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Earning the Right to Eat

This past week we had a major snowstorm in Maine (along with other parts of the country), dropping over a foot of snow on us. Happily, I don’t have to shovel my driveway, but I do have to move my car so my spot can be plowed. Between snow that drifted as a result of the heavy winds and getting plowed in, that took me half an hour. By the time I got inside, I felt like having some hot chocolate. Then an insidious thought crept in: “After all, I’ve earned it.” I literally stopped in the act of walking to the kitchen. Did I really just think that? The concept of earning the right to eat is almost certainly familiar to people in our diet-obsessed nation. Exercise requirements, either to justify eating or as punishment after the fact, go hand-in-hand with those sorts of restrictions. For instance, a friend doing Weight Watchers told me they had points for food but also points for exercise. If you exercised more than recommended, you could “spend” those extra points to get more food points and therefore eat more. One problem I have with this is that it’s very cerebral. Rather than simply trusting your body to let you know if it’s hungrier than normal as a result of activity, the concept of earning food is much more involved. How much exercise allows for how much food? What kind of food? As you exercise do you have to check your heart rate and go for a certain number of minutes to get that ice cream or piece of cake? It takes you out of your body, whereas I found that reconnecting with my body was essential for long-term weight management. Another piece that seems to get lost with this approach is recognition of the simple fact that if you exercise heavily, you need to eat more. It’s not a privilege. If you burn a lot more calories than you consume, for any extended amount of time, your body just shuts down. My brother, for instance, does the Trek Across Maine, a 180-mile bike ride over three days. While he’s doing it, he can eat pretty much whatever he wants – and he has to. If he doesn’t, he might not be able to finish the ride. Finally, this approach puts a negative connotation on physical activity. It took me years to get past the notion that exercise was evil. This was partly because when you’re overweight, physical exertion is not particularly fun, but it was also because I always equated it with dieting. What a novel idea to consider that exercise is not necessarily about food! Certainly it burns calories, but that is not the be all, end all. Physical activity can be enjoyable for its own right, something to engage in for no reason but pleasure. So yesterday after I went out cross country skiing (a much more pleasant activity than shoveling packed, heavy snow), I came home and found that I was hungry. Instead of thinking about how much I had “earned” or even if I had earned anything at all, I simply ate until I was no longer hungry. And that felt good.

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