Today is December 27th, right between Christmas and New Year’s, that special time when everyone decides that the rules of eating which apply the rest of the year magically don’t count. It’s a week of indulgence, party after party, eating rich hors d’oeuvres and honeyed hams and piles and piles of cream-filled desserts. We drink, too. We have champagne, but also rum, and whiskey, and big glasses of egg nog — a beverage which reaches a level of richness that can only be described as “novelty.” It’s an endless parade of consumption and indulgence, all done with the vague promise that, come the first of the year, you will make up for it in some way.
People are going to diet. They’re going to hit the gym in disproportionate numbers in the first few days of January, and they’re going to watch every move they make for at least a week or so. Calories in, calories out. They’ll become an accountant of food and exercise, always looking at the bottom line. Have to get rid of those extra slices of cake and third glasses of wine. Have to repent for all of that nutritional sinning.
And in the interest of full disclosure, I’ve recently gotten back into working out. I was fairly dedicated to it through most of this year but, after a recent move, had let myself become sedentary. Though it didn’t start in the New Year, the line graph of my physical activity has recently taken a serious upswing. And I don’t believe that there’s anything wrong with recognizing that you are not moving your body enough and doing something about it, even if that realization happens to fall on the first of January. There will be more people in my gym that week, but I am happy to share the machines if they want to get fit.
What does disturb me, though, and always has, is the highly restricted eating that often goes along with the exercise. There is a huge range of ways to watch what you eat and make sure that you’re not consuming too much, some arguably more damaging than others, but the theme of “I am going to eat in this special, different way for a while so that I can achieve very specific goals” is a pretty universal one. Most people say “working out and eating right” as though it were a single word.
When I get back into fitness, my body tends to crave more healthy things, and I probably consume more vegetables and healthy proteins. But I never count calories, and I never put myself on any kind of formal diet. I did, many times over my life, each to the same dismal result. I would be very stringent on myself for a few weeks, maybe even a month or two, and then I would fall off the wagon with more vigor than I’d ever eaten before, longing for the things I used to enjoy and determined to reward myself for hard work with portion sizes that I normally would never be hungry for. My diet would deteriorate, in a pretty spectacular way, and so would my self-confidence over what I was capable of doing.
For me, physical activity is essential, and something I truly miss in my life when I’m not engaging in it. It may burn in the moment, but its effects are vital and go a long way to assuaging the various aches and pains and fatigues that come with a life spent sitting at a desk. But dieting is different, because it takes something that we do already and contorts it into a very specific system that is not meant to endure. Even the word “diet” implies that it is temporary, something that is meant to serve a purpose and which you can’t sustain.
If there are things we should do to eat better, it is cooking as often as possible. Watching what goes into your food and learning how to make it taste just as good without all of the superfluous oils or preservatives that we’re used to consuming. We can stack our plates high with vegetables and whole grains and lean proteins, and eat the things that our body needs first. We can drink big glasses of water and cups of tea throughout the day, and learn to stop confusing thirst for hunger simply because we’re used to having food so accessible. We can stop shopping at gas stations out of convenience, and pack with us some good things when we head off to work or school. We can eat better without ever even thinking the word “diet,” and we can do it in a way that lasts a lifetime.
There is immediate victory in dieting, beating your daily calorie count and watching the scale tick downwards. But it’s also a life of deep dissatisfaction, thinking of all the things you can’t have, wondering why the cookies you used to enjoy with a movie are suddenly filled with so much moral weight. There are ways to live as a friend and ally of food, and part of that begins with accepting that it is a beautiful, necessary, enjoyable part of life. Getting fit and moving around are not intricately linked with restricted eating, and one can have a productive day at the gym that ends with a bowl of your mom’s spaghetti with meatballs. Taking care of yourself is essential, and giving your body the nutrition it needs a foundation of healthy life, but that life — even if it’s healthy — is simply too short to be on a diet.