How to stop being a dieting perfectionist

How to stop being a dieting perfectionist January 20, 2023Leave a comment

During the production of the 1994 film The Shawshank Redemption, director Frank Darabont frequently required his cast to work gruelling 18-hour days, six days a week. 

Actor, Morgan Freeman, playing main character ‘Red’, referred to Darabont’s incessant – and oft-frustrating – need for multiple takes of the same scene. Often, with little discernible differences, he asserted.

One famous scene, in which Red is approached by fellow prison inmate ‘Andy’ to procure a rock hammer, took nine hours to film. That’s enough time to watch the finished picture four times over. It was clear the director was seeking perfection beyond possibility.

And much to Freeman’s detriment. 

The then-56-year-old, who was tasked with the throwing and catching of a baseball in that same shot, had to endure so many takes he suffered an arm injury and was forced to turn up to the set the following day wearing a sling. 

“Acting itself isn’t difficult,” Freeman said, “but having to do something again and again for no discernible reason tends to be a bit debilitating to the energy.”

It’s clear Darabont’s desire for perfectionism was exhausting. And physically demanding. 

It’s no coincidence, therefore, that striving for flawlessness has been found to be extremely damaging in many other domains – and not just related to a sore arm, either. Even Steve Jobs experienced the perils of perfectionism – lying on his deathbed in hospital, he reportedly requested five different oxygen masks so he could choose the one with the ‘best design’. 

The placing of excessive emphasis on unrealistically high standards is none more so problematic than when dieting. 

From leading to disordered eating habits, to damaged self-esteem and self-worth, perfectionism can be a dagger to the heart of many seeking to sustain any fat loss goals they have. 

How can we overcome this need for perfection when dieting then? Are there benefits to seeking such impeccability? How can we turn the tables around and use perfectionism to our advantage?

What Is Perfectionism?

The construct of perfectionism involves placing excessive emphasis on [1]:

Dieters, in particular, can become consumed with excessively high standards. They’ll strive for flawlessness in everything they do, whether with eating habits or exercise behaviours [2]. 

They’ll believe everything needs to be executed perfectly, or else deemed a failure. 

-> They must only eat ‘on plan’ – anything outside of their remit regarded as a cause for giving up. 

-> They must always complete their gym sessions – miss one and the journey is over. 

-> They must constantly be making progress – plateaus lead to the belief that nothing is worth doing anymore. 

Dieters can become so engrossed in the act of achieving perfection, they believe the small steps they’re making are worthless. 

One small deviation from the high standards they set, and they may as well throw their new gym logbook and protein shaker in the bin – ‘What’s the point?!’ they think.

They’re so fearful of being powerless to measure up to an idealised model of perfection, that it leaves them functioning from a sense of failure. 

It’s no wonder dieting perfectionists struggle to make any progress at all, let alone sustain any hard-earned results.

The Problem With Perfectionism

Google has revealed that people have searched for the phrase ‘How to get the perfect body’ more than 2.2 billion times, ‘How to plan the perfect wedding’ more than 236 million times, and ‘How to find the perfect home’ more than 6 billion times. 

The proliferation of social media, higher standards at work, health products relentlessly promoting flawlessness, and society’s ever-growing expectations are causing issues – and none more so than when attempting to lose weight.

Striving for perfection can lead to negative outcomes, such as a tendency to avoid challenges, rigid ‘all-or-nothing’ thinking, and toxic social comparisons. 

It’s why perfectionists, when dieting, will often adopt that ‘I’ll start on Monday’ mentality and spend hours scrolling through Instagram staring at semi-naked influencers wishing they ‘looked like that’, instead of actually getting to the gym.

Not only does dieting perfectionism result in emphasising mistakes, highlighting a lack of self-esteem, and – ultimately – procrastination, but it’s also been found to drive binge eating and enhance body dissatisfaction [3].

High levels of self-oriented perfectionism may lead individuals to also rigidly interpret – and adhere to – perceived strict ‘healthy eating’ guidelines. 

They mustn’t eat this (the chocolate); they must consume that (the kale). Anything short of these unyielding rules means they’ve ruined everything and must start again. 

These rigid regulations become overly restrictive and prohibitive, leading to a greater preoccupation with food and increased symptoms of disordered eating [4]. These self-imposed high standards create more problems than solutions – especially when choosing kale over the chocolate.

One study, for example, recruited 566 women to participate in a 7-day diary study of their eating behaviours, and found a strong relationship between binge eating and socially prescribed perfectionism [5]. 

Unsurprisingly, these perfectionists ended up constantly feeling like they let others down, which led to depression. It also caused further worrying about what others thought of them, and extreme – and unhelpful – efforts to restrict calorie intake.

Unrealistic expectations – a hallmark of perfectionism – can backfire and lead to the frequent sabotage of goals. 

The paradox of perfectionism is that the drive to do well can actually impair performance and make us feel worse.

The Traits of Dieting Perfectionists

They Always Quit

When perfectionists experience a stumbling block, they’ll typically abandon their efforts. If they believe they can’t do ‘well’, they’d rather not do it at all. 

It’s why they’ll quit should they overeat while out at a restaurant, eat all the cookies if they accidentally consume one, and not track any meals for the rest of the week should they fail to log their lunch.

It’s this act of quitting that defines perfectionism.

If all dieters have ever known, seen, and experienced is the desire for impeccability, that’s what they’ll pursue. When they inevitably fall short, they’ll change direction and take steps away from their goals. Their inability to handle fear sabotages them.

Perfectionism isn’t just defined by doing well; it’s characterised by giving up.

They’re Self-Critical

Perfectionists are beset with perpetual, ruthless self-scrutiny, and overly critical evaluations of their behaviour.

They find it difficult to be content with their achievements, even when they’re ‘successful’. They’re consumed by self-doubt and a nagging fear of failure.

This pressure to perform to exceptionally high standards interferes with the activities they want to engage in, the perception of their own capabilities, their ability to recognise true progress, and overinvesting at the expense of other valuable activities and connections [6]. 

Nothing is ever good enough when ‘good enough’ is sometimes all that is required.

They’re ‘All Or Nothing’

Dieting perfectionists will view their endeavours in ‘black or white’ – they’re either successful or not, ‘on plan’ or ‘off plan’, good or bad. Never in between. 

If they’ve aimed for four sessions at the gym during the week but only manage three, they’re unhappy with their efforts. If they’ve promised themselves they’ll only have one glass of wine with dinner but end up having two, they may as well have the whole bottle. They’re either tracking all of their meals or none at all.

They’re either working towards health and fitness goals with complete precision and effort, or eschewing the appropriate behaviours in favour of sitting on the sofa, eating takeaways and partaking in the ‘sedentary Olympics’. 

This dichotomous thinking can lead to limited progress, owing to the pressure of perceived past mistakes and anxiety about future activities. 

They Fear Failure 

Perfectionists will always fail to live up to their outlook on success. They become enveloped in fear. They’re scared of embarrassment, change, and responsibility. They will shirk away from even attempting certain healthy behaviours.

They’re fearful of exposing any home truths regarding their behaviours, so that, instead of being open to learning and improving, they avoid activities that fill them with unease.

They may avoid the gym, shy away from planning meals, or flee the work required to improve their relationship with food and their body image.

When perfectionists operate from this place of fear, they resist learning; they procrastinate, and tend to recoil from pursuing new callings.

Can Perfectionism Ever Be A Good  Thing?

Healthy Perfectionism 

For all its perceived failings, the trait of perfectionism has, at times, been found to possess underlying advantages. 

Commonly defined as adaptive perfectionism, individuals sporting these elevated performance levels want to continually develop their skills, habits, and progress. Their standards are always rising, and they approach their eating and exercise behaviours with optimism, pleasure, and a desire to improve.

The biggest difference between ‘adaptive (positive) perfectionists’ and ‘maladaptive (negative) perfectionists’ is an achievement versus failure mindset.

Positive perfectionists want to win the race; negative perfectionists don’t want to lose the race. 

Dieters with these healthy traits of perfectionism firmly believe they can improve; that they can influence their physique, and have control over their weight loss journey. 

They subsequently try novel activities (e.g., the new hack squat in the gym), persevere (e.g., keep practicing slowly at mealtimes despite failing the first few times), and are eager to learn and improve (e.g., working on accepting their urges rather than fighting them).

Negative perfectionists, however, become entrenched in a belief system that asserts that they’re powerless to improvement, unable to change their body shape, and that their weight loss journeys have already been mapped out for them. 

They subsequently avoid challenges (e.g., avoiding the new hack squat in the gym), quit easily (e.g., never practicing eating slowly because they failed at their last meal), and are fearful of change (e.g., they don’t want to attempt the skill of acceptance with urges at all).

Whenever you’re faced with the desire to quit your latest fat loss endeavour or give up on a task, it’s important to ask yourself whether you’re thinking, ‘Can I do better?’ or ‘This isn’t good enough’.

The former is healthy perfectionism; the latter is unhealthy perfectionism. 

Perfectionist Strivings vs Perfectionist Concerns

Alongside the concept of adaptive perfectionism, exists the notion of perfectionist strivings.

There is nothing inherently ‘unhealthy’ or ‘dysfunctional’ about the seeking of perfection as such. Perfectionism, however, becomes dysfunctional when this desiring perfection turns into a demand for perfection rather than striving for perfection (defined as the ability to accept being less than perfect). [7]

Unsuccessful dieters will set out with the intention of executing all their appropriate behaviours and skills for the week and expect this perfection. They’re worried about failing at the gym, not eating in alignment with their goals, and continually fear being judged for not living up to their or others’ expectations. 

They can’t accept anything less than perfection and will often base their self-worth on their performance or ability to adhere to their goals.

Successful dieters, however, possess an inner drive to achieve excellence. While they still aim for high standards, they’re willing to accept themselves independently of whether they achieve these standards or not. 

They may fail at the gym but are willing to try again. They may not eat in alignment with their goals but will find solutions to their problems. They may fail to track their food but aim to log their next meal immediately.

There’s a big difference between this striving for and demanding perfection. 

The latter is a rigid approach that often becomes unhelpful and self-sabotaging, whereas the former is a flexible approach that leads to the acceptance of falling short of pre-set targets and goals.

Healthy perfectionists are defined as people with high levels of perfectionistic strivings and low levels of perfectionist concerns.

It’s important to strive for perfection while being able to accept imperfection.

How To Become A Healthy dieting Perfectionist 

Identify Your Perfectionist Behaviours and Thoughts

It’s essential to start at the beginning when attempting to become a ‘healthy’ perfectionist and identify how your perfectionist behaviours and thoughts arise [8].

Keeping a ‘perfectionism diary’, identifying your triggers, examining your rigid perfectionistic beliefs, and developing plans for change will encourage the improvement of how you view your goals and behaviours.

List some of the skills and habits you believe must be ‘perfect’. 

-> ‘I must always have a protein source, a vegetable and a carb with every meal throughout the week, and never consume what I consider to be ‘junk food’’

-> ‘I must go to the gym four times a week’

Next to these assumptions, write down why you believe these must be perfect.

-> ‘Anything short of eating like this and consuming that ‘junk food’ will instantly lead to fat gain’

-> ‘If I don’t train regularly, I’ll lose strength and all of my progress’

Consider whether these hypotheses are true or not, and how you can overcome them.

-> ‘I am actually allowed to eat the foods I want, so can include the occasional takeaway or microwave meal into my week. One or two of these each week will mean I enhance enjoyment of the journey and still make progress’

-> ‘Losing strength doesn’t happen overnight. It’s possible to make progress training two or three times a week, and missing a session won’t suddenly mean I’ve ruined everything’

Practice Excellence & Conscientiousness 

While you may have one ‘perfect’ day or week of eating and exercising, a ‘bad’ day – or week – will soon surface. What predicts success is how good you are at minimising the damage of those lesser moments. This is known as practicing excellence.

The pursuit of excellence involves trying, failing, and trying again. This cycle repeats itself until you become excellent, rather than ‘perfect’. 

You become so ‘excellent’ that you can minimise the substandard days, weeks, and months. You’re always making steps forward, regardless of the outcome. 

You’ll still make mistakes – this is not perfectionism, remember – but, because your skill and mindset have developed, with each attempt, into those emphasising quality, not exactitude, you’ll reach a place where precision just isn’t necessary. 

Because you’re now committed to growing and learning, striving for anything more would be detrimental.

Alongside the practicing of excellence, exists the concept of conscientiousness. 

In terms of perfectionism, this is the act of continuing with what you’ve set out to do, regardless of mistakes or slip-ups. 

Someone who is conscientious may work on their food skills for a few days, experience a slight wobble with the biscuit tin, but still work on their food skills for the rest of the week. 

The only game they’re playing is to keep their word for the next day. 

Accepting their failures is done without emotion or fixating on negative feelings; merely the process of picking themselves up and persevering in the face of adversity, because that’s what they said they’d do.

Embrace Your Failures

We know the familiar dieting mentality promotes perfectionism. When dieters inevitably fall short – because all they’ve ever known, seen, and experienced is the desire for impeccability – they’ll change direction and take steps away from their goals.

It’s time to view any perceived failure as nothing more than a quandary that indicates your actions didn’t turn out as you planned or expected. It’s not a negative; it’s merely an opportunity to now improve. 

The act of failure creates growth. 

This ‘solution-oriented’ mindset will allow you to fail forwards. Through leveraging your mistakes, you’re able to avoid those same lapses next time, which, in turn, will help you keep striving towards your new identity, values, and goals. 

Getting knocked down, but seeing how quickly you can get back up again – and appreciating that this is the natural order of the process – is how you should deal with failure.

Remember, healthy perfectionists are those who strive for perfection, but are accepting of imperfection.

Practice Self-Acceptance

It should be clear by now that mistakes and imperfections are commonplace. We all have weaknesses. We all make mistakes. We’re all going to fall short of expected standards, whether from ourselves or the perception of others.

It is possible, however, to resist the pressure to be ‘perfect’ by developing acceptance from within. 

This ‘self-acceptance’ doesn’t mean you accept mediocrity or giving up on yourself. It means that you ‘fully and unconditionally accept yourself whether or not you behave intelligently, correctly, or competently and whether or not other people approve, respect, or love you’. [9] 

It’s about cultivating realistic self-views by acknowledging both strengths and weaknesses, rather than focusing on one at the expense of the other. Failing to live up to impeccable standards doesn’t splinter your self-worth, because accepting and confronting faults without berating yourself permits you the space to change and grow.

Ask yourself:

-> Can you conclude you’re a total failure – or even a terrible person – because you have weaknesses when dieting – just like everyone else?

-> What if we view both dieting ‘wins’ and ‘losses’ as something to learn from, rather than always ‘good’ or ‘bad’?

-> Does a dieting ‘failure’ take away from the other, positive personality traits you possess?

Acknowledging and accepting ourselves allows us to strive for our goals without self-hatred, shame, or anxiety.


1. Hewitt, P. L., & Flett, G. L. (1991). Perfectionism in the self and social contexts: Conceptualization, assessment, and association with psychopathology. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60(3), 456–470.

2. Stoeber, J., & Childs, J. H. (2010). The assessment of self-oriented and socially prescribed perfectionism: Subscales make a difference. Journal of Personality Assessment, 92(6), 577–585. 

3. Wade, T.D., & Tiggemann, M. (2013). The role of perfectionism in body dissatisfaction. Journal of Eating Disorders, 1(2).

4. Brown, A. J., Parman, K. M., Rudat, D. A., & Craighead, L. W. (2012). Disordered eating, perfectionism, and food rules. Eating Behaviors, 13(4), 347–353

5. Sherry, S. B., & Hall, P. A. (2009). The perfectionism model of binge eating: Tests of an integrative model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96(3), 690–709. 

6. Campbell, R., Boone, L., Vansteenkiste, M., & Soenens, B. (2018). Psychological need frustration as a transdiagnostic process in associations of self‐critical perfectionism with depressive symptoms and eating pathology. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 74(10), 1775–1790.

7. Lundh, L-G. (2004). Perfectionism and acceptance. Journal of Rational Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, 22(4), 251-265.

8. Kearns, H., Forbes, A., & Gardiner, M. (2007). A cognitive behavioural coaching intervention for the treatment of perfectionism and self-handicapping in a nonclinical population. Behaviour Change, 24(3), 157–172.

9. Ellis, A. (1977). Psychotherapy and the value of a human being. In A. Ellis & R. Grieger (Eds.), Handbook of rational-emotive therapy (pp. 99–112). New York, NY: Springer.

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