One of the perceived benefits of being an athletic individual is that you can eat anything you want to and still stay lean. This is the “calories in, calories out,” or “earn it and burn it” mentality. This is the mindset I espoused for decades – it was like a free pass to indulge in ice cream, pizza, giant bowls of cereal, or whatever else I fancied at the moment. Whenever I dropped the reins on my appetite and over-indulged (which was fairly frequently), I felt a degree of control in knowing I could just run a little longer later that day, or the next day, and the scales would balance out again. Bonus if they tipped in my favor!
I was the iconic sugar-burner, caught in the mindless cycle of controlling my weight through exercise. This is the new norm for many fitness-minded individuals, as suggested by the kind of comments I hear around the gym:
“Man, I just earned that (insert indulgent food of choice here)!”
“No, I’m skipping lunch today. I didn’t get my workout in this morning.”
“Why am I not losing weight?! I swear I’ve barely been eating anything and I work out every day!”
At a foundational level, the calories in, calories out paradigm is indeed true. As long as you are using more calories than you’re consuming, you are likely (but not guaranteed…more on that in another post) to maintain a steady weight, give or take a few pounds. But there is more to it.
Food is not a benign, neutral substance just passing through. It is a catalyst; it makes things happen; it acts upon and triggers responses in our body before we even put a bite in our mouth. Food conjures up powerful memories and emotions and associations. Food affects our mood and our cognitive function and our hormones. At a cellular level, the food we eat is either supporting our immune system, or attacking it. There’s really no in-between.
The reason we don’t take this seriously is that we don’t even recognize that our daily symptoms – be they mild or major – are related to our dietary choices. Assorted malaise is our new normal. We blame our migraine on the wonky weather. We claim that weird skin rash has just, you know – “been there forever.” We conclude that the bouts of depression, autoimmune flares and reproductive issues we’re experiencing are simply an unlucky roll of the genetic dice. We ride an emotional, hormonal, mood-altering roller coaster and say, “I’m just cranky, that’s all.”
But the truth of it is that the food we consume has a tremendous effect on all aspects of our health – physical, emotional, mental, spiritual. That’s the way we are designed. So whether you can earn and burn, or not, is irrelevant. The higher aspiration is to choose your calories wisely, and with optimal health in mind.