So You’re Doing A Nutrition Challenge.

Your CrossFit gym decided to do a diet challenge — Paleo, Zone, Whole30 — to kickstart a better, faster, stronger you.

So, you prepare. You throw out all the ‘bad’* foods in your pantry and refrigerator. You go to the grocery store with a brand-new list. You load up on yummy green things, new proteins, healthy snacks, and mineral water. You and your nutrition coach have come up with a rad plan that you’re stoked to execute to help you get swole. You’ve set yourself up for success.

So let’s talk about why you want to do this.

What are your needs and your goals? Are you willing to really take a long hard look at what comes up for you emotionally during this process? Are you playing something out where you get on a health rampage for a month, and then, out of desperation and deprivation, relapse into wild nutrient abandon?

yummmm, donuts.

Maybe you’ve joined a nutrition challenge because you want to feel like you have more energy during the day, get better sleep at night, have more focus at work, and better sex in your relationship(s). I’m going to guess that you also want to PR your squat, write that novel, make more money, and take more vacations. (Maybe, secretly, you’re hoping that a change in your diet will lead to a change in these areas, too.)

I get it. You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t want to get better, faster, and stronger. But what these nutrition challenges leave out is the emotional and psychological element of self-care and wellness. In order to treat yourself well, which I’m assuming is one of your goals, it’s necessary to incorporate a bigger focus on emotional, mental, spiritual, and physical self-care into your wellness plan so you can set up a solid foundation for success right now, six months from now, and well into the future.

We’re talking about the long view here, not the short-term.

In the long run, there is no way to avoid being challenged. No matter what you do or how skilled you are at maneuvering relationships and the rest of your life, you’re going to feel stress and it’s going to suck. For example, maybe your partner said something that pissed you off, and you are still mad about that, so you’re feeling stressed and irritable at home and are having trouble unwinding. Or maybe you are feeling stretched thin at work, and when you get home you go straight to the glass (or bottle) of wine. Maybe you’re waking up groggy so you drink a bunch of coffee. Or, you could be staying up late at night worrying about your kids, your parents, your mortgage — and when morning rolls around, you’ve overslept and don’t have time to make breakfast.

All of this might look like it’s about how much alcohol or caffeine you drink and how, what, and when you eat. But it’s also about all these other things happening in your life that are mental and emotional. When you’re emotionally, physically, and mentally exhausted, your recovery and self-care get sidelined. Then, the “real stuff” — i.e., your emotions — gets transferred into things like food, and food becomes a method of shaming or judging yourself rather than a tool for wellness.

Part of being the healthiest you can be — whatever that looks like for you — is treating yourself as well as possible. Some days that will come easily, and some days it will be a remarkable feat of endurance just to get to work and then back home at the end of the day. If you’re finding yourself stuck in the shit and in need of a self-care boost, try these tips for checking in with yourself to make sure you’re tending to all that you need.

  1. Take breaks.
    The Pomodoro Technique recommends that for every 25 minutes you work, you take a 5 minute break. I’m going to guess this might not actually work for you. I know it doesn’t for me. This is actually a super important element of self-care: it’s got to be something you can actually do, otherwise it just leads to more stress. For example, here’s how I incorporate breaks: I keep a 50 minute hour in my therapy practice. I take the ten minutes between patients to stretch my hips, hamstrings, and shoulders, and for every three to four patients I take at least a 30 minute break to eat and take a walk around the block. Maybe for you, it could look similarly — for every hour you work, take a shorter break where you’re moving, stretching, and not looking at a screen; and for every 3–4 hours you work, you take a longer break where you get to take a walk or go somewhere quiet to decompress.
  2. Meditate every day.
    Meditating isn’t for everyone, but if it fits for you, it can be a wonderful way to regulate your central nervous system and make time for yourself. I like the app Headspace, which has 10 minute guided meditations you can listen to anytime. If traditional sitting meditations don’t really work for you, try a walking meditation instead, or just some quiet time during a part of the day when you can shut things off for a while. Journaling works in this way, too, if that’s easier than meditating. Don’t let anyone encroach on this time you set for yourself, it’s a gift just for you.
  3. Be honest with yourself.
    What emotions or sensations are you feeling? Is there a need for some kind of wellness or care that you’ve been overlooking or trying to avoid? Are you feeling unhappy or frustrated in certain areas of your life? Are you using food — either by restricting or by overeating — as a stand-in for emotions you cannot bear to feel? Get to know these feelings, and talk with someone you trust about what is coming up for you.
  4. Practice an unconditional relationship with yourself.
    I’m going to leave these words from Pema Chödrön right here: “Right now, can you make an unconditional relationship with yourself? Just at the height that you are? The weight that you are, with the intelligence that you have, and your current burden of pain? Can you enter into an unconditional relationship with that?” What comes up for you when you think about what that would take?
  5. Life is not under your control.
    If you’re feeling derailed — that’s okay. Shit happens. Life is not about preventing shit from happening, but about how you can respond when it does. If something happens and you fall off your eating or exercise plan, the best thing you can do is go with the flow, trust your body and intuition to know what it needs, and just pick the plan up again tomorrow. Or maybe, there are flaws in your plan — maybe your plan doesn’t take into account what you really need, and your body is asking you to investigate that. The only use in shaming or punishing yourself is to make yourself feel worse. It’s not worth it!
  6. *There are no ‘bad’ foods.
    Right — you think that donuts are bad. They’re not bad. They are inanimate objects of powdered sugar delight. You might feel a certain way after eating them — maybe elated, maybe ashamed, maybe you feel like you broke the rules? If you struggle with shame around food and eating, talk with a professional who can help you untangle your emotions from your nutrition. Because even for the elite athletes, pasta and donuts and peanut butter are fuel for performance, inside and outside the gym.

Molly Merson, MFT is a psychotherapist in private practice in Berkeley who works with adults and adolescents of all genders in approaching uncomfortable feelings, working through stuck patterns, and creating room for joy and desire. She is also an avid CrossFitter and weightlifter, and understands the role of shame, self-esteem, stigma, and depression when it comes to food and body image.