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When you mess up on your diet – What do you do next?


So you start your new diet – maybe it’s a paleo challenge. 30 days strict. (Or perhaps it’s another diet / eating plan you decided to take on). Perhaps you also committed to other lifestyle changes.

You start with enthusiasm. You look forward to being in control of your intake, eating in a more disciplined and healthy way. You also look forward to the results your effort will bring; health improvements, body composition changes, improved sports performance.

All goes well for a few days or a week, or maybe even two.

And then:

– Someone brings a cake to work – and you can’t resist a piece.

– It’s your best friend’s birthday and you have a glass of wine (or 5), and your self-control goes out the window and you don’t care what you put in your mouth.

– You are thoroughly sick of eating boring vegetables, and that bar of chocolate just jumps into your mouth, because lets face it – you deserve it – you’ve been so good.

What happens next? Guilt?

You have a piece of cake at work,  or the bar of chocolate – but you don’t really enjoy it, you eat it quickly and guiltily. You regret your slip in self-control. You beat yourself up. You are annoyed at your weakness.

And then what do you do? What is the next decision you make?

Do you then decide to starve yourself – punishment? Or do you give up?

I frequently see the giving up. “I’ve blown my diet now – I’ll just eat what I feel like for the rest of the day” Then the rest of the day you eat whatever rubbish you feel like, with a mixture of relish and guilt. The next morning the scales show a 2 pound increase in weight, so you feel even more disheartened. You were going to have a good day today – but you feel so crap about what the scales just old you that you don’t see the point anymore. (You lose sight of the fact that the majority of the weight you have gained will be water, glycogen, and probably food in your intestines, from the carb and food loading)

Here’s an analogy for you to consider:

If you are late for work one day, what do you do? Do you beat yourself up for being so weak, then decide that seeing as you’ve blown it today you might as well be late everyday, and for every appointment?

Or you have just messed up a work project, or assignment, or presentation – what ever. Do you then say “Blow it – I don’t care – I’m just going to give up and do bad work from now on”?

Most people I know don’t do that.

If I’m late, I look at what contributed to me being late, and commit to being on time at the very next appointment.

If I messed up an assignment, or something at work  didn’t go as well as it should have, or I let someone down – I might ask for feedback and advice, get support, analyse what happened and work out a strategy to improve.

So why do we have a grown up response to one broken commitment (say at work, but could be a relationship problem etc) and a completely immature and childish reaction in another area of life? (In this case your commitment to healthy eating)

Is this you? If so what will you do next time?

Here is what I find works for me.

If there is a glass of wine or a goody that is tempting – I choose to have it – or not. We often act as though someone else is making us, or we can’t help ourself, we HAVE to make up a justification, and that justification is how we let ourself off the hook. If you don’t know what I mean by this – take a look at the next sentence and fill in the rest

I ate it because ____________ Whatever is after the because, is your justification. A justification in some circumstances is the way you excuse yourself and let yourself off the hook. It stops you taking responsibility for your action. (You blame something or someone else)

A more useful and guilt free way of having something that isn’t on the food list, is to choose. I’m going to my best friends party – so I choose to have a 2 glasses of wine, and I will enjoy it, guilt free. I put it on my list – just for today.

When you are next offered a piece of cake – will you choose it – or not choose it? If you do choose it – will you then be responsible for your choice – WITHOUT GUILT? If you do choose to eat a piece of cake – ENJOY IT. Savour it, eat it slowly and thoughtfully. Eating one piece of cake does not make you a failure – if you chose it thoughtfully, taking full responsibility for the consequences.

However – maybe you did just eat a some junk food. And you felt guilty. Fair enough, you let yourself down. Now handle the mess-up like you might any other mess up – say at work. Look at what contributed, figure out a strategy to avoid messing up again, and recommit.

Another way I have “all or nothing” or “I’m a failure if I mess up once” clients look at their eating habits is in percentages. In lots of other areas of life we aren’t perfect. If you were to rate yourself in your job – would you give yourself 100%? In your relationship, or as a parent? I know I wouldn’t. Yet why do we think in our eating – it’s either 100% or give up? Give yourself a mark out of 100 – anything over 80 is an A after all.


Something else to consider – Our environment is NOT set up to support us, any of us.

When we go to work – there is usually a strong external support. We will get in trouble if we are late, or do not do the work our boss expects of us. Even if we are self-employed – we don’t like to let people down, we value our reputation, and we need to earn money.

Our eating though is different. As a hunter – gatherer our environment dictated what we could eat, and we needed to put in considerable physical effort to procure and prepare our food. No longer. We have NO (or practically no) external factors stopping us eating whatever we feel like, what’s more our external environment actually encourages to eat things that do not support our health. We must either create an external environment that supports us, OR create a strong internal drive that can resist the lack of external support.

That takes something, often huge willpower, which goes against (IMO) all our natural drives. Think about it; hunter -gatherers or even agriculturalists (growing their own food) had to put considerable willpower and work into getting food. We have to put considerable willpower and mental work into stopping eating. A very unnatural habit from a survival point of view. This is why it is not easy. However this does not mean it is impossible. It takes effort and we need to acknowledge that. Stop thinking it SHOULD be easy, it is more likely to be hard. Acknowledge your successes, however small they might look.

Change your habits – Great articles from Whole9

Change your habits: Part 1, The cue

Change your habits: Part 2, Willpower






  1. I used to really struggle with the ‘getting back on the wagon’ thing. Now, I do not. I found it important to accept from the start that I WAS going to stray (just like I AM going to have days where I procrastinate more than I study.. ahem). Knowing that this is normal allows me to quickly move past it. I also used to do the ‘why did I do that?’ analysis, but found that it’s usually just because a glass of wine became two, which became pizza. Or, I was bored, or I was stressed. I find it more stressful to overanalyse than to just move on. If I make a good start, in two days it is forgotten and I’m feeling great again. Also, I have learned that after a splurge, I will probably feel a bit depressed the next day. Just acknowledging that this is because wine and pizza makes me feel like life sucks helps me get through it. I know that it’s just my brain reacting, not my life falling to pieces. It only takes a day for that to go away.

  2. This was such a great article and so true….our environment is NOT made to set up to support us….
    But in order to succeed in anything, we must be able to support ourselves and stick to goals we’ve set up….
    Dieting is not physical, it is 100% mental….
    If you eat something that throws your diet off, acknowledge it and move on….holding on to that guilt will not help you diet any better….
    Just make a conscious effort to find a way to balance it out.

  3. Thanks for this, Julianne and posting the link to Whole9. It was very informative and helpful for changing some of my habits I don’t want e.g. late night media activity!

  4. Thank you SO much for this article. Honestly, it has helped me immensely. Constructive, encouraging, true and confidently written.

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