Over the past ten years, I have had the honour of helping hundreds of men and women develop new healthy habits and improve their lives. When it comes to losing weight, improving performance or simply feeling better, improving the way we eat is a great place to start. When I started as a fitness coach, I thought nutrition was pretty simple: I could write up nutrition plans to achieve goals. I could calculate how many grams of protein or carbs a client should eat to get results. I could recommend simple swaps to effortlessly cut calories and increase satiety.
Simple? Yes. Easy? Not at all.
Changing eating habits isn’t quite so simple. For most people, food is not just food. Food is comfort. Food is punishment. Food has the power to dictate self-worth.
The conversation in a coaching session would go something like this:
Me: “How was your weekend?”
Client: “I was good all weekend. I had no desserts and I stuck to the plan”. Or “I was good. I worked out each day.” Or “Everything was great until we went out on Saturday night. I was bad- I overindulged on the appetizers and didn’t eat mindfully”.
In other words, you’re ‘good’ if you eat well, exercise, and stick to your healthy habits, and ‘bad’ if you overindulge, or eat out of boredom or stress or other emotional reasons, or skip your workout. The media only propels this notion. Remember the Philadelphia cream cheese angel? Or, have you ever heard of a decadent chocolate dessert described as ‘sinful?’
How do you feel if you’re ‘bad’? Like you need to punish yourself by spending an extra 30 minutes on the treadmill? Do you feel shameful or guilty? If you’re like many people, you may even want to eat more ‘bad’ food?
It’s time to stop giving your food choices the power to determine your value as a person. Whether or not you stick to your plan, choose healthier options or indulge in less-healthy choices, eat a little or eat too much, you are you. Your decision to eat certain foods has no bearing on your morals. Eating healthy food doesn’t make you a good person, and eating unhealthy food doesn’t make you a bad person.
Food it not good or bad (unless perhaps it’s gone off and is growing white fuzz). Food is food. Healthy food is important, but it’s not worthy of the power we place on it to determine our self worth. Eating less healthy food, or food that isn’t on your plan is not cheating. It’s eating.
You may not feel so good after eating less healthy foods (bloated, lethargic, over-full) but leave guilt and shame away from food. Instead of looking at food as good or bad, and then judging yourself based on your choices, look at food simply as something that should be enjoyed, and as a way to nourish your body. If you find the thoughts creeping into your head, remind yourself of who you are, and the many talents and qualities that make you who you are.
Naturally, eating well and exercising makes you feel energetic and clear minded: and that’s a good thing! The negative spiral of eating ‘bad’ food and then beating yourself up about it is, however, counterproductive. Here are a few ideas that can help:
1. Lower your expectations of what it means to eat healthily. If you expect to be perfect, it’s likely that you will be hard on yourself when you eat something that is off plan.
2. Remind yourself that the trend toward healthy living is a marathon, not a sprint. There will be ups and downs, and that is ok. Ups and downs are a fantastic opportunity to learn more about you. Be grateful for the opportunity.
3. Remind yourself that you are not your mistakes. Failing at a task does not make you a failure. Overindulging does not make you weak.
4. Combat negative thoughts with positive “I am” statements. “I am strong”. “I am a loving mother”. “I am a good friend”. “I am healthy”.
You will make some better choices, and some less healthy choices. But you will still be you, and that’s awesome!