Holiday food cycle: Eat, guilt, restrict, repeat
This time last year, I was feeling insanely guilty about how much food I ate at my boyfriend’s house over Easter weekend. The cycle goes like this; eat whatever you want, feel guilty about it, “make up” for it with exercise and salads come Monday. Sound familiar? It’s always around the holidays that the wellness industry starts making us feel like this cycle is normal. Like clockwork, it’s also when the gyms and exercise studios start promoting their messaging on how to “get back on track” after the holiday weekend.
It’s not you, it’s the messaging
My gym’s way of motivating people to workout during the holidays is through a weight loss competition that gives teams points for losing the most inches. Yikes! Not only is seeing that type of motivation annoying to me, but it’s seriously irresponsible of fitness and nutrition professionals who claim to be promoting and incentivizing true health.
According to the World Health Organization, health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. In public health, we also utilize the social determinants of health to demonstrate how the environments inward his we’re born and live in affect health outcomes. In other words, there’s way more to your health than how you eat/how much you workout. Not to mention, there’s a growing body of scientific evidence demonstrating that weight stigma is a bigger risk for chronic diseases than BMI. We also know that intentional weight loss is not effective long-term, and there are decades of studies demonstrating how over 90% of diets don’t work long term.
There are tons of “wellness” influencers spreading false messaging out there about diet culture and making sweeping claims about our health, without backing it up by true health professionals or recent peer reviewed data. Even health professionals themselves have medical bias and don’t necessarily have experience with nutrition, exercise, public health, or stigma/trauma training. The current wellness industry is profiting off of us not feeling good about ourselves and fearing larger bodies. It’s probably not surprising to you that the weight loss industry has been estimated at an almost $60 BILLION and counting.
Losing trust with my workout routine
One of the hardest things about learning these truths about diet culture and weight stigma has been trusting myself again with my motives to workout. Although my relationship with food has been an ongoing healing process for years, I never thought working out would feel troublesome for me. I’ve always loved exercising and the ways in which it challenges / empowers me. It helped me grow out of a deep depression once in my life. But after giving up diets for good last year (a post on that to come!), I started questioning my incentives at the gym.
There was a period of time where I stopped going to the gym altogether because it felt like such a toxic environment. I kept thinking that I was subconsciously forcing myself to workout to lose weight. I didn’t know how to start trusting whether I was there to get my endorphins pumping or if I was there because I’d eaten cake the night before. I thought about how other people might be there trying to compensate for what *they* ate over the weekend. I didn’t know if I could be disciplined about working out for the sake of feeling good again.
Making Exercise Great Again
I don’t claim to have all the answers in how to heal from diet culture, I’m still going through the process myself. What is clear to me though is that all of these problematic messages we receive about our bodies are systemic and will take time to improve. But, there’s always something we can do to bring back our own peace with it. Here is a list of things that really helped me get refocus my exercise intentions:
1. Ditch the scale
Unless you’re going through an ED recovery that includes this in your therapy, get rid of that damn scale. This arbitrary number doesn’t measure your muscle mass, your genetics, hormones, etc. and usually just increases anxiety and frustration. If it puts your mind in turmoil or ruins your day to see a number you don’t like, it’s time to breakup with your scale.
2. Clean up your social media
This is the only *cleanse* I agree with now when it comes to well-being. Follow accounts with more diverse bodies and evidence-based HAES/body positive messages. Christy Harrison and Paige Smathers are anti-diet dietitians who have really helped me on my journey! Reversely, unfollow fitness accounts that make you feel shitty/talk about exercise in a fat-phobic way.
3. Stop commenting on other people’s bodies
Sometimes when it appears that someone you know has lost weight, you might have the urge to compliment them. In reality though, this can be extremely harmful. You don’t know why they’ve lost weight; it could be because they’re sick or have an eating disorder. Consider how it might feel like to be praised in a smaller body, and the shame / lack of self worth that comes if that person gains weight again. If you want to give praise to someone, try non-weight related compliments like “you look so full of energy, you’re glowing!” or “you look so happy and strong!”.
4. Get workout clothes you feel good in
I don’t know about you, but sometimes getting the right outfit is just the motivation I need to get my workout on! I’ve been guilty in the past of keeping clothes around that don’t fit me just in case I lost weight and fit into them later. A true act of self care would be keeping clothes that you feel good in and can comfortably move in, and get rid of what doesn’t. Forget about the made up numbers/sizes and just get what feels good on your body!
5. Communicate your triggers
Do you have a friend or parent who constantly body shames themselves or others? Do you have a workout buddy who comments on your weight or other people’s bodies? Tell them. Sometimes the most obvious solutions to creating a more positive environment for yourself aren’t the easiest to do. But it can be as simple as saying something like, “I would rather you not comment on body weight or talk about your diet in front of me, it doesn’t make me feel good about myself and I know that isn’t your intention.”
6. Start shifting your motivations for exercise
A truly healthy relationship with exercise has to do with self-care, not self control. Come up with motives for exercising that don’t involve physicality. Some examples could include how workouts challenge you, or how meditative they can be. One of mine is “It’ll feel good to move my body after sitting at my desk ALL day – it’ll also clear my head and put me in a better mood after dealing with angry clients today.”
7. Do more outdoor movement
Science tells us that being in nature increases our happiness! My therapist always tells me that when we’re in true self, we notice the 3-D nature of things. Try going on a morning walk/jog/run/hike, toss a frisbee with a friend, go surfing, etc. Notice the colors you see, the sensations you feel, the movement of the plants. Be mindful of how being in nature changes your mood.
8. Go to body positive/HAES inclusive exercise environments
This one can be tricky, but try to dig in and find out if your instructor/teacher is body inclusive. You might look at their instagram and see if the language they use around exercise /bodies feels good to you, or ask a friend what classes that they’ve been to are like. Dr. Linda Bacon, author of HAES (Health at Every Size), has some awesome resources for those in the fitness field.I’ve found her work incredibly helpful in using HAES to challenge the idea of weight loss to others.
9. Do more grounding and healing work
We unfortunately live in a world where even despite our efforts, our workout environments might still be centered on body size. For your own peace, build your tool belt in mindfulness practices that help ground you when you get triggered. Doing trauma work with my therapist has been transformative for my healing in all areas of my life. A couple of my most simple tools, which I don’t have to remind you all the benefits for, are practicing meditation and gratitude. Work with a friend, coach, or therapist to help develop a plan to increase your peace!
10. Practice intuition
There is a fine balance when it comes to the “no excuses mentality” in exercise. There is a way to be disciplined about moving your body while also coming from a place of self love. The reality is, our bodies are experts on what we need, we just have to listen to them. Of course there are days when we don’t feel like moving and you know you’ll feel awesome after some exercise. My point is, those decisions need to come from a place of love and not guilt. It can take some time to learn that balance and shift that mindset. For me, it began with working out a lot less and embracing rest while learning to trust my body again. It meant slowing down with the season, aligning my movement with the lethargy of Winter.
Currently, it means increasing workouts that connect me to my body and myself again, like yoga and throwing a frisbee. Some weeks I feel like waking up early every day to lift weights, and others my routine goes out the window and I just need to sleep in or walk to get coffee. This is just where I’m at in my healing process, and my body is still learning to trust the I will give it what it needs. Regardless of where you’re at in your relationship with exercise, you can find this balance in your workout routine. If you’re big into routines, create one that allows room for rest when you need it, emotionally and physically.
Reminders for the next season
As Summer approaches with messaging like #ShreddingForSummer and getting “beach body” ready, remember this: Your beach body is just your body at the beach, and you don’t have to change it to prepare for a season. Allow yourself the freedom to grow and change as the seasons do, just as humans have been doing for centuries. Honestly, we all have way better things to fill ours minds with than to be thinking about food and how to compensate for it 24/7. You deserve to enjoy your food and your weekend, whether you decide to workout or not. Healing your relationship with food and exercise takes a hell of a lot of work, but I promise you’ll live a truly healthier and happier life once you make peace with them again.
*Disclaimer – While I am a public health professional and have experience in health research, I am not a medical professional and the advice I give is my opinion. It is not a substitute for seeking out professional help for eating disorders or for dietary/physical needs.