Q: I made the decision to implement healthy habits into my daily life. I’m trying to make more nutritious food choices and I joined a local fitness studio, but it’s easier said than done. There’s so much conflicting information out there confusing me, which leaves me with a two part question:
On the one hand, I feel like if I’m not even eating well, there’s certainly no point in going to exercise. On the other hand, I feel like if I’m going to be eating foods that aren’t very healthful anyway, I should definitely go to the gym so that at least I can work them off.
Is there actually a right approach? Can you help me make sense of this?
A: Imagine it’s Friday night. The table is beautifully decked out in white, with fine china and a tall vase of a dozen red roses standing proud. You’re surrounded by family, taking in the delicious food and the harmonious singing. The meal progresses as it usually does, and you’re starting to get a bit sleepy as the hour hand ticks past eleven o’clock.
And then it’s time for dessert. You’re moderately satisfied, but you have enough room for some of that molten lava cake, topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. You enjoy every single bite, appreciating the warm chocolatey richness balanced with the cold creaminess.
It’s so good, in fact, that you go for a second helping.
But now you have a problem. You were just about to bentch and head to bed. You can practically hear your bed softly whispering your name, and the vision of your pillow, freshly fluffed, is all you can see in your mind’s eye.
The issue barring you from escaping and sliding into bed is that you ate a second helping of dessert.
You’re still with me, right?
You ate a second helping of dessert!* Therefore, you should not go to sleep tonight. Maybe it’s a sign that you should pull an all-nighter.
If you’re even more confused than you were before, don’t worry, I’ll deconfuse you.
But first, I want to say that these are common questions, and you’re certainly not alone in wondering about them. So you can breathe easy—you’re normal.
Secondly, the 72 billion dollar weight loss industry has done a fantastic job of putting out a plethora of information, much of it contradictory, much of it nonsensical, and much of it not actually helpful. Its sole purpose is (surprise!) not to help you get healthy, but to be profitable. Their primary interest is in making money, and they do so by marketing their product in a way that appeals to you—by pretending it’s about your health.
So…let me bust a couple of myths, answer your questions, and give you a tool or two you can implement on your quest to healthier living.
Let’s get back to your Friday night dilemma. I’m guessing you think I’m totally nuts that I would even consider placing pulling an all-nighter next to eating dessert. I mean, what’s one got to do with the other? It sounds like there isn’t much logic holding these two things together.
And you’re right! The answer is nothing, and there isn’t!
Now, gently swap out bed with the gym, sleeping with exercising, and all-nighter with a missed workout.
If exercising has such incredible health benefits—and this has been proven on a physical, mental and emotional level—why would you want to skip it just because of your food choices?
Again, what’s one got to do with the other?
I want to make something clear here. Your initial thought process which led you to your question is an obvious result of the weight loss industry’s messaging. They’ve done an incredible job of marketing and have conditioned you to believe that if you’re not performing one healthy habit, you may as well not do any.
But that’s kind of irrational. Each aspect of health—be it eating, exercising, sleeping, managing stress or engaging in self-care—is important, yet separate from one another.
In our Friday night scenario, not exercising won’t change the fact that you ate dessert. It’s also totally irrelevant.
They are simply two simultaneous realities that are not dependent on one another.
So while what you eat is worth considering, it wouldn’t affect whether or not you go to the gym. Getting in some physical movement which you enjoy is always a good thing (see my article on Finding the Joy in Exercise).
I’d like to add a point with regard to the second part of your question:
Food offers you fuel in the form of energy. Granted, the level of nutrient content will affect the quality of energy you receive, but overall, eating is good for you. When you eat a food that is less nutrient-dense, say perhaps, that molten lava cake with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, you don’t need to “work it off”.
Your body knows what to do with that food. It’ll break it down the best way it knows how, thanks to the fascinating process called digestion which G-d has set you up with.
And again, exercising won’t change the fact that you ate dessert.
They are just two simultaneous occurrences that do not negate one another.
So to sum this all up—focusing on developing healthy habits in your food choices and physical movement is great, but each habit is separate from the next and does not make it or break it in any other department.
Now that you have this info, what can you do with it?
Eat in a way that your taste buds fancy and leaves you feeling good overall. (Check out Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch for my personal favorite approach to food.)
Move in a way that sparks joy and leaves you feeling good overall. (I suggest exploring different exercise options to find the one that you absolutely love!)
Repeat on a regular basis.
*I do want to mention that there’s nothing wrong per se with eating a second helping of dessert. I simply used that example for the sake of this storyline. For a better understanding of the role that less nutritious foods play in our lives, see Intuitive Eating.