Whats Up with Perfectionism
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I’m not sure of the number of perfectionists who walk among us, but if you work in the nutrition, fitness, or eating psychology business, it seems like perfectionism is everywhere. So many people are looking for the perfect body, perfect weight, perfect diet, the perfect nutritional system, and more. It seems like such a noble and high-level approach to life – just do everything flawlessly and we’ll have achieved a lofty place in the Hall of Fame of Life. Some will applaud us, others will envy us, and of course, we’ll have the inner satisfaction of having reached the supreme state of perfectness. But, as fate would have it, our quest for precision has a toxic side to it that can be quite debilitating. It can terrorize us, set us up for constant failure, and keep us in a perpetual state of never feeling good enough about who we are, how we eat, and what we look like. So, what’s up with perfectionism? Where does it come from? Why do we have it? And how can we prevent it from wreaking havoc on our very human and imperfect selves?

I think I have a few answers…

Let’s get right down to business. I’d like to suggest to you that perfectionism is a virus that does very little good for the up-liftment of the human body and soul. It’s the kind of virus that exists in the realm of our collective mind, and that finds a home in those who are susceptible and unsuspecting hosts. A viral thought such as, “I must be perfect” is intended to create weakness, as well as a constant source of stress and fear. These are the perfect foods and conditions for the virus of perfectionism to happily exist. It fools us into believing in the false religion of being perfect. Like any smart virus, it wants to keep us alive, but weaken us enough so that we cannot defeat it.

If you’ve battled perfectionism, then you know that it’s not easy to overcome. That’s because the virus is far stronger than any one person. Actually, it’s quite powerful and equally seductive. After all, who wouldn’t want to be perfect? It seems like such a noble goal to attain…

But always around the corner from perfectionism is self-abuse.

That’s because “the state of perfect” doesn’t actually exist. It’s a destination that so many people want to get to that isn’t even on the map. Once we put all our efforts into perfect eating, perfect exercise, and following our diet perfectly – eventually, we will stray. Flawlessness is an unsustainable state. I don’t know a single person who’s ever resided there permanently. The usual response when we fall off the pedestal of perfect is some version of self-attack, self hate, and self criticism. We might even jump to “screw it, I tried to be perfect and I couldn’t, so now I’m going to throw it all out the window and just trash my body with food.” How predictable is that? Or we might re-double our efforts, become dramatically more uptight, and once again submit ourselves to the demanding perfectionist taskmaster within. All the while, we’re spending our life energy on something that we can never have.

Perfectionism is a fantastic distraction from all that’s truly important.

It takes us out of the game of life, and into a very private and narrow world. It keeps us small, rather then grant us the big payday we expect from this clever virus. Eventually, we can easily tire of the quest for perfection and find ourselves disappointed or bitter that our efforts haven’t provided us with a winning lottery ticket. Perhaps even worse though, is when we do finally achieve our perfect weight or create our perfect body, only to find ourselves still unhappy, or living in a state of anxiety that we might lose our perfect achievement. Have you ever met someone who got the perfect results they wanted, but couldn’t experience much joy with their success?

Perfectionists often have the belief that they’re smarter than everyone else. After all, they’re the ones who are aiming at the most lofty place. But perfectionists have a poor ability to see how imperfect the practice of perfectionism really is. They often lose sight of how they’ve isolated from the world, and closed off a part of their heart and soul.

If you count yourself as a perfectionist, then it’s probably time to liberate yourself from the virus that’s poisoning your mind and removing the smile from your life. It’s time to look at things honestly, and humbly.

I have a few suggestions for slowly starving the perfection virus out of your nervous system. Fortunately, you don’t have to do any of these strategies perfectly.

Consider these simple practices:

Get messy. Be willing to make mistakes and admit them. Put yourself in situations where you can laugh at yourself. In fact, find any possible excuse to laugh at yourself. Ask your friends and loved ones if your perfectionism impacts them. If they say yes, request that they tell you honestly about the details of how your perfectionism shows up for them. Ask for their advice on how you can improve here. Commit to letting go of perfectionist rituals. Do you constantly weigh yourself? Count calories and fat grams way too often? Do you look in the mirror and quickly launch into criticism? If so, practice waking up, and start catching yourself in the act of trying to be perfect. Gently let go of the inner self-talk that’s really a nasty mind-virus causing your brain to think and act in impossibly silly ways. Live life more. Have fun. Do some Karaoke. Walk barefoot and get your feet dirty. Leave the food in your teeth for a few hours. And stop being so hard on yourself. Put your attention back to the things that truly matter most. Set a good example for the young people in your life. The world needs you to be the wonderfully imperfect human that you are.

Thanks for your time.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Warm regards,
Marc David
Institute for the Psychology of Eating
© Institute For The Psychology of Eating, All Rights Reserved, 2014

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Perfectionism is a fantastic distraction 
The State of Perfect doesn’t actually exist 
Flawlessness is an unsustainable state

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  • Deb

    This brought me to tears. Never has a post summed me up to a T. Thank you Marc.

    • Hi Deb,

      So glad to hear this touched you.
      Thank for reaching out to let me know.

      Warmly,

      Marc

  • Maria

    This is so interesting! This article described perfectly a friend who’s perfectionism has caused in our relationship. She is sooo hard on herself, in all aspects of her life. Only she can do everything the right way, and when it is not done to her standards, she is quick to judge and criticize.
    This friend has become somewhat of an acquaintance now, since she will not always share things, I believe for fear that her friends will see she is not perfect. She shows no vulnerability in the relationship, always stoic. She is a giver, yet does not accept receiving, and will “doubly” give back making sure that she repaid or reciprocated. I have tried to talk to her, but she does not seem to understand her “virus”. She is a good person, and it is a shame that her perfectionism has made us grow apart. I want to help, how can I ????

    • Audrey

      Uh, oh. Maria, we don’t know each other I think but I suspect my one friend left would say those words to me. Thanks for your honesty.

    • Hello Maria,
      What a hard space your friend is in. Sometimes these types of people will not respond to being “shown” their “virus” as you put it – sometimes they need unconditional support and acceptance. Such patterns of perfectionism stem from unmet needs to be seen of value, or that being perfect = safety. It can be different for everyone… But being unattached to her need to “perform her perfection” and find things that naturally bring her joy or relaxation could be great gifts that do not require reciprocation.

      Hope this helps.
      Marc

  • Wow, I really needed to read this. Thank you so much for such a strong, insightful article. I’ve been working through my eating disorder for a long time now and I think the biggest obstacle behind it all is my need for perfectionism. I feel like once I allow myself to make mistakes and not worry about what other people will think, or worry about trying to make other people proud, I will be able to be satisfied with who I am – mistakes and all.
    Thanks again, Marc. I love reading your posts.

    • Rachael –
      Thanks for sharing and for your kind words!
      Best wishes,
      Marc

  • Simona

    Wonderful! As I was contemplating on this, I recognize my roots of obssesion with perfectionism. Of course it has deeper overall connections than to my childhood but this is how it was aslo ‘installed’ in me: These thoughts were on my mind as a child….

    “I will never gain my parents approval. I will never be good enough in their eyes, and if I try, I would compromise being myself. Who they think I should be? Their perfect flawless child? Were they? Are they now? Or is it their narcissistic way of saying: I will teach you the best and when you obey, you will be perfect. Don’t look at what I do, just listen to what I say you ought to do. If you can’t make it, you are a failure, but keep trying, harder, and one day you may be as we want you to be, of course, the best.’ While in the their subconsciousness runs: Because we are failures ourselves, and we feel bad about us, you, our child, can save us from this constant inner panishment, ever-feeling guilty of not meassure to Our parental ideas – something must have been wrong with their principals – so we enthrone even higher ones, and with following That you will finally achieve perfection and thus we finally will feel HAPPY, we will achieve a status of a Perfect Parent so at least we find a way to being perfect” – See? they depend on us, childeren, for their feeling good!! Of course we as children can never be good enough as they project their inner unresolved system on us.

    That’s calling for being Free form parental fears, accept that we might never meassure their false ideas about being good enough, and stepping into our Authority and have our say over our life. And this apply to me. 😉

    • Hi Simona,
      Thank you for sharing – I think many people will be able to relate to this “childhood installation”. It’s often a something we pass down to their children, over and over, but it’s never to late to take that step back, and reassess what our behavior and beliefs are actually trying to tell us. It’s never to late to break the pattern. Again, thanks for joining the conversation.

      Warm Regards,
      Marc

  • Michaela

    Some very beautiful and, as always, gentle insights. Thanks Marc x

    • Hi Michaela,
      Thanks again for saying hello.

      MD

  • Serena

    This is such a simple and effective way of looking at perfectionism. Up until the point of having a baby, I truly believed that to be a good person you needed to achieve perfectionism in all areas of life. Wow, did my little boy make me wake up and see the real world. Failures, challenges, whatever you want to call them need to be celebrated more often. There is a ridiculous amount of pressure on everyone to be their perfect selves. I am working on letting go of some of my perfectionist traits and these tips have helped me think a little differently. Thank you for this article.

    • Serena,
      Amazing how children change everything – and thank goodness they do.
      I’m glad you have that wise being there to keep you on your game.

      Warm Regards,
      Marc

  • Kristie Eccleston

    As a recovering perfectionist myself I thank you again for yet again another great article. Sometimes I think you’re in my head Marc David! Something will always stick with me that I learned while going through some heavy therapy… The counscellor asked “When did you check out on life?” It all boiled down to when I got old enough to start really caring about what others thought of me and how could I convince them I’m perfect. Every once in awhile it creeps back but then I try you’re “get messy” tip and happiness usually floods back in:)

    • What a life-changing question, Kristie. I love it!

    • Hi Kristie,
      This is a common issue many fall into when they reach the age to realize who’s watching, and who cares about your actions or performance in the world. But, I think the “get messy” strategy is always a great way to get back on course!

      Best,
      Marc

  • Maureen

    Wonderful stated truth! By embracing the messiness of my human life it is amazing how much more my life now actually looks pretty close to the exact ideal I was striving for in the crazed pursuit of perfection.

  • Pamela Dobrowolski

    Everyone one of the articles you’ve emailed me about has been superbly written and contained truly meaningful and deep content. Great job! Thank you for the integrity and quality you are adding to the field!

    • Hi Pamela,
      Very kind of you –
      So glad to hear you’re enjoying them – and happy to have you as part of the tribe!
      Warmly,
      Marc

  • Ana

    Loved it!! What a way to like me, myself, again and be thrilled with my “imperfections”. Now I can breath easily. Thank you!!

    • Hi Ana,
      So glad this was a breath of fresh air for you…
      Sometimes we all need a reminder to be kinder to ourselves.
      Warmly,
      Marc

      • Maureen,
        Amazing what happens when we let go …
        Thanks for sharing,
        Marc

  • Love, love, love this. For me, and I suspect many others, our quest for perfectionism is driven by our fear of rejection.

    I was raised by two perfectionist parents. I believe my mother’s perfectionist drive is driven by her obsessive concern regarding what other people think of her, her house, her yard, her hair, her children, etc.–basically, it’s driven by her fear of being negatively judged and ultimately rejected. She uses perfectionism (as many of us do) as a shield to protect her from judgment, criticism, rejection and shame.

    I haven’t quite figured out what drives my father’s quest for perfectionism. He doesn’t seem to care too much what other people think. He’s an engineer, which may explain everything. 🙂 Very much all about precision, meticulousness, attention to detail, accuracy…perfectionism.

    Fortunately, with age, I’ve slowly been releasing my perfectionist ways.

    • Hey Renee!
      Thanks for joining in here, always a pleasure.
      Age has a way of tempering our perfectionism.
      That’s one of the great advantages of getting older!

      Best,
      Marc

  • Vedanta Sarswati

    Of course we need to have some ‘standards’ to function and make a certain ‘impact’ in the world (The West!). However, taken to obsession perfectionism is sure not healthy. If we suffer from that then we should check its roots and cull with (self) compassion and seek balance in all we do thereafter.

    • Hi Tony
      Well put, and to the point!
      Thank you,
      Marc David

  • Michael

    SOO glad to see these kinds of things addressed on your site. I’m in treatment for an eating disorder (binging) at a fantastic place in Cleveland and their waiting room is literally OVERFLOWING with young anorexics and binge eaters. Part of this “disease” is the self-judging and perfectionism and control issues connected to food…which has resulted in all my weight. It’s been challenging for me to eat healthy without becoming a perfectionist or food-obsessed–because there ARE better and worse foods out there. Restriction is seen psychologically as a symptom (just as in anorexia) so finding the healthy balance that is also psychologically healthy has been tough. And I suspect MANY of the people coming to you for help have, to a greater or lesser degree, this “all or nothing” thinking that results in them falling “off the wagon” as soon as they cannot perfectly sustain whatever eating plan they’re trying for. So thank god you are addressing these issues–the psychology of eating is the “missing link” of successfully being healthy. I think programs like Fuhrman’s and Dr. Esslyn’s are fantastic—but how many people can stay on a plan that restrictive and heroic in real life? I believe in the whole foods and vegan lifestyle, and am slowly learning the tools (many of them practical, like cooking, shopping and time-management, since eating healthy means a lot of cooking), but it can confusing about separating perfectionism, unhealthy restriction, and eating healthy.

    Plus it’s very hard to be patient when you have a lot of weight to lose, and it doesn’t help when you are bombarded daily by the “I lost 60 pounds in two months” kind of thing. It may be good marketing but it is bad for the soul and feeds into our need for instant gratification and unrealistic expectations.

    I am trying to view this as a journey without a destination. I can trust that if I move toward healthier foods (which I love) that they will crowd out for the most part the unhealthy stuff, and learn not to beat myself up as a perfectionist if eat “bad” foods once in a while with friends. I will still eventually lose the weight and not be food-obsessed and importantly, not stressed or unhappy.

    Thanks so much for your efforts!

    • Hi Michael,

      Thank you so much for taking the time to share your story and perspective. I’m so glad to hear you’ve taken the steps to receive the support you need. As you mentioned, these issues are pervasive and difficult to tackle alone, it’s so easy to get sucked back into the Perfectionism Downward Spiral…

      Another powerful approach to consider, which I also often discuss, is where you’re hoping this diet, this healthy way of eating and living will get you in the end. I find that many people get stuck because they don’t quite know where they will find themselves at the end. The journey is what it’s all about. It’s an invitation to look at your life, your body, your mind and your heart and see what it’s really driving you and have the courage to ask: is that really where I want to go?
      Here’s another article that discusses this aspect a little further.

      Best wishes to you on your healing journey,
      Marc David

  • Holly Ivey

    The beauty of being human is our intransient existence; since everything is in a state of constant change, how can we possibly attain perfection beyond a fleeting moment. The constant struggle many of us undertake when holding ourselves to the image of a societal mirror of perfection is endless disappointment. Whether the quest is through diet, physical image or work performance, chasing the unattainable becomes an obsession. The relief is when we allow ourselves to move through the disappointments and realize they are not character flaws, just simply part of being human. That’s we can really enjoy life!

    • Hi Holly,
      Thanks so much for joining the conversation and offering up your wise words!

      Best,
      Marc

  • Simona

    If I may, I’d like for all to share a beautiful poem written by Terri Plewa that I think it goes nicely with the topic. Enjoy:

    The beauty
    in doing nothing
    is that it shows us
    our Worth.

    So many of us
    have been taught
    erroneously
    that our Worth
    has something to do
    with what we
    accomplish
    produce
    give
    create
    etc.
    etc.
    etc.

    All lies.

    You exist.

    You are worthy
    of ALL goodness.

    Do you desire something?
    You deserve it.

    The mere fact that you exist
    and a desire arises within you
    is the truth that you deserve it.

    Do nothing a lot.
    As much as you want to.
    It’s hard at first.
    We feel guilt
    We feel wrong
    We feel judged
    (by self and others)

    Know this…
    there is no real judge.

    In doing nothing,
    we become clear
    and spacious
    and eventually
    aware
    of the beauty
    Here
    Intrinsically.

    We don’t have to earn
    anything.
    We simply
    are.

    That is enough.

    Our inner being,
    Who we are,
    What we love,
    does not change
    based on
    Accomplishment.

    We may still choose
    to Accomplish
    at times.
    All well and good.
    The heart knows when
    it’s necessary.
    But after doing nothing,
    let Doing spring
    as a joy from the soul.

    Then everything
    that pours from you
    is a joy and a blessing.
    Then you see
    a small glimmer
    of your
    True Worth.

    Incalculable.
    Intrinsic.

  • You are right, Marc, about how hard it is to avoid perfectionism. Even after I have learned to move forward and have done so, perfectionism always show up while I am least expecting it: with company, making sure to say the right things, being proper, being perceived correctly, instinctively trying to be perfect. It will keep me from doing the things I am born here to do, if I allow it the power. The good thing is that I begin to recognize it from time to time, keep writing the imperfect blog posts, post them, saying things that are from my heart, being bold and start living with the imperfect human that is me. This is quite a liberating experience, showing up in the world as who I am from inside without the need to worry being an imposter. Thank you!

    • Hi Sue,
      Isn’t incredible how often we have that self-editor on? It is so liberating to let go and relax…
      Thanks for being part of the change we need in the world!

      Best,
      Marc

  • Y

    Thank you so, so much for this article. It’s like I’m reading about my own life.
    I’m 17 years old and I have been struggling with my body and food for 3 or 4 years now.
    I am at a perfect weight (5’1, 118 pounds) but I feel so fat all the time and when I look back at those 3/4 years, I can not remember a week of not thinking about calories/carbs/fat/weight. I honestly can’t. I have been dieting for 3 years straight now and I keep failing. I saw a couple videos of yours which really inspired me….

    Thanks again, it really touched me.

    I hope one day I can overcome this, but that day is not today (nor this year).

    X,
    A reader from the Netherlands

    • Hi,

      So glad this spoke so personally to you – and I’m sorry to hear about your struggles the past few years. It’s a hard thing to alter the perception of one’s self. At 17 – coming into this knowledge, however – you’re ahead of the game – so don’t be afraid to dive in and really sit with what comes up for you around food and body image. Keep finding small ways to love yourself. See the good that you are. Negative body image is like a bad virus that we catch. It is created by the world, so it’s not your fault. Please keep trusting and knowing that if you keep wanting freedom, you will eventually find it – and sooner than you think. It’s your job in life to be an empowered woman, and this takes time. I have every confidence that you will become the person that you know inside that you’re meant to be 🙂

      If you haven’t either of my books, these might offer some helpful guidance.

      1. Nourishing Wisdom
      2. The Slow Down Diet

      You can find them both here:

      Wishing you all the best,
      Marc

  • Angie

    Thank you, Marc, for touching upon this wonderful topic. Recently, I have been trying to better understand the fine line that exists between ‘perfectionism’ and the strive for ‘excellence.’

    I work for a Japanese wedding company as a consultant and it is my job to help create that ‘perfect’ Western-style wedding (pulling my hair out! LOL!) I didn’t focus much on the negatives, per se. What I attempted to do was to encourage staff to take a good, honest look at the areas where we excelled, as well as the areas where we did not. This was not about being perfect; it was simply about giving outstanding, quality service to guests who were experiencing an important life event. Even so, I was quickly labeled a “komakai kampeki shugisha.” Yes, an extremely picky perfectionist.

    My parents didn’t push me to be perfect; they pushed me to become the absolute best I could be. That said, I consider an honest mistake a very good teacher, as we are given the chance to grow once we allow ourselves to learn from it. The problem, I believe, is when one who strives to be excellent finds himself or herself in an environment with someone else who continues to make the same mistake/s over and over and over again. There is no conscious attempt to do better or be better….and as a direct result, the collective work of everyone is marginalized.

    I have carried the lessons learned from my parents into my own weight-loss journey. I am now down 90 pounds, not because I followed any eating plan perfectly. If there were any wagons for me to ‘fall off of,’ I never even really noticed them. Heck, I was too busy riding the horse. LOL!!! I am this changed person because I was finally able to admit to myself (and the world) that the whopping 307 pounds I carried as a 5’3 woman did not represent the excellence in “me.” That revelation marked day 1 of my long-awaited, “less-than-perfect” metamorphosis.

    Thank you again for the wonderful ripples you create in this world. I am looking forward to joining your certification training program soon. Best of wishes…

    • Hi Angie,
      So beautifully put. I love how you say how “an honest mistake [is] a very good teacher” – how true this is. I’m so glad you came to share your journey with us – I’m happy to have you as part of our perfectly imperfect tribe.

      Warmly,
      Marc

  • Mary

    I can’t thank you enough for writing this article. On my own without sharing with friends or family, I suffered through and conquered the perfectionist virus. No matter how frightening and/or difficult, it can be done! At age 20, I’m in culinary school and loving every experience because food, which was a huge component of my virus, doesn’t control me the way I had allowed it to. I have still much to learn, however my perception about myself is in a much better state of balance because I chose to change; to not allow the perfectionist virus to rule my life.

    A large step in my healing process was realizing this: Perfection does exist. I am perfect the way I am. My imperfections (or flaws) are my perfection because they make me who I am.

    Blessings to those fighting the good fight – you are loved every step of the way

    • Hi Mary,
      Thank you so much for jumping in and sharing your story so openly –
      I’m sure many readers will love this validation to know it IS possible!
      Glad to have you as part of the tribe.

      Warmly,
      Marc

  • disqus_X9ZhBYzIC9

    marc your message applies to all forms of perfectionism. when someone is a perfectionist about anything (career, diet, body, health, house, etc), they are hard on themselves as well as the people closest to them. Any tips for how to “digest” frequent criticism and blaming from partner who’s strongly identified with their perfectionist thoughts about how everything needs to be? if i’m eating, i usually have to end it as appetite lost.

    • Thanks so much for reaching out and sharing these connections, Vandana! This concept does indeed apply to all areas of life — not just food and eating. It can be challenging to witness a loved one being hard on themselves, too. For some reflections on how to deal with critical comments from people around you, check out this post by Emily: http://psychologyofeating.com/5-keys-healthy-body-image/

      • disqus_X9ZhBYzIC9

        Thanks. i read the article but it doesn’t give suggestions for how to deal with a perfectionist’s frequent criticism. this is especially challenging when the perfectionist is our own partner, who is focused on “things” and how things need to be. this is a form of perfectionism that leads the person to frequently point out to their partner what’s wrong..what they didn’t do right, etc. i asked how to “digest” this because it does effect my digestion. i want to allow my partner to be, but at some point i become a victim..and there’s no digesting anything at that time. lol. but thank you anyway.

        • Thanks for sharing more about where you are coming from, Vandana! I think the best way for you to explore this issue would be to work one on one with a coach. We can’t give personal advice over email or in blog comments, but it sounds like you are really wanting to go deeper into this challenge and really work on transforming it in your own life. You can check out our directory of Certified Eating Psychology Coaches here: http://tinyurl.com/IPE-directory I hope this helps! Thank you for being part of our community! Warmly, Marc

          • vandu

            I understand. i did reach out to some counselors. waiting to hear back.

          • We wish you all the best, Vandu! Thank you for sharing your journey!

  • Mette Fuglsang

    I love this post! Well written..
    I see SOO many people who are to obsessed with the thought of being perfect – I used to be one myself.
    And that led me to an eating disorder..
    I’ve let go of the eating disorder now and I love myself as I am; chubby, beautiful, imperfect – everything. Both the good and the “bad” sides. I’m a human being – imperfect.

    • Thank you so much for this comment, Mette! It’s great to hear that you’ve come to love yourself as you are — perfectly imperfect and human. Congratulations! Warmly, Marc

  • Kathleen Fink

    Even though I do weigh and measure my food, I do not view myself as a perfectionist. As a diabetic in remission, there are good reasons for that practice. I love the whole foods including large quantities of colorful vegetables that I prepare and eat. It is important that I was ready and committed to work on the emotional reasons why I over ate in the first place. I have experienced amazing personal growth at the same time that I experienced radiant good physical health. While what I do with food works for me, and I enjoy my time with it, my focus with the time I have remaining is to show up as my authentic self to make a positive difference in the world. That is too much fun and I am too different a person, to want to go back to hiding scared behind compulsive eating.

    • Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts, Kathleen! I’m so glad to have positive, authentic people like you in our community. Warmly, Marc

About The Author
Marc David
Founder

Marc David is the Founder of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating, a leading visionary, teacher and consultant in Nutritional Psychology, and the author of the classic and best-selling works Nourishing Wisdom and The Slow Down Diet. His work has been featured on CNN, NBC and numerous media outlets. His books have been translated into over 10 languages, and his approach appeals to a wide audience of eaters who are looking for fresh, inspiring and innovative messages about food, body and soul. He lectures internationally, and has held senior consulting positions at Canyon Ranch Resorts, the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, the Johnson & Johnson Corporation, and the Disney Company. Marc is also the co-founder of the Institute for Conscious Sexuality and Relationship.