The topic of food and what is “healthy” or “unhealthy” is always provokes interesting commentary from fitness clients (and, we’ve likely said or thought some of these same things). There’s this notion of “perfection” and the deceitful need to “be good” when it comes to exercise and food. As professionals, we can all acknowledge that to achieve results, our clients (as well as us) must find harmony among multiple components of life: nutrition, movement, sleep, stress management, social engagement, and mental health. The keyword is harmony – not perfection. Perfection is an imaginary construct–unattainable, yet most capable of evoking self-deprecating feelings when not achieved.
Our job, as health and exercise professionals, is to help our clients realize that striving toward harmony and balance is the goal – not caloric restriction or “burning off” the food consumed. In working with your clients, make a conscious effort to help them shift their mindset, specifically when discussing mixed-messages diet culture loves to espouse.
Common Food and Movement Falsehoods
While this list is not exhaustive, it does represent what I hear the most frequently from clients, family members, and students alike. How many have you heard?
“I fell off the wagon and I need to get back on it.” This one always gets me because no one has been on a wagon since the colonial era. Unless you are playing the Oregon Trail game, let the wagon go. There’s no room for the wagon in the modern world of living, working, raising kids, and executing responsibilities. There is, however, room for making the statement, “Today wasn’t my best day with X. Tomorrow is another day and I get another chance to make a different choice.”
“I earned this dessert or meal.” It makes my heart ache when I hear someone say they exercise just so they enjoy certain foods or beverages. No one needs to earn their calories or exercise to the point that the only focus is caloric expenditure at the expense of joy and purpose. True, to maintain a healthy weight (or to lose or gain weight) calorie intake and expenditure play a major role. The science tells us this. But science also tells us that the calories in and calories out thinking is limited and weight loss and gain is far more complex than two numbers fighting for balance. The key here is to teach clients to move in a way that is intentional and joyful. Engage your client in activity that speaks to them and addresses their specific wants/needs on that day or at that moment. Only have 20 minutes? Go for a HIIT workout. Have a long lunch break? Try for 30 minutes of Yoga followed by meditation. Still too much? Walk!
“I’ll start dieting after the holidays (or after vacation).” A focus on “dieting” and language that surrounds it does more harm than our clients realize. Dieting causes a harmful cascade of events – negatively impacts metabolic rate, lean tissue declines, the hunger hormone increases, stress hormone increases, and fullness cues (and hunger cues) are ignored or muted. A mindset focused on restriction or obsessive thoughts of food can also trigger binge eating. Ditch the diet talk. A “diet” is a temporary fix to a long-term concern, which is largely habit and behavior-based. Teach clients ways to honor their cues and normalize having a second helping if they are still hungry. It’s also important to normalize that food is connected with times of celebration and it’s ok (and healthy) to enjoy a bountiful spread as part of celebrating. We should all be counting memories and not calories (as we know that “equation” is not the entire picture – but that’s a topic for another day).
“I feel so guilty for eating X or drinking Y.” Guilt is not on the ingredients list of any dish or meal. It should not be part of our daily mantra. Clients need guidance to achieve food freedom and be affirmed that they can create a healthy relationship with food (and movement). What clients need less of is: weight loss, counting calories, and tight, restrictive control. Instead, clients need more stability, flexibility, and self-compassion.
Check in with your clients and help them learn to identify statements like this and how they can effectively reframe the thought pattern. There’s no “works for all” approach. Success is borne from the foundation you build with your clients, your rapport, and the encouragement you give them to share their thoughts, fears, and worries about food and movement. Also, check in with your own language and your mindset – do you make statements like these? I would be a liar if I said I didn’t. Creating a conscious awareness within ourselves is one of the best tools we can employ. It makes us better professionals and helps our clients achieve greater results.