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Avoiding ‘Diet Perfectionism’ and the trap of crippling inaction

This post is about the pursuit of ‘diet perfectionism’

  • There is so much conflicting and confusing ‘diet advice’ around these days, that it can be really hard to know what to do to genuinely make the best healthy choices
  • Many well-intentioned nutrition and wellness ‘experts’ promote ideals of healthy eating that are virtually impossible for ‘the rest of us’ to live up to
  • A lot of people get caught up in trying hard to do “the right thing”, following all the fads, the latest craze, the health warnings and shopping for the latest superfood being promoted by some A-list celebrity
  • It can be so hard to navigate the endless advice and warnings, that many people suffer the “paralysis of analysis”, so fearful of taking the wrong action, they end up taking no action at all
  • This blog will help you not to get too caught up in the world of ‘diet perfectionism’, and help you to see that if you just focus on making the big changes you need for a healthy lifestyle, the detail can drop into place later

I have never seen the TV comedy show Portlandia, because, well, I don’t watch TV, but I have seen this sketch on YouTube and it really makes me laugh: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WAlWrT5P2VI

To my mind, this sketch plays on the 21st century fad of searching for the perfect healthy diet, an almost impossible nirvana.

I think there are quite a lot of people getting wrapped up in ‘diet perfectionism’, and I find myself increasingly troubled by this. As someone who is involved in the world of diet and nutrition, I read an awful lot on the subject of food and healthy living, and I watch many videos and attend lots of seminars and workshops. It is easy to become wrapped up in the idealist vision of ‘perfect’ healthy eating. Like any other subject, once you immerse yourself in learning, it is easy for something to move from an interest to an obsession. The trouble is, “perfect” is an illusion. There can be no “perfect” because we are all different, and time changes, and seasons change, and we change, and no two people are ever the same people in the same place at the same time, so no two people ever have precisely the same needs.

Painful pursuit of the almost impossible

Diet perfectionism becomes a painful pursuit of a virtually impossible ideal. I see a lot of people, at times myself included, obsessing and being hard on ourselves over ‘the last 1%’ because we read so much about optimum nutrition that we have become fearful that our minor discrepancies will prove detrimental to our long term progress. Also, as someone who writes about nutrition and lifestyle, I am often criticized, sometimes teased, sometimes attacked, over the imperfections in my own diet, by other health professionals and health experts who suffer from similar diet perfectionist tendencies. This is diet perfectionism at work, and in my opinion it can be as negative and harmful as most other obsessive behaviour, emotional blackmail and minor eating disorders.

To put things in context, I smoked for 20 years, in that time I smoked about 100,000 cigarettes, probably more. I drank quite heavily from 15 years of age to my mid-30s. I ate all the wrong foods for most of the first 40 years of my life – processed foods, white refined carbs, white sugar, refined fats, all the foods I now suggest you don’t ever consume. Between the age of 36 and 42, I cleaned up my diet, learned all about nutrition and eliminated 99% of the bad food from my life. I no longer eat any processed foods, I never touch fizzy drinks, I have removed 95% or more of the refined white sugar from my life, I never eat sweets, cream cakes or sticky chocolate puddings and I have not smoked for 7.5 years. I am now in amazingly good health, have loads of energy, look and feel great, never get sick, I eat meat from animals farmed humanely and sustainably, I eat organic vegetables when I can, I eat fruit,  nuts, seeds and eggs, free range of course, and I have not touched alcohol in 21 months now.

  • Yet some days, I find myself mentally and emotionally beating myself up because the broccoli I bought this week wasn’t organic
  • I give myself a hard time because I had a forkful of peanut butter on the side of a salad, just to liven things up and add some variety and satisfy a taste desire
  • I feel bad because I ate a piece of cheese
  • I get cross with myself because I dipped a teaspoon into my kids jar of chocolate spread as a snack one day when I was tired and feeling like I fancied something sweet

I have friends (who ought to take a good look in the mirror, frankly) sometimes telling me “you shouldn’t eat so much meat, it’ll make you fat, eating all that fat” (they clearly need to visit www.MotherNaturesDiet.me and read my posts about pasture raised meat and how sugar is the enemy, not fat!)

I have well-meaning diet perfectionist friends who worry about me heating olive oil above 40 degrees when I stir fry a few vegetables for my lunch.

Reality check

I SMOKED 100,000 cigarettes! For a decade, my idea of a good night out was 12 pints of Guinness and half a litre of neat Scotch whiskey! You think a drizzle of heated olive oil is going to harm me now? I run ultra-marathons over mountains, gruelling through 10 to 12 hour long runs. I fractured my spine weight training. I used to say pizza and a few beers, followed by a huge bowl of ice cream was my favourite meal – do you think it really matters if my broccoli isn’t organic this week?

Do you see what I mean about diet perfectionism?

  • I quit smoking
  • I quit drinking
  • I quit refined white sugar
  • I quit processed grains
  • I quit processed packaged ‘foods’
  • I exercise almost every day, at least 5 days per week
  • I never touch fizzy drinks, cream cakes or sweets
  • I drink 2 to 4 litres of water every day
  • I get fresh air every day

I have achieved a 98% effective clean-up of my once-awful diet, I am far fitter, stronger, leaner, healthier and full of energy at 43 than I was at 33, or at 23, I am now eating a better diet than 95% of the general population, I take a solid stance on animal cruelty and factory farming, I avoid processed foods and try not to support ‘Big Food’ and ‘Big Agra’ and I certainly don’t support ‘Big Pharma’ as I never take prescription or OTC (over the counter) drugs for anything – yet I still give myself a hard time over the last 1% or 2%! When I was unhealthy, hardly anyone said a word, just my mum, telling me she wished I wouldn’t smoke. Now I am ‘Mr Healthy’ and I put myself up as an example of healthy living, I am frequently criticized for my choices, and I am often criticized for that last 1% or 2%!!

Don’t let diet perfectionism affect YOU

The other day I had one of my regular eggs and greens breakfasts. If you follow this blog, you’ll know the kind of meal I have several times a week. This breakfast consisted of a handful of broccoli, a generous helping of spinach, a few mushrooms and 4 or 5 free range eggs. In an average week, I eat that same breakfast roughly every other day. After eating it, I posted on the MotherNaturesDiet page on Facebook, about the breakfast I had just eaten, and also I posted some other food pictures and comments too. My postings prompted a discussion with a couple of friends, and it gave me a real glimpse into diet perfectionism in action.

To be clear, the discussion was not confrontational, and the people I was in discussion with are friends, but I want to share this with you because it makes for a very interesting ‘case study’.

Over a series of messages and discussions relating to this breakfast (and in similar discussions over previous food posts) I was asked:

  • Are the free range eggs local?
  • Is the spinach grown in the UK? Do you grow your own?
  • How far has the broccoli travelled?
  • How do you know the eggs are free range, are they outdoor ranged hens or barn-raised? Do you KNOW those hens enjoy daylight?
  • Are they eggs from woodland ranged hens?
  • I am a vegan, I don’t eat eggs. And you shouldn’t. What breakfast should a vegan eat?
  • Was the frying pan aluminium?
  • What oil did you use? Olive oil breaks down over 40 degrees, you should use coconut oil
  • Was the pan coated in Teflon?

I answered the various questions, some of my answers met with approval, some didn’t.

I buy my eggs directly from a local farm. They put the eggs in an honesty box out front and I drop the money in and take the eggs away. My 6-yr old daughter comes with me, she counts out 30 eggs and we put £7:00 in the box. We know these are ‘happy chicken’ eggs. We can see the chickens from the honesty box, they are outside in a large enclosed field, they are under rain and sunshine all day, they DO have feeders placed in their grounds, and from the distance I can see them at, those feeders appear to have some kind of grain chicken feed in them, but those hens are also pecking at the dirt, scratching up worms, beetles, bugs, spiders, and anything else they can find. These chickens are outdoor raised, free range, and they look healthy and happy. When I cook 4 or 5 of those eggs, the scrambled eggs on my plate are a much richer yellow colour than when I use eggs bought from a supermarket – bigger richer yolks from healthier, outdoor raised birds.

So my eggs passed all the tests. Did I use olive oil? Yes. Was the pan Teflon coated? Yes. Was the broccoli organic? No. Am I perfect? No. Is my diet perfect? No. Is it better than 99% of the population? Yes. Is it 100 times better than it was a decade ago? Yes. Very definitely YES. Should I stress over that last 1%, should I feel guilty or worried that the broccoli wasn’t organic and I heated olive oil above 40 degrees? No I should not. Compared to how I lived for 20 or 30 years before, this IS nirvana for my body, this IS nirvana for my health. Compared to how 95% or more of the general population live, in this world run on sugar and oil, my diet and lifestyle are exemplary, and I should feel amazingly pleased with myself for my commitment to my own health and longevity.

Changing the world one breakfast at a time

That day, last week, I ate my breakfast at about 8am. I posted the original picture of my meal at about 9am. My ‘interrogation’ continued online from about 9:05am til probably 9:55am. By sheer coincidence, at 10am an unexpected message appeared in my inbox from a lady following my MND page, and the message said that this lady has been following my MND blog for a while, and she has increased her fruit and veg intake, and she has purchased a blender to make smoothies. She then went on to say that she felt frustrated with herself because she was still eating processed foods, and she knows she can do better. She logged on that morning, saw my breakfast post, looked around her kitchen, realised that she had all that she needed to make a healthier breakfast, and so she put her sugar-coated, processed-grain, breakfast cereal off to one side and made eggs and greens instead! She even attached a picture, of greens, mushrooms and eggs on her plate, looking just like my own picture!

I was just SO delighted to read this lady’s message. She didn’t say whether or not the eggs were free range, so I don’t know. She didn’t say if the vegetables were organic, or if she used vegetable oil or sunflower oil or olive oil or coconut oil, and she didn’t say what kind of pan she used to cook those eggs, and she didn’t say whether or not she ate in a mindful state, in a calm environment, with or without the TV on, whether or not her home has Wi-Fi signals, if she had her mobile phone nearby, if she lives near an electricity pylon, if there was emotional or environmental stress in her home/life at the time, whether or not her breakfast was accompanied by a cup of tea or a cup of coffee…she didn’t say any of those things or a thousand other minute details I could think of, and that’s OK because frankly it just doesn’t matter.

What matters is that she put the sugar-coated cereal to one side, and she ate real, fresh, whole, perishable food. She put the processed grains to one side: beaten, heated, rolled, squashed, shaken and shaped by machines in factories, nutritionally devoid of any goodness whatsoever, then fortified with synthetic vitamins and minerals in order that they become a ‘food’ with some nutritional value rather than a sugary substance which would otherwise make you sick consuming it, then coated in refined sugar to make it palatable, and artificial preservatives and additives and colourings to make it more attractive and to prolong it’s shelf life. She took THAT and put it to one side, in favour of REAL food. Fresh eggs. Fresh vegetables. A splash (I presume) of butter or oil. Nothing else.

Diet perfectionism be damned

That is all that matters. Diet perfectionism be damned. This lady made my day, for two reasons. For her, I was delighted that she made a better choice and she showed new commitment to a healthier way of life. And for me, I was chuffed to bits that my MND posts that day helped inspire someone to action. She made a better choice. I made a difference to someone. That is what it’s all about.

If this lady had been wrapped up in diet perfectionism, she would likely have been paralyzed by indecision. She may have been stopped from making progress because her greens were not organic. She may have held off because the eggs were not omega-3 enriched. She may have fretted over heating extra virgin olive oil above 40 degrees. She may have been stumped by fear of cooking in an aluminium pan, or because the non-stick Teflon surface worried her, or because she didn’t have raw unsalted organic butter for her scrambled eggs. Such concerns might have stopped her, saying “I’ll have the cereal today, buy what I need and start tomorrow”, and we all know how often tomorrow keeps pushing back day after day. But she didn’t let these nuances stop her, she took action for the better, and she ate a meal that was so much better than the only other alternative that was available to her at that time.

Don’t get stuck in the detail

I am subscribed to masses of health newsletters, online news services and healthy lifestyle blogs. I see very well qualified, well meaning, good, caring, smart people trying to help and trying to make a difference, but inadvertently preaching diet perfectionism. I am sure I do it myself sometimes too. I read healthy lifestyle advice that is so far removed from the ‘real world’ it’s just ridiculous. If you get wrapped up in thinking that you cannot be healthy unless you have access to wild foraged chaga mushrooms, the latest expensive powdered superfood, some rare Himalayan root, powdered and bottled on the other side of the world, or organic home grown wheatgrass, you become stuck in thinking that being healthy is hard to achieve. It’s not. That breakfast I described above – those foods are normal foods, available from pretty much any supermarket anywhere in the country, at prices the vast majority of normal people can afford. No elitist superfoods, no expensive supplements, no need to order anything special online and await delivery. Just real food, available to everyone, now. So my message to you is this: Don’t get stuck in the details, don’t sweat the small stuff. Focus on the big things. It’s better to be half right, than all wrong.

The ‘all or nothing’ mentality of diet perfectionism destroys so many good intentions because people feel pressured by the perfectionists and they ever-more detailed or outlandish advice. Don’t become a victim of such diet perfectionism. Just work on the big changes, and in time, you can drop the little details into place once you have mastered the big changes in your life. Eliminate processed refined grains, refined sugar, processed foods, processed fats, cheap fatty meats, alcohol, nicotine and processed dairy from your diet. Exercise most days. Get lots of fresh air and sunshine. Stay well hydrated. Reduce stress, get plenty of sleep, try to eliminate as many chemicals from your life as possible.

General George Patton once said “A good plan implemented today is better than a perfect plan implemented tomorrow.”

Once you conquer these big changes, and months down the line you have made these changes permanent in your life, and the ‘new norm’ has become easy and sustainable for you, then you can start looking at ‘the details’, the last few per cent, and make small tweaks and changes to improve your now-healthy lifestyle. But right here and now, don’t let the details derail your efforts, don’t let the minor details belittle your efforts, just make the big changes first and smile and celebrate and enjoy your journey to better health.

Good health is really so simple – it’s more about avoiding the garbage of modern Western living than it is about obtaining any hard-to-find special nutrients or supplements. Don’t let the marketing messages of the diet industry and supplement/superfood companies confuse you or blind you or paralyze you in inactivity. Just look up, smile, cut the garbage and eat real food. Feel good about yourself; have a little bit of chocolate or something now and then if it helps you; enjoy this journey…set yourself up for success, and ignore the naysayers. Mother Nature herself, and MotherNaturesDiet, wants you to take your body and your health to the best place it can be, it’s your birth right, it’s what you deserve. Don’t let anyone – no author, no diet guru, no blogger or journalist in a newspaper or magazine – scare or bully you into thinking that this journey to abundant good health is difficult or complex. It does not need to be. Just step forth confidently and come check out MotherNaturesDiet any time you need help.

MotherNaturesDiet – simple, sustainable, affordable. Natural good health for everyone.

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. Superb blog post. Your efforts are commendable. Continue with your journey educating people. Many will resist the message but most will know what you are saying is truthful.
    I am a vegetarian and I find people’s reaction to my food choices, staggering. Most people draw attention to my leather boots or belt which is a fair point, but I am making a small difference which is better than nothing.

    September 19, 2013
  2. Thanks Victoria, thanks a lot!

    September 19, 2013
  3. Barrie Evans #

    Nice one Karl.:-)

    October 12, 2013
  4. Here is another post, very funny, looking at the same issue:
    http://www.nwedible.com/2012/08/tragedy-healthy-eater.html

    February 16, 2014

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