliminating Guilt

Guidelines like intuitive eating and 80/20 can be helpful as long as you’re also practicing patience and forgiveness with yourself. It’s all too easy to fall into a cycle of guilt, shame, and disordered eating when we’re not feeding our bodies. This is not a sign of weakness! So many factors can lead to problematic mindsets and behaviors around eating, including hormones, family history, and genetics. Other factors like relationship dynamics and media messaging play a part as well. These feelings can impact not just your relationship with food, but your mental health as well. The resulting anxiety and depression can leave you disconnected from your body and your life overall.

But there is hope! With practice and patience, you can learn to reduce and even release yourself from feelings of guilt and shame. Here’s the hard but wonderful truth: Not a single one of us is perfect, and striving for perfection — especially in our bodies — is a recipe for hurt and frustration.

"Not a single one of us is perfect, and striving for perfection — especially in our bodies — is a recipe for hurt and frustration."

The first key is awareness. When you pay attention to the circumstances — people, places, and predicaments — that are likely to spark negative feelings or lead to behaviors you want to change, you can learn to avoid these situations or approach them with intention and preparation. You can do the same with any foods that trigger negative feelings or self-judgment. You can also unfollow social media accounts that leave you feeling lacking.

There’s a reason we tell each other to “stop shoulding” on ourselves. Avoiding “should” and “shouldn’t” in self-talk gives you space to challenge where those thoughts came from in the first place, and brings the opportunity to replace that internal language with kinder and more realistic messages. You can start by being more compassionate and forgiving in your self-talk, practicing mindfulness, and releasing toxic thoughts of comparing yourself to others. Speak to yourself the same way you would to a good friend. You can also develop your own uplifting mantra to accompany mindful breathing when you’re feeling stressed.

Another way to dispel guilt and shame is to bring greater awareness to your experience of eating. Food can be a primary and motivating joy in life, fostering connection with family and friends when we share a meal. Eating to fuel and strengthen your body can bring deep satisfaction. And because each body has different needs, your “best diet” can’t be dictated by anyone else. Experiment with what foods feel good to you and produce the best results in your unique body. We all deserve to enjoy this most fundamental part of living. “Avoiding foods you enjoy often leads to an obsession with those foods and a future binge,” says registered dietitian nutritionist Sarah Anzlovar. “Trying to follow a perfect diet can actually be a detriment to your mental health. Also, when trying to be ‘perfect’ with your diet, you might miss out on many social experiences that involve food, which can affect your mental health as well.”

Little successes count for a lot! When you give yourself credit for taking even the smallest steps toward a healthier mindset, you’re building your self-esteem — and while you’re feeling better about yourself, you’re also reducing guilt and shame. If you feel like you need support, you can find a therapist to help you work through “all or nothing” perfectionist thinking around food. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be helpful. When you become more aware of your thoughts and feelings, you can learn to challenge these negative emotions and replace them with more constructive thoughts and kindness. 

No one’s perfect — and there’s no perfect diet, either. But you can listen to your body and your heart, and learn to make the best choices for where you are right now. And wherever that is, you deserve a life of joy.

Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Sera Lavelle, is the cofounder of Bea Better Eating and owner of NY Health Hypnosis & Integrative Therapy in NYC. To learn more about Bea Better Eating and our mission, please click here.

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