How do I stop feeling like I need to earn my food?
Thank you for this question. I have tried to answer it before here: https://powerupnutrition.ca/eating-is-not-a-transaction/ . But it is such a big topic that it bears a second visit for sure. Personally, it took me a while to unpack and move past this feeling. To be honest, I still have some work to do here and I constantly have to be mindful of my thoughts and catch myself when I slip back into old habits.
Diet culture makes us believe that enjoying a meal out and eating more calories makes us a bad person. That holidays make us fat. And that we should in return punish ourselves in the gym to burn off the calories. Or, conversely, that only those who run hard can eat a bagel. God forbid you would eat pasta on your rest day! Immediate weight gain for sure! The concept of food as a treat is deeply ingrained into our society. I am not immune to this and to be honest, there is nothing wrong with enjoying a treat or celebrating events with good food. What needs to die is the guilt and shame that comes with enjoying a piece of carrot cake.
Before I learned to exercise for the right reasons (i.e. loving the way it made me feel strong and empowered), I was much more outcome driven. I started running to lose the baby weight. I went to the gym to shrink my thighs and in hopes of getting a flatter stomach. I was trying to burn calories so I could eat without gaining weight. It wasn’t until I finally focused on doing what I love and eating to fuel my lifestyle that I could begin to let go of this for myself. Also, it turns out my big thighs were made to squat and I learned to appreciate them later on.
At the heart of it it, this mindset is tied to the fact that we view nutrition (and exercise for that matter) first and foremost as a tool for weight loss. I think this is where the real work needs to begin. Nutrition does not equal restricting calories for weight loss. Food is our number one source of energy. Nutrition by definition is the process of providing or obtaining the food necessary for health and growth. So it’s not so much about earning our right to eat through exercise or punishing our bodies by burning off the food we ate through exercise as it is about eating to fuel our lifestyle and give us the energy needed to live a full, healthy life.
Another issue that contributes to these feelings towards food is that many of us have unrealistic expectations of how much we should eat. There are so many unhealthy diets out there that frankly promote eating disorders, such as shakes as meal replacements or food groups being completely eliminated. A big diet concept that needs to die is the “1200 calories a day” goal that is often promoted in most women’s magazines. 1200 calories a day is only appropriate for an active 3 year-old. That’s it. As an active 47 year-old female, I eat over 2000 calories daily to fuel my active lifestyle. Of course size and activity matters, but one thing I see across the board is that once we start eating more to fuel our lives, consistency becomes a lot easier to achieve. Check it out here for yourself: https://health.gov/our-work/food-nutrition/2015-2020-dietary-guidelines/guidelines/appendix-2/
If you are still stuck in the “do more, eat less” mentality, you will eventually back yourself into a corner where you simply can’t go any further. If you are currently eating 1500 calories a day and running everyday yet the weight is not budging, the answer is not to try to do even more exercise and eat only 1300 calories. The answer is to stop chasing weight loss for a bit and to put your health first. Your body is trying to tell you something! And you deserve better. Eat more and earn your right to diet. I wrote about this here : https://powerupnutrition.ca/earn-your-right-to-diet/.
But back to the mindset, how do we let go?
One day at a time. By catching your negative thoughts when they pop in our head. By re-phrasing them. By correcting friends when they say things like “we better go hard today so we can enjoy our wine tonight!”. Because we are all guilty of spreading this around, and in the end it hurts us all. If you are a parent, think about how sad it would make you feel if your child turned down a piece of birthday cake because they didn’t earn it. That is non-sense for kids and it is non-sense for us too. Trust me.
Years ago, I would go for an extra hard workout or long run before a feast like Thanksgiving to earn my calories. The thing is, I was turning something I loved to a punishment. Exercise became a punishment to burn calories. And eating the foods I loved and craved became something I didn’t deserve. Fast forward to now, where I actually still run and exercise often, probably even on Thanksgiving, but now I do it because it makes me feel good and I enjoy it. I don’t feel like I need to, but I usually choose to. I also don’t deprive myself and I eat the foods I enjoy. I no longer beat myself up if I need an extra rest day. Most days, I move my body in a way that I enjoy. Most of the times I eat whole foods, some of the times I eat pizza and birthday cake. I am not on a diet, I am living my life. As long as you have created an enjoyable, sustainable lifestyle, then no one meal is going to make a difference.
Which brings me to my final point: Do what you love, and build a healthy lifestyle around activities that you love.
Ask yourself: Do I go to the gym to get stronger, because I want to, because I love it, to relieve stress? Or is it because I want to burn my food, shrink my body or punish myself? If you associate more with the latter, you still have some inner work to do. And I am here for you. Catch your thoughts. Re-phrase them. One day at a time.
Find a way of eating that supports your lifestyle. Make food and movement fun. Do the things, be consistent and you will end up where you should be.