Projections of the All-or-Nothing Food Attitude

By Katie, 5:28 am

As I’ve shared before, sometimes I struggle with all-or-nothing thinking when it comes to my food choices, and it’s pretty frustrating. It’s equally frustrating when other people project that all-or-nothing attitude onto me. I bet First Lady Michelle Obama can commiserate.


You’re probably aware that Mrs. Obama has been stepping up efforts to make America healthier. Not surprisingly, this has led to some criticism of her personal food choices. Most notably, Rush Limbaugh attacked the First Lady for enjoying a plate of ribs at a restaurant while on her vacation with her family (his comments were also strewn with sexism, but that’s no big shocker).

She’s also been criticized for saying North Carolina has great BBQ, and for serving cheeseburgers and buffalo wings at the White House Super Bowl party. In other words, because she cares about health, a gram of fat is never supposed to pass her lips. :roll:

Now I know a lot of this criticism comes from the mere fact that she’s a public figure. And yet I bet a lot of us have experienced something similar, having the all-or-nothing attitude projected onto us. It’s someone gasping when they see a registered dietitian reaching for a cookie. It’s someone shaking their head when they see an anti-dieter ordering a side of steamed broccoli.

It’s as if the minute we take on an identify – a healthy eater, or a reformed yo-yo dieter, or whatever – people want to box us into that identify for the rest of eternity. The idea of “everything in moderation” gets thrown out the window.

So I think it’s worth saying loud and clear: just because I care about my health doesn’t mean I don’t like ice cream, and just because I’m against dieting doesn’t mean I can’t order a salad every now and then.

Indeed, I would go as far as to say that to be healthy – in a “whole-self” kind of way – you’ve got to enjoy a sweet treat or a fried goodie every now and then. And to be a true intuitive eater, you’ve got to recognize when your body is craving whole, fresh vegetables.

So Michelle, I hope you enjoyed your Carolina BBQ, and in no way does that experience invalidate your message of health and well-being.

Have you ever had the all-or-nothing attitude projected onto you?


What do you think about the criticism of the First Lady’s food choices?

35 Responses to “Projections of the All-or-Nothing Food Attitude”

  1. I experience this a lot when people ask me what I do. They assume all sorts of things about me as well as the people I help. And one of the ideas I am trying to personally banish is the idea that intuitive eaters don’t eat healthfully. That goes back to that whole concept of people assuming that intuitive eating is about “eating whatever you want” when it is actually about listening to your body and your bodies needs. And when folks are listening, they do crave vegetables!!

  2. Becca says:

    Tell me about it! A friend of ours is a physiotherapist who has recently started learning about nutrition (unfortunately he has picked one “guru” that he likes and now listens to only him… But that’s another topic!) and eating our once-every-few-weeks curry with him was a complete disaster!

    I couldn’t enjoy my brinjal bhaji because he wouldn’t shut up about how the aubergine absorbs so much (deliciously aromatic) oil and that using white naan bread to mop it up was just adding diabetes to my future heart disease. Wow.

    Overall, I’m not as healthy as I ought to be, but I cannot help but think that I’d be much, much less healthy if I were freaking out about every mouthful that passed my lips. Moderation is just the key to health.

  3. I think people do it all the time… often with good intentions… and sometimes because they’re just search for something negative to say (like in the Michelle Obama situation). Especially when someone is in the process of losing (or gaining if that’s what needs to take place) weight, others in their life are adjusting to the new behaviors too. Well-meaning people often don’t know what to say, and it often comes out… not so good.

  4. I fully support Mrs. Obama’s food choices and I really feel like they represent what most American’s diets are (or should be). Sure, there are the health nuts and the couch potatos, but most people try to pay as much attention to health as possible while still providing for the occasional indulgence. That’s really the way it should be, no?

  5. I have had the “all-or-nothing” food attitude projected on me. It was when I first started weight watchers and anytime I was seen eating something that people didn’t consider “WW friendly” there would be a gasp and the question, “CAN you eat that?” I always found it funny that people thought I should be cutting out every “bad” food, but in reality I knew that was no way to stay healthy.
    In regards to Michelle Obama, I think the criticism of her diet is unnecessary. Clearly she understands that it’s about moderation, and more power to her for not letting other people dictate her food choices. She’s clearly in good shape (not that that’s the determining factor), and everyone deserves to indulge every once in a while. Not only that but she was on vacation! I know I don’t always make good choices on vacation.

    • Katie says:

      I’m glad that you understood the importance of little indulgences even when people were questioning your choices! That can be so frustrating.

  6. LOVE this post. As an RD, if someone makes a comment about my food choice it frustrates me that I have to explain it — yes, I eat cookies sometimes.. yes I eat ice cream sometimes… Just because I’m an RD doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy things in moderation like everyone else!

  7. I hadn’t heard of Mrs Obama getting criticized like that and it makes me SO mad. I wish you could send this post into the New York Times as a letter! I feel like it has a message that REALLY needs to be read. Judging Michelle Obama like that takes away all of her work with kids and obesity. I always fear that the campaign against obesity in schools will hurt kids more than it will help them – because it will mess up their minds about food. How are they supposed to learn to have a healthy relationship with food, which I think should be the main goal, if things are so black and white?

  8. I think that I want to have dinner with her because I love me some ribs. And NC does indeed have great BBQ.

    I think when you’re a majorly important public figure, people will bag on you no matter what you do, ya know? Good for MO for enjoying some delicious food from time to time. Life is too short to forgo BBQ. And I don’t think that makes her a bad role model for the kids she’s trying to help. What kid would get on board with a healthy lifestyle if it meant giving up junk food while on vacation?

    • Katie says:

      Agreed. And I do think much of the criticism is stemming from her role as a public figure – I think most people in those positions will be criticized no matter what they do.

  9. I think the criticism is fair. Mrs. Obama has spoken at length about putting one of her girls on a diet.

    • Becca says:

      I think you may have missed the point, which is that assigning “good” and “bad” labels to foods is unhelpful.

      Watching what one eats doesn’t have to mean that anything is banned even if one is trying to lose weight, or helping a loved one to do so. If Mrs Obama were allowing her children nothing but lettuce while she pigged out on ribs, then I’d agree with you, but that certainly doesn’t seem to be the case.

      • Nah, I see your point. However, her advocation of putting her daughters on her diet makes it fair (in my mind) to get the criticism. I am sure others feel differently, and that is okay.

        • Alexis says:

          I feel the same way about putting a child on a diet. Don’ I was put on my first diet when I was 6. Learned to despise my fat self by the time I was 8. Became bulimic by 15, way before anyone knew what it was or had a name for it. Dieted myself 80 lbs overweight with the last supper binge mindset. To me, from my own experience and hearing other’s stories, putting a child on a diet is nothing short of child abuse. I hope Michelle teaches her daughter self-care and self-respect, and leaves the dieting to those who are willing to torture themselves for the glory of the diet industry.

  10. YES! My friends view me as “the healthy one” because I used to compete in figure competitions and used to be so restrictive with my eating (think bringing my own food to social events). Now, that I’ve lightened up I still get comments occasionally and remarks about “Oh, you can eat that? I thought you were all healthy”. Blah!

  11. Oh yes. My family reads my blog and whenever I go visit them (typically on holidays and special occassions) I get the: “What are you eating? I thought you only ate healthy food”. Drives me crazy (got to love them though!).

    I’ve always believed that a part of being healthy is treating yourself now and then. When I don’t treat myself (i.e. only eat what is deemed healthy) is when I’m the un-healthiest because it leads to binges and obsessive thinking.

  12. I think we all do that!

  13. Yes, I think this all the time! When I eat a salad for lunch, I fear that others see me as a sell-out, or someone who is not really recovered from an eating disorder. I’m not sure if this is my projection, or what they really think. Probably it’s some of both. But regardless, it TOTALLY represents black and white thinking. It also suggests that our food choices are subject to intense scrutiny. Which is a bit scary, and big brother-esque.

  14. I once put butter on a piece of white bread, and my mom said “aren’t you the healthy living blogger?”- as if I need to be absolutely perfect ALL the time.
    I think Michelle’s choices are probably extremely balanced, and we shouldn’t criticize her for her choices- as you point out:)

  15. Excellent post Katie…when I relaxed my “all or nothing” stance it threw some people for a loop and so what I am realizing now is that it’s not so much THEIR all or nothing attitude, it was mine!

    There’s a similar phenomenon in regards to political/ideological affiliation: if, for example, you say you’re against the war in Iraq, others believe that you must think a certain way about other issues (you’re a liberal hippy, earthy-crunchy type). And if you support the war, then you must think a certain way about other issues (you’re a right-wing crew-cut-wearing Marine who eats rocks for breakfast).

    • Katie says:

      Very true! The all-or-nothing projections extend into so many areas. It’s like you often say – it doesn’t have to be either/or, it can be both/and.

  16. Anna says:

    Ohh, that’s a huge pet peeve of mine. Someone shows up with a salad for lunch two days in a row and people assume they are on a diet. Or you stop eating because you just aren’t hungry even though you have more food left, and people think you are practicing portion control because you are on a diet. Or if an overweight person is seen eating ice cream, clearly that’s why they are overweight, even though they could be sitting next to a slender person eating the exact same thing.
    I have to admit that perception kept me more structured about what I ate earlier in my life – I ate fairly healthy but I was (and am) overweight. I never wanted people to look over and see me eating sugar and say “oh well THAT’S why” so I didn’t allow myself to enjoy treats the same way it seemed others did. Because there’s this all or nothing perception in the world. What is it that causes humans to be so quick to judge? What is it that makes us want to have boxes around everyone and every thing? Omnivore, vegetarian, vegan, lacto-ovo vegetarian, pescatarian, paleo, etc. Once a label is assigned people seem to think that you must stay within that label. Why? Why in a world filled with color and clearly so many shades of gray, do we (as a society) insist on maintaining a black and white outlook?
    To answer your question, I think it’s great to promote a healthy diet, and it’s fine to also indulge once in awhile. I don’t think that makes her stance any less valid. In fact I think it makes the idea of healthy eating more approachable – it’s not an all or nothing, but a “what can you add to your diet to make your body happier.”

  17. I know I have been in a all-healthy state (orthexia), but now, I strive for balance in life. If I do have a treat, I make sure it is as healthy as possible. :)


  18. Great post!

    An all-or-nothing attitude is very harmful. Unfortunately, many people have an all-or-nothing attitude when it comes to health. I think to be healthy, you should focus on healthy options most of the time but you have to allow yourself to let go once in a while, otherwise what you are doing is in fact not healthy!

  19. I am so on guard against the all or nothing way of thinking and being. And yes, it has been projected on me as a healthy weight loss coach. I’ve even been called a food snob, which I decided to take as a compliment.

    All or nothing thinking is part of the extremism that exists within most aspects of our society these days – not just health and nutrition. I think it’s important to stick up and strive for balance and moderation which are sorely lacking.

    • Katie says:

      I agree – this kind of thinking is very pervasive in all aspects of society. I like how you decided to take what could be a criticism as a compliment – what a great perspective!

  20. Alexis says:

    The pundits also criticized her for wearing a sleeveless dress. So go figure.
    Ppl are so screwed up about food nowadays. Ordering desert is more like going to the confessional. I sinned. My flesh was weak. I promise to do better next time. Ordering desert is saving me from a secret binge… or six. Would I rather eat AND ENJOY a slice of cake, or would I rather restrict till I can’t take it anymore, so buy $60 worth of food that will soon be making it’s way to the water purification facility via my stomach.
    I can’t tolerate that apologetic/guilty attitude concerning food anymore. In myself and hearing it from others. It’s so contrived and unnatural. No one can maintain that unreal reality for long.

    • Katie says:

      Well-said, and I completely agree. I hear that kind of guilty crap all. the. time. It’s so incredibly frustrating.

Leave a Reply

Panorama Theme by Themocracy