This piece is part of Bustle’s All Levels Welcome, a column about making fitness culture as accessible and inclusive as possible.
'Tis the season to celebrate age-old traditions, bank family time for the coming year, and navigate a minefield of mixed messages about food and exercise. It's beyond common to feel pressure to enjoy foods you only get around this time of year — latkes, Christmas cookies, tamales — only to have to deal with your aunt saying how much Zumba she "has" to do in the New Year. Despite the body shaming messages floating around, especially during this time of year, you don’t have to “work off” the food you enjoy.
"Your body needs food, whether you're running a marathon or watching Netflix all day," registered dietician Brenna O'Malley, founder of The Wellful, tells Bustle. Still, we get these messages — that we "need" to work out as a consequence of fueling ourselves — from sources all over the place.
Over Thanksgiving, New York Times article encouraged people to get their families exercising together as a way to “motivate” family members who might otherwise be “inactive.” And a recently published study received massive backlash for advocating “physical activity calorie equivalent” (PACE) labels for food; these labels would inform people, for example, the amount of walking it would take to “burn off” the calories in your holiday cookies. “These PACE labels are nothing more than another way to shame a person into not eating,” Danielle Campoamor wrote for InStyle, “or at least hitting the gym directly after they eat as an acceptable penance.”
Nutritionists say that messages like these, which become ever more common over the holidays, ignore the way that food actually works to fuel your body. “This idea that we need to burn off every calorie that we put in our bodies isn’t good science," says Alissa Rumsey, MS, RD, owner of Alissa Rumsey Nutrition and Wellness, a virtual private practice that specializes in intuitive eating. “Our bodies are much more complex than an equation that measures the difference between calories in and calories out.”
"By overemphasizing the importance of calories, we then ignore taste preferences, cravings, hunger levels, and other important nutrients,” registered dietician Jacqueline Stone, owner of Healthy Rhythm Nutrition, tells Bustle.
You are not obligated to explain or defend yourself if you aren’t comfortable
During the holidays especially, triggers that might make you think you need to do “penance” for enjoying yourself or fueling your body can be abundant. “Everyone has different triggers,” Rumsey tells Bustle. “For one person this could be seeing a certain number on a scale, hearing someone speak negatively about their body, commenting on weight loss or gain, or seeing how long it would take to 'work off' a certain food.”
“Comments made by others related to exercise, food choices, and/or body size only collude with the already existing negative talk going through the mind of someone struggling with an eating disorder,” Stone tells Bustle. Harmful statements that people might think are benign can "contribute to what feels like a never-ending spiral of thoughts related to food rules and self-doubt," Stone says. And when the comments and media messages build up, Rumsey tells Bustle that it “disconnects people from their internal cue system, since they are they basing what they eat on external factors.”
In the midst of toxic messages around food and exercising, “Setting intentions and boundaries ahead of the holidays becomes essential,” Rumsey tells Bustle. “Prepare responses to family and friends’ comments about your body, weight, or food choices, but remember that you are not obligated to explain or defend yourself if you aren’t comfortable.” You can also prepare scripts in your mind of what you will say to get yourself out of uncomfortable and potentially harmful conversations. O'Malley suggests practicing phrases like, "I love talking to you, but I'd rather not talk about XYZ," or, "I'm an adult and can make decisions about what I'm eating."
You deserve to feel joy over the holidays, whether that happiness comes from food, exercise, or a combination of both. "Giving yourself compassion is helpful because it's a hard season," O'Malley says. So find what works for you to bring you the most happiness — that is what this time of year is supposed to be about, after all.
Brenna O’Malley, RD, founder, The Wellful LLC
Jacqueline Stone, MS, CEDRD, LD/N, registered dietitian, Healthy Rhythm Nutrition
Alissa Rumsey, MS, RD, Alissa Rumsey Nutrition and Wellness