Unhealthy Perfectionism vs. the Pursuit of Excellence

Over the past five years I’ve witnessed many individuals repeatedly struggle with the nutritarian diet-style because of the greatly misunderstood topic of unhealthy perfectionism vs. the pursuit of excellence.  

Unhealthy perfectionism entails the all or nothing, obsessive mindset of striving for flawlessness that messes in a negative way with the psyche. In the context of changing eating habits, this type of perfectionism can be felt as a burden that leads to dissatisfaction and depression if perfect flawlessness can’t be obtained.

“If I can’t eat perfectly, I won’t do it at all.” 

Or . . .  “I blew it. I ate a cookie so now I’ll go ahead and pig out on everything.” 

Or  . . . “I didn’t lose any weight this week so I’m quitting - it's all or nothing for me.”  

That kind of stinkin’ thinking has to go, because it is detrimental to success. 


However, like an Olympic Champion who gives 100% to win the Gold Medal, getting out of food addiction takes 100% commitment. One can’t give half-heartedly and expect to see great results. It takes complete abstinence and no compromises to get free from the entanglements of addiction.

A nicotine addict can’t smoke “just one” cigarette a day and expect to get free from, or stay out of the addiction. Nor can a recovering alcoholic drink “just one” glass of wine every day. It takes abstaining 100% from the addictive substance to get free, and then to remain free. 

Additionally, it’s much easier to eat perfectly – strict adherence to the plan - and get completely rid of nagging cravings than it is to vacillate and keep them continually percolating beneath the surface; waiting to ignite at a moment’s notice. The latter is spelled M-I-S-E-R-Y, because you’re always fighting the demons of temptation. Whereas, once the overwhelming cravings are gone, the inner turmoil is silenced.    

The one who strives for excellence may make mistakes in the learning process, also known as slip ups*, but those errors propel the incentive to work harder. Slip ups may impulsively happen from time to time, but they are minor and short-lived as the quest for excellence is wholeheartedly pursued with great joy and excitement!

[* A slip up is not an intentionally planned cheat: a whole vacation, an entire week, a full day, or even an entire meal. It is a small indiscretion, like maybe some bread that was not health-supporting as a part of one meal, and it didn’t create a total binge of unhealthy eating. The imperfection didn’t destroy or even interrupt 100% commitment to nutritional excellence.]

It’s absolutely necessary to carefully link days of perfect eating together for cravings to subside and then go completely away; and then it is equally important to never return to old habits in order to achieve long term success. One bite of an addictive substance can open the addiction right back up to full force. 

Unfortunately, I’ve observed many who don’t want to be labeled a perfectionist (for fear of being the unhealthy kind) so they intentionally veer off the path of perfect eating just to avoid it! 

That kind of stinkin’ thinking has to go as well, because those who intentionally veer off the path of perfect eating will end up in head on collisions with the Standard American Diet and never get free from unhealthy dietary entanglements. Ever. And sadly, they’ll never achieve optimal health or a quality of life either.   

Ask former nicotine addicts if they smoke a couple cigarettes a day to avoid being labeled a perfectionist. Ask recovery alcoholics if they still hang out at the bars after work to avoid the label as well.

To get free, and to remain free, one has to eat almost perfectly – for life.  


PS   As I was taking the above photo of the scales, I couldn't help but be reminded that 2-3 years ago, junk food and candy were still somewhat tempting to me at times; but now that stuff is disgusting.  I didn't think that would ever happen, but it did.  I used to think that Dr. Fuhrman was some kind of saint from outer space (not really) to say that candy and junk food were disgusting to him . . . but it really does happen over time! 


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Comments (17) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Debbie - October 19, 2013 2:39 PM

You are so right! Thank you for posting. It's amazing how people will try to encourage you to "cheat" and eat something you don't want. I tell them that it's not like dieting to lose weight and you cheat by eating something not on your diet. It's different because when you know what the toxins do to your body, you have no desire to cheat. I don't eat meats, but I love the smell of meats barbequing, or cooking. However, I have no desire to even have a bite. Just not interested. It's all a mindset :)

Matthew - October 19, 2013 2:49 PM

Wow. Curious to see how many eating disorders are realized because of this post. Nice work.

Patti Widener - October 19, 2013 2:52 PM

Thanks Emily! I need to hear this. Good wisdom.

mike rubino - October 19, 2013 3:27 PM

Good article Emily !!

Tamra Augostino - October 19, 2013 6:08 PM

Great article and so full of truths. During one of my Weight Watcher meetings, the leader reminded us of a quote she heard once, "If you stumble, Don't throw yourself down the stairs". I've been using that quote to keep me from failing and throwing a whole meal, day or week do the "stairs" because of one stumble.

Ann - October 19, 2013 8:53 PM

Another wonderful post! You hit the nail on the head with the dangers of veering both ways, and I'm sure we've all been there. When I tried going low fat vegan I allowed myself a nonvegan cheat day with ice cream, cookies, etc every week, and I realize now my body was toxing and detoxing every week - and that is as hard as trying to smoke cigarettes only on Saturday. Now I allow myself vegan desserts, but these are not as addictive. The nutritarian program is amazing - I feel the same as you do - I'm never going back.

Meredith - October 20, 2013 9:13 AM

I love your articles, Emily. I am excited to have finally gotten into the groove of what you're describing here. For years I had an all or nothing mentality: eating perfectly for three days, then having a cupcake and blowing everything off, going right back to eating vegan junk foods for nearly half my calories (if not more).

Something clicked this past September--I realized that my lifelong depression was directly linked to what I ate. I gave up eating all sugars except for fruit, and strove to adopt a nutritarian lifestyle to the best of my abilities. I've since had a few slips--eating part of a candy bar on one occasion, eating a sugary "energy" bar on another--but they have been just minute setbacks on the way. Having experienced the almost total lifting of depression that I've struggled with for over thirty years, plus the immediate vanishing of five pounds to reach my ideal weight, has been immensely rewarding. I'm so glad I now know how to deal with minor setbacks without sinking all the way back into crappy eating, and I look forward to facing more challenges with the same level of commitment.

Thank you, as always, for your interesting and insightful post!

Erin Boyle - October 22, 2013 2:59 PM

I am an "all or nothing" kind of girl. The kind that has one slip up and pigs out for the rest of the day. It seems to happen every day. One little bite sends me reeling and searching for more. Having a "perfect day" is the exception not the rule. What suggestions do you have for a person like me that is not perfect, slips up often but sill needs to stay on track. Your only suggestion was to be perfect. If someone could crack that code they could make millions by helping soooooooo many others like myself!

rebecca hughes - October 23, 2013 7:31 PM

I enjoyed your blog. I've been doing the "Nutritarian" plan for a year now. I realized recently that I really need to hear/be around people who are like minded. People who understand the concept of what being a Nutritarian stands for. Whole foods. Food as medicine. Food to prevent pharmacueticals. For myself I try to remember that it's really about "self care."

Brian - October 24, 2013 11:26 AM

This article and the following testimonies was exactly what I needed to read. Thank you!

Emily Boller - October 27, 2013 4:07 AM


I highly recommend a nutritarian support system for accountability and encouragement. I was a member of Dr. Fuhrman's Member Center during that first year of linking days of abstinence together. Sure, I had slip ups here and there in the learning process, but they were short lived as I reached out for help and support . . . even at 2am sometimes.

Deeply engrained habits are hard to break, and one needs accountability and support to make it successfully through the initial phases of withdrawal.

Dr. Fuhrman also has established the Motivational Outreach Program with specially trained eating addiction counselors that work confidentially, one-on-one with clients to successfully navigate the nutritarian diet-style.

Many severe food addicts have successfully broken the addictions to food. You can do it too!

All the best to you!

Teamsnewman - October 31, 2013 6:15 PM

Thank you.

Yet sometimes, when emotional stife is running high, I want to put the addictive food in my mouth so as to feel the fullness in my mouth and throat. I've found that if I stop, close my eyes and list rational ETL facts, I'm often able to advert the stumble. Sometimes though, I eat the pizza, or whatever, and my thinking is quite pained for a few days. Sometimes a week before I restart. So I silently review why I want to follow ETL and achieve superior health and then start. I appreciate this blog for support.

Roger - November 1, 2013 2:24 PM

You make good points about complete abstinence from junk food, in favor of enjoying your life. But what if you can't enjoy life? I've been Nutritarian for 3 years. I'm 8% body fat and have excellent blood work. But I still had to get an ileostomy to avoid life-threatening illness. Health benefits aside, a major reason for eating healthy at 24 is to LGN (look good naked). Since I can't be athletic or attractive to women, I sometimes feel like there's no point. Maybe that's a perfection or nothing viewpoint, but its depressing to put all this work into yourself just to be half-crippled. I wonder why I bother...

Emily Boller - November 1, 2013 3:08 PM

Roger, be the best you can possibly be for yourself - not for the applause of being athletic or even the applause of women.

Besides, a woman who will truly love you will unconditionally love all of you. Wait that for that special someone - all others are false forms of love and will only end up hurting you anyway.

And yes, "If I can't be athletic or attractive, why bother" is an unhealthy perfectionism mindset. Instead, run from that thinking pattern and be healthy!

Make good choices for Roger. Roger is worthy of the best health that's possible. Aim high, my friend!

Suz - November 1, 2013 8:50 PM

Roger, you have had a significant health crisis, and you have every reason to be very disappointed in the circumstances you are in. It must be incredibly demoralizing to have put so much good work into your health, to have achieved so much, and then still have a health crisis. It's hard then to be able to stop and realize that had you not gotten yourself so healthy, the crisis would likely have been worse, and recovery harder -- even though that is true. The work you have done for your health is not wasted, at all.

And what is attractive to women includes - compassion, humor, interest in the world and other people - so you can DEFINITELY be attractive to women. Some of being attractive has to do with the choices you make about what kind of person you want to be.

All that said - yes, you have had a really hard time of it recently with this surgery, and feeling discouraged is utterly normal, and even appropriate. But do keep up eating the way you've learned to eat, as the nutrients will help boost your spirits sooner than eating poorly will. And as you recover, and are able to be more active, that will help to restore hope to you also. Good luck, Roger. You are certainly experiencing the imperfection in life - but life has much to offer, even as it is imperfect. I hope you find hope again soon. Take care - as Emily said, you are worth it.

Kate - November 4, 2013 5:30 PM

Hi Roger. You got some really good suggestions from Suz and Emily. The only things I can think to add would be to suggest that you find and focus on 3 non-harmful sources of pleasure or comfort in your life, embrace them, practice them, savor the pleasure or comfort you experience through them, even if it's only a little bit, a small degree, of pleasure or comfort. Nearly all of us humans learn from the time we're babies to experience tremendous pleasure and comfort from eating whatever we grow up eating, in whatever food culture we happen to be born into. I think one of the easily forgotten aspects of making and sustaining major changes in our dietary lifestyle is how to address the losses we experience, letting go of the toxic foods and eating habits that are/were so familiar to us for as long as we can remember. There really are non-harmful ways to have fun, pleasure, and comfort. Some are simple little things a person might have overlooked when always turning to toxic foods for little addictive "highs". It's amazing how much mileage you can get out of focusing on one, or two, or three new sources of pleasure or comfort. It can sustain you until the day when you experience something more profoundly joyful or meaningful. You will be glad then, that you sustained yourself through these seemingly dreary empty times. Small comfort today maybe, but true, imo. Meanwhile, I just want to add, also, that it is a very good thing you are here on this planet, that you were born. I know, I never met you and most likely never will, so it may seem like I'm not qualified to say that. But...for what's it's worth, I'd beg to differ. I am glad you are here, on this crazy earth, with the rest of us, awkwardly working to make our way in life as best as we can.

Roger - November 17, 2013 11:49 PM

Emily, Suz & Kate

Thanks very much for your kind & thoughtful replies.

You're right that nutrient-dense food combats depression. Although junk food provides pleasure, it causes far worse lows from toxins, unstable blood sugar, poor circulation, etc. When you get trapped in the pleasure curve and the high disappears, you're basically just hurting yourself.

Finding three sources of pleasure is a really good idea. I'll try to find something constructive to do besides working all the time.

Lastly, I apologize if I'm making an ileo seem worse than it is. Did you ever see the 2011 French film, the Intouchables? Its a true story about a quadriplegic who re-learns to enjoy his life. Compared to him I don't have it hard at all.

Thanks again.

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