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Why You Should Stop Trying to Negate or Earn Food with Exercise

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Photo: Nikada/Getty Images

It's the time of year when you're probably equally as excited about all the holiday food as you are nervous about gaining a sh*t ton of weight. As a dietitian, I can offer tips on how to avoid holiday weight gain, like skip the pointless appetizers, load half your plate with veggies, or keep the alcoholic bevies to a minimum. But while these tips are helpful, they don't address the underlying and dangerous concept that you should feel guilty for eating Thanksgiving dinner (or any food for that matter) or try to feverishly cancel out those indulgent calories with exercise. This is an unhealthy and misguided idea. Actually, I'll let you in on a little secret that I tell clients: Weight loss isn't about the food as much as it is about your mindset and behaviors.

Here's why you should stop reading anything that tells you how many miles you need to run or sit-ups you need to do to "burn" off those mashed potatoes and gravy.

Overeating for one day won't cause weight gain.

There is a long-held belief that 1 pound of weight gain equals 3,500 calories eaten. That is, if you eat 3,500 more calories than you burn off in one week (or 500 extra calories/day), you will gain 1 pound. Well, due to differences in metabolism, this principle has been refuted, and losing and gaining weight is not as simple as one equation. In fact, this is the number-one reason to stop counting calories. To put it bluntly, "one day of overeating won't make you gain weight, just as one day of cutting calories won't make you lose weight," says Alissa Rumsey, M.S., R.D., founder of Alissa Rumsey Nutrition and Wellness.

This is why most dietitians will counsel you on refocusing your behaviors, rather than your food. And the difference between behavioral changes and "dieting" or canceling out food with exercise? Behavioral changes are long-term practices that take time and energy to accomplish—they aren't something that creates a real change in a day. Dieting and attempting to cancel out food with exercise is not only ineffective, but also not a safe or healthy mindset.

"Your health is more influenced by your overall lifestyle than by one single day," says Rumsey. Talk to anyone who has lost a significant amount of weight, and they will likely tell you that they learned to "eat better" over a period of time, rather than going on a crash diet for a month.

There's more to exercise than burning calories.

Believe it or not, some people work out because they enjoy it. In fact, having fun is essential to fitness success. Not only does your brain release feel-good endorphins thanks to a workout, but countless studies have linked regular exercise to living a healthier life overall. Plus, exercise has been linked to greater cognition and memory, improved sleep, mood, and immune system, as well as a decreased risk for a slew of chronic and widespread diseases such as hypertension, heart disease, high cholesterol, and even some cancers. Thinking of fitness merely as a way to "undo" having treated yourself to potatoes, gravy, and pie (and more pie) is a losing game. And it makes you miss out on what makes exercise so great in the first place.

Also, on a practical note, more often than not, exercise doesn't burn off quite as many calories as you may estimate. The average 130- to 150-pound woman burns just about 200 to 300 calories in a moderate-intensity 30-minute cardio session. That basically equates to a piece of bread with nut butter. If you're planning to throw calorie caution to the wind (and you should totally go for it!), it's just not realistic to think you can (or should try to) burn enough calories to cancel out dinner—and doesn't that sound so sad anyway? Canceling out a delicious, holiday dinner. No, thanks.

Obsessing over calories can cause disordered eating.

The need to obsessively work out to "cancel out" a big meal can be dangerous. As a matter of fact, this is a telltale sign of disordered eating. "Trying to restrict a certain food or food group will cause you to eventually binge and overeat it," says Rumsey. Exercising to negate calories can also lead to orthorexia—the obsessive pursuit of a healthy diet and lifestyle. "If you feel like you can't enjoy Thanksgiving (or meals any other day) because you feel like you need to control food and calories, I highly recommend you talk with an expert," says Lindsey Janeiro, R.D., owner of Nutrition to Fit. That's not to say that signing up for a Turkey Trot with your family on Thanksgiving morning is dangerous. But attempting to run the race twice as long or as fast with the mindset of burning off enough calories so you are "allowed" to have seconds at dinner, is not healthy.

Food should be enjoyed.

Within the nutrition community, there's been a huge shift toward the practice of mindful eating. Many nutrition professionals have moved away from talking about "calories in and calories out" to put the focus more on why and what you eat. If you really are worried about overeating this time of year, which many people are, "a healthier way to go about eating over the holidays is to learn to listen and trust your hunger and fullness signals," says Rumsey. This might be difficult to do if you've been ignoring or misinterpreting those hunger signals for a long time, such as eating when you feel stressed, bored, or moody, rather than when you're actually hungry. To feel more in tune with your food, Janeiro suggests paying attention to the pleasure you derive from eating something. "Eat the foods that you've been looking forward to eating all year. If it doesn't taste as great as you remember, recognize that and move on."

But if you're feeling overwhelmed, remember that food should be savored, not cause anxiety or feelings of guilt. There's absolutely no reason that you should feel bad about really enjoying a delicious, comforting meal, even if that means eating more than your fair share. More often than not, the foods at the Thanksgiving table are tied to family memories, whether it's Grandma's homemade cranberry sauce or your favorite aunt's pumpkin pie. Let yourself indulge in the warm and fuzzy feelings you get from eating those foods, and don't let negative thoughts about calories seep into those enjoyable moments.

The bottom line: If you're still skeptical and plan to spend an hour on the treadmill on Thanksgiving morning, then consider this instead. Think about whether you're running to feel physically fit and healthy or to counteract future calories. If it's the latter, give yourself a break and jump off the treadmill. Go do something that will make you happy because chances are if you look at running as a "necessary chore," being on that machine isn't making you happy. Walk the dog or play games with your family. At the dinner table, choose foods you look forward to all year and enjoy every bite.

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