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Nutrition and Fitness: An Emerging Religion?


In both my personal and professional lives, I try to abide by the following rules:

  • 1) Carefully choose with whom I talk about religion and food.
  • 2) Teach, but don’t preach, nutrition and fitness.

I have learned, for example, that preaching against The Biggest Loser (because it is abusive) or in favor of milk (because it is rich in nutrients), results in a bombardment of negative emails written by zealous opponents.

With this article, I am deviating a bit from my standard offering of sports nutrition information, and instead I am sharing some food for thought about nutrition and fitness as an emerging religion.  That is—

  • Do you have friends who have declared that sugar is evil?
  • Have you noticed that running can seem akin to a new religion?
  • Instead of attending church, do you choose to do a Sunday long runs with a congregation of fellow athletes?

When we think about something religion-based, we envision a community of people who worship common beliefs. Sometimes this community gathers in a church; other times, it meets at running store. Among athletes who describe themselves as “religion drop outs,” some create their new “church” at the charity road race with their triathlete buddies, or at a bike-a-thon for which they have raised money for a worthy cause. For these athletes, their exercise program offers more than just a workout; it offers community, purpose, meaning and charitable giving.

Some triathletes religiously partner their fitness program with nutrition. They fervently believe in quinoa and kale. ThinkstockPhotos-467616087They may also preach that refined white sugar is the devil in disguise, gluten is evil, and drinking soda is sinful. I have heard triathletes praise the glories of Paleo diets, condemn McDonalds, and confess they sinned by eating cake. Inevitably, their personal food beliefs defined the one correct way to eat. (Have you seen them roll their eyes if your food choices do not align with their views?)

Lost in the Wilderness?

Thanks to the Internet, we are overloaded with too much nutrition and fitness information. This can easily make a person feel out of control, unguided, and lost in the wilderness. Yet, from the abundance of information, each of us forms opinions and creates a belief-system surrounding food and exercise. These beliefs nourish us with a sense of comfort and control in a chaotic world.

Nourishing your soul

Despite the plethora of nutrition and exercise beliefs/religions, the common goal is to nourish your soul by being fit, healthy, and able to perform at your best. Common denominators that lead to that goal include:

  • Balancing food intake with your energy expenditure.
  • Eating a variety of “real” foods. The less processed, the more wholesome goodness.
  • Creating a health-promoting food & exercise program that you are willing to maintain for the rest of your life.

No one diet or exercise program suits everyone; we are diverse and unique products of nature. We have differing physiological (and psychological) needs. For example, avoiding peanuts may be essential for some triathletes, but you might be able to enjoy peanut butter every day. Dairy is not intolerable for every active person, nor is gluten evil unless you have celiac disease or gluten intolerance.  There is no such thing as a good or bad food (but there is a bad diet.)

Regarding weight management, just as there are different reasons why some triathletes gain weight (under-exercising, over-producing insulin, stress-eating, needing meds that trigger hunger, etc.), there are differing tools to manage weight (storing food out of sight, cooking at home more often than eating take-out grub, cutting portions in half, knocking off alcohol, etc.). We need to respect diversity of:

    • body shapes and sizes, and not shame teammates for having excess body fat.
    • weight loss diets, and not fight over the virtues of carbohydrates vs. ketosis.

Balance and Moderation

Nutrition and exercise philosophies need not have a religious fervor, but rather embrace variety, balance, and moderation. Your food and exercise program should help you feel good from the inside out. You want to consistently make choices that you enjoy and are able to sustain (and not just eat quinoa because you “think you should”). Meals can include pleasurable foods—preferably yummy-healthy foods (such as nuts, guacamole) that offer the energy you need to live an active, productive life. You want to treat your body with gratitude for all that is does for you. You should not be training as your punishment for being “too fat.”

A defined diet and exercise program can help you feel safe and protected, particularly when you share the philosophies with a bigger community (your “church”). Rather than roll your eyes when your triathlon buddy decides, for example, to eat a vegan diet, open your mind, listen to the pros and cons, consider what may or may not work for you, and choose meals that suit your needs. I have many clients who have evolved to be semi-vegetarian, Paleo-enough, or mostly clean eaters. Their food plan lacks a fervent religious overtone, but never-the-less leads to health, optimal performance, and a nourished soul. Amen. 

My suggestion to triathletes who are righteous about nutrition: lighten up and allow for freedom of religion! Live and let live. There are many paths to reaching our shared goal of being fit and healthy (as well as taking care of the planet by eating sustainably). Dessert and rest days can even be a part of your religion. They are a part of mine!

Sports nutritionist Nancy Clark MS RD CSSD has a private practice in the Boston-area (Newton; 617-795-1875), where she helps both fitness exercisers and competitive athletes create winning food plans. Her best-selling Sports Nutrition Guidebook, and Food Guide for Marathoners, as well as teaching materials, are available at nancyclarkrd.com. For online and live workshops, visit www.NutritionSportsExerciseCEUs.com.