Distinguishing healthy from disordered habits and why your “why” matters
If you’ve found yourself anywhere in the cross fire between fitness and the body positive movement, you know that there can be very strong and divisive opinions on both side of the spectrum. I’ve always had the philosophy that anyone in fitness who thinks that they have the secret, or that they have all the answers, is someone you should be wary of. I read a tweet that said “anyone who claims to be a nutrition expert but has a particular style of eating (I.e. plantbasedpatty or ketoqueen) in their instagram name, is not going to be an unbiased source.” Instagram is also such an interesting platform because there are accounts out there for every possible niche. So first I urge you to use discretion when choosing which accounts to follow or take advice from. A good rule of thumb is
- If they are making health claims with no formal health background, unfollow.
- If their posts are making you feel unworthy, like you need to shrink or restrict, or making you play the comparison game, unfollow.
- If they are perpetuating morality and guilt around food or exercise choices, unfollow.
- If they are selling quick “fixes” and preying on insecurities, unfollow.
I really could go on forever on that one, maybe I’ll make another post about it someday. But this is what I’m here to talk about today. The what is not the problem, your problem is why. There are many “health” behaviors that can be helpful for some, and triggering and disordered for others. This all depends on the context and the motivation behind the behavior (I.e. the desired outcome), and is why having a well trained and knowledgeable coach or trainer is super important. I am going to use two examples of behaviors: macro tracking and running.
Macronutrient tracking, or macros for short, is a process by which someone logs all of their food for the day into an app to keep track of their overall calories but also the breakdown of the 3 macronutrient groups (fats, carbohydrates, and proteins). The philosophy behind “iifym” or “if it fits your macros” is that you don’t have to cut out any foods or food groups, you simply work around them in the grand scale of your day. Macro tracking can be healthy and beneficial, but can also become a deeply disordered habit if done for the wrong reasons. Constantly cutting your calories down, weighing every ounce of food, anxiety around or refusal to eat out or at other peoples houses where you can’t properly track, are all signs that this tool is being used as one to overly control your life and health. If it is impeding your ability to live your life, go out with friends, engage in your surroundings, then it may have become a disordered habit. This usually stems around using macros as a way to change your body and placing the majority of focus on physique. This is why it is so important to understand the background that you or a client has with their relationship with food before forcing them into macro tracking. In this situation, often the persons “why” for participating in this behavior stems back to weight loss, need for control, or body image.
However, macro tracking I have found to be a very useful tool with certain clients. If you don’t have any previous issues with restrictive or binging behavior, it can be a good learning tool for understanding how your food serves as fuel for your body. Often I will have clients only track their protein intake, to see how that effects their overall mood and energy level. Sometimes when a client complains that they are lethargic and sleepy all the time, I have them track for a few days and find that they are barely eating any carbohydrates or that their calorie intake is way too low! CARBS ARE GOOD PEOPLE EAT YOUR CARBS. Many people will try to diet and start an exercise plan all at once, and when done unsupervised, they end up burning more calories while also *dramatically* slashing their calories… it’s no wonder they hate it and feel like crap all the time. If macro tracking can be used as a learning tool, a way to improve energy and sleep performance, and a guiding tool for eating habits, it can be very powerful! I also firmly believe that tracking macros is not a long term solution. I have found both through personal and client experience that after a short amount of time tracking, people tend to understand the food that their bodies feel best eating and the amount of food they need. Many can then transition to eating intuitively because they have gotten used to knowing the food their bodies need to feel their best!
Running is a similar example, just on the exercise side. Most people fall into two categories: avid runners who love the wind in their hair and the pavement under their feet, or I hate running. Excessive use of running (or frankly any exercise) as a method of weight loss is considered a disordered behavior. Many individuals looking to start their fitness or health journeys turn to running as the end all be all of weight loss, mainly because it is very easily accessible (all you need is shoes and a path). Is there anything inherently wrong with running? Absolutely not. If you love to run then go right ahead, in face I’ve actually been enjoying it quite a bit lately. But here is the question I pose to you: would you still run if you *knew* it wouldn’t change your body at all? Are you running because it makes you feel good and you enjoy it? Or because you feel like you have to in order to lose weight? Here in lies the issue. Many use running as a way to burn the most calories, burn fat, etc. I believe that this is why many fitspo’s bash on cardio and lean on lifting and hiit (albeit fake hiit but thats a post for another day) as methods of exercise.
So if you’re just starting a fitness journey (I low-key hate that phrase but I don’t have a better one yet) hear this. The answer to “why” is so important when it comes to fitness and health. I am going to tell you with absolute certainty that if your “why” is weight loss or changing your body to meet societies standards, that is not going to be enough. I can’t tell you what to think or believe, and I know as well as anyone how tough those chains of thought are to break. What I can tell you is that you are so much more than your body, so much more than your food choices, so much more than if you’re a runner or not. Those things don’t define who you are. If they do, you might want to reconsider your why. Just remember that everything in health must come with context, everything is so individual, and everything you see on the internet isn’t true.