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Food and Fitness: The Case for Letting Go of Extremism

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We live in a society where many people tend to gravitate toward "black and white thinking" and extremes. The nutrition and fitness industries are fraught with examples of extremism in many forms. Everyday a new headline pronounces a certain food as "bad and ruining our health," while exalting another food and praising it's "amazing benefits."

These lists of proclaimed "superfoods" and "harmful foods" seem to change on a weekly basis- leading many people to be confused as to the mixed messages they are receiving. Further, popular fitness posts tend to favor a "black and white" mentality towards exercise, which leads many individuals to falsely believe that only a "intense workout" is beneficial for the mind and body.

I would argue that this extremist viewpoint towards nutrition and fitness is harmful for everyone. For instance, within the last few years, it was widely publicized that coconut oil had some health benefits. Many purported health fanatics went crazy in terms of eating an incredible abundance of coconut oil with every meal. However, eating any one food in excess can be unhealthy. Further, food is neutral and should not be labeled as "good" or "bad."

In Diet Recovery 2, author Matt Stone dispels the myth of "good or bad foods." Stone states, "Pizza is extraordinarily nutritious. It's almost a calcium overload. You don't have to drink kale juice all day to get adequate nutrients, and if you did you would obliterate your thyroid gland (kale is a goitrogen)." This demonstrates that any food in excess, even one that we deem as "healthy" can be unhealthy.

Additionally, viewing specific foods as "good" or "bad" often leads to restriction of certain foods, which may naturally contribute to later binge or emotional overeating. This is due to the fact that emotional or physical deprivation (i.e., eating the food while feeling guilt and shame, or denying yourself the food altogether) often triggers a biological response to overeat. When you deprive yourself of certain foods, your body is primed to counter this perceived threat of starvation by later consuming a surplus of energy (i.e., calories).

Adopting extreme views regarding nutrition could perpetuate or trigger an eating disorder in genetically vulnerable individuals. Eating disorders are the deadliest mental illness, and for individuals who have the genetic predisposition -- "black and white" messaging surrounding food can be harmful and downright dangerous.

Applying an extremist view towards fitness is another recipe for disaster. There are individuals who live their lives as a slave to their fitness routine and may meet criteria for exercise addiction. Seeing fitness as "all or nothing" may cause people to feel unable to miss a workout despite illness, injury, or fatigue. Over-exercising in a compulsive and rigid way can be incredibly harmful for both your physical and mental health.

On the other end of the spectrum are individuals who believe that taking a short walk "doesn't count" as exercise and therefore decide not to move their bodies at all. While, it has been well documented in research that exercise is not the "weight-loss panacea" that the fitness industry tries to make us believe, there are many actual health benefits of moving your body in an enjoyable way.

According to Dr. Linda Bacon, "Long-term studies show that few people maintain significant weight or fat loss by increasing their physical activity, even when exercise habits are maintained." However, exercise has been shown to boost mood, and improve a variety of health outcomes.

Even in smaller "doses" exercise can have a myriad of health benefits. For instance, a recent study from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, found that a daily 20-minute walk could extend an individual's life expectancy. Just as dieting and restriction of food can lead to unhealthy outcomes, having an "all or nothing" approach to exercise could also be mentally and physically detrimental.

The real key to improving your physical and mental health in terms of nutrition and fitness is one simple word: moderation. It's such a basic concept, yet our society seems to largely have forgotten about it. Moderation is about finding your own unique balance when it comes to food and exercise -- while making a conscious effort to avoid extremes in regards to thinking and behavior.

An integral part of this is working to neutralize all foods, and also giving yourself unconditional permission to eat any food that looks enjoyable -- while generally attempting to be mindful of your hunger and fullness cues. If you are really struggling with this, it could be helpful to seek support from a mental health therapist or a nutritionist. It is also important to note that it is normal and human to sometimes overeat a food because you enjoy it -- and this does not mean that you have "failed."

Embracing moderation is not another set of rules to follow -- rather it provides a basic concept that will enable you to find your own personal "balance" when it comes to food and fitness. Ultimately, your body is smart and intuitively knows what it needs. The belief behind the evidence-based concept of intuitive eating is that if you are able to mindfully listen to your body, and begin to nourish it with food and movement in a joyful way -- it will guide you in the right direction.

This year, my challenge for you is to work to ditch extremist views when it comes to food and movement, and to embrace the concept of moderation. In the long-term, your body and mind will thank you.

Jennifer Rollin, MSW, LGSW is a therapist, body-image activist, intuitive eating counselor, and writer, who specializes in working with adolescents, survivors of trauma, eating disorders, and mood disorders. Jennifer blogs on The Huffington Post and Psychology Today, and is a contributing writer for Eating Disorder Hope. For body-positive, self-love, inspiration, "like" her on Facebook at Jennifer Rollin, MSW, LGSW.

If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.