We aren't talking about New York Black & White Deli cookies here. Black and white eating refers to an approach to eating. The main aspect of this approach is an all-or-nothing view - restrict all or restrict nothing. The diet has to be either 100% perfect or it's over. The tendency is to think in extremes.
Research as well as the personal experience of many shows that this type of thinking and eating approach can actually lead to more struggles. While it may appear advantageous because it simplifies dieting and reduces the number of choices one has, it can quickly backfire.
What starts off as a well-intentioned plan can rather quickly lead to feelings of deprivation. This can make it even harder to manifest self-control. Additionally, when perfection cannot be achieved and maintained, more discouraging feelings arise leading to the tendency to abandon the diet plan altogether and possibly even overeat.
Another way black and white thinking may lead to overeating has to do with foods labeled as "good". One may reason it if the food is good, it can be overindulged in. As we all know, portion size still needs to be taken into consideration even with healthier food choices. However, black and white thinking may cause us to forget or ignore this simple principle.
Finally, for some, a food they enjoy that is labeled as "bad" may become even more tempting now that it is restricted.
Researchers from the Netherlands found that black and white thinking (thinking of foods as either 'good' or 'bad') explains why those who consciously control their food choices are more likely to regain more weight. Those who control their intake rigidly are more likely to fail to stick to their black and white plan. In the long term, this actually leads to more weight gain. On other hand, those with a more flexible restraint to eating (may allow a fatty food once in a while) were shown to be more successful. 1
Black & White VS Intuitive Eating
Black and white eating can be the result of one's upbringing, exposure to faulty messages in the media, or even a disconnection from one's hunger and fullness cues. What can help?
1. One approach that can help shift away from black and white thinking is intuitive eating. Intuitive eating, however, is not synonymous with instinctively responding to any and all cravings. Instead of the focus being on simply restricting food, an intuitive eater focuses on the eating experience - everything from the hunger cues to the joys of eating to the fullness cues. Focusing on the pleasure from foods consumed can allow one to feel more satisfied with less food. Focusing on the body's cues allows one to make smart, conscious decisions around food, such as when to stop eating.
2. Another simple tip is to avoid labeling food with negative connotations like "bad" or "banned" or "unhealthy". In many cases, if that food happens to be consumed, then feelings of guilt and shame follow. Negative feelings of guilt and shame make giving up on the diet plan altogether.
3. Aim to make realistic goals. When it comes to health behavior change, goals need to be revised along the way. Try this: set a realistic goal for a three-week timeframe. Once those three weeks are up and you are comfortable with the goal, add a new goal or slightly adjust the goal you have been working on already.
4. Keep an eye out for signs of improvement. Black and white thinking doesn't only translate to black and white eating. It may also reflect as black and white goals. For example, it's either "lose 15 pounds in 1 month or I fail!". These kinds of goals overlook any praise-worthy progress you may have made. Consider even minor weight loss or minor increase in muscle mass as a noteworthy achievement! Appreciate even minor progress.
Be aware of the black and white approach. It can creep up in one's thinking, eating, and goals. It tends to encourage feelings of inadequacy and an overly critical spirit.
1. Palascha A, van Kleef E & van Trijp HCM. (2015). How does thinking in Black and White terms relate to eating behavior and weight regain? Journal of Health Psychology 20(5): 638–648. DOI: 10.1177/1359105315573440