“Don’t Let Perfect Be the Enemy of Good”
The Italian philosopher Voltaire is most commonly credited with the quote, although it likely predates him: “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good” (or something close to that).
There are other versions. Confucius: “Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.” Shakespeare: “Striving to better, oft we mar what's well.”
Being obsessed with perfection can be useful in certain pursuits. NBA star Ray Allen channeled borderline obsessive practice habits into one of the smoothest and most consistent jump shots basketball fans have ever seen. Actor Daniel Day-Lewis is notorious for his dedication to roles, including building his own character’s house on the set of The Crucible with 17th century tools and subsequently living in it throughout filming.
What does all of this have to do with food?
The idea of perfection, or even the pursuit of it, can become problematic when it comes to eating. There is no perfect food, meal, or diet, despite all the time and effort we’ve spent trying to find it. There are a few problems that this pursuit can cause:
Inability to give yourself credit for progress. Lots of people make short-term changes with food, which may be beneficial, but give them up when they feel these new habits are not demanding or stringent enough to be “worth it.” The pursuit of unrealistic weight goals may play into this dynamic.
Elimination of essential food groups or nutrients. Defining food choices in absolute or perfectionistic terms requires certain foods to be labeled as the “wrong” ones – and therefore eliminated. Unfortunately, completely eliminating a macronutrient or food group often comes with nutrient deficiencies and its own health problems.
Development of disordered eating behaviors. At its worst, a perfectionistic attitude towards food can devolve into orthorexia or a clinically significant eating disorder.
I want to be clear that this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make changes to how you eat if what you’re doing isn’t working for your health. Poor diets contribute to an increased risk of lots of different chronic health conditions, and there are changes that our population as a whole should be making. Here are some examples of changes you may want to consider, in addition to some warning signs that you’re taking it too far:
Eating enough fruits, vegetables, and whole plant foods.
Smart: Try to get at least three cups (combined) of these foods per day. Eating a fruit or vegetable with each meal will help accomplish this.
Not smart: Trying to eat only fruits and vegetables. This can easily leave you deficient in protein, essential fats, iron, and more. Vegan eating can be sustainable, but this means including beans, nuts, seeds, and more to hit all the essential nutrients.
Limiting added sugars.
Smart: Avoid using sweetened drinks as your staple beverages.
Not smart: Depriving yourself of a piece of your own birthday cake.
Keeping a food journal to better understand your eating patterns and hunger/fullness cues.
Smart: Document instances of mindless eating related to stress, boredom, or fatigue, and replace food with a more fitting solution.
Not smart: Spending excessive amounts of time tabulating every nutrient you consume.
If you want to eat better, think of ways to make progress and utilize process-oriented thinking. Be patient with yourself, learn from the obstacles that pop up, and find solutions you can implement long-term. If you can’t (or shouldn’t) see yourself doing it in six months, it’s not worth doing. And leave perfection out of it.