How Fitspo Turned Me Off Fitness

You might think healthy eating involves goji berries, kale shakes of mud-like consistency, and gourmet-chicken breast atop a bed of boiled quinoa. At least, that was my impression when I first decided to change my diet.

Then again, I mightn’t be the best test-subject. Blessed with a high metabolism and passion for sports, I never really bothered with watching my weight or eating well – until I turned 21 and my metabolism plummeted. Since then, my 20s have been plagued by weight gain and health issues, in no small part because healthy living seemed arcane, difficult, and expensive.

But, after a year or so of steady weight loss and higher energy levels, I finally have an idea of what it means to live cleanly. Here’s what I’ve learned, why it took me so long to learn it, and why a healthy lifestyle doesn’t have to be an expensive one.

Getting fit is not a matter of “wanting it bad enough”

Go on any health-oriented Facebook page, and you’ll find a ton of supposedly motivational images. Pictures of chiselled men and women superimposed with captions like “Leave it all in the gym” and “You’ve got to want it” abound on social media.

Though this probably wasn’t the intention of the authors, it’s easy to take away the message that your health regimen should be punishing and exhausting. It’s also pretty common for people to believe that the key to weight loss is tons of exercise, rather than a balanced diet. At least, that was my impression, and that’s what I did.

My gym sessions used to be hell; I would push myself to the point of collapse. More than once, I was so sore going to class the next day, I struggled to get myself out of my seat and off the train before the doors closed. I put on a little muscle, but I also started to dread my workouts.

These days, I know better. I go to the gym three to four times a week, but if I’m feeling a little tired, I make sure not to push myself too hard. Even if I take it really easy some days, I’m still maintaining the habit, and I’m not training my brain to associate the gym with soul-crushing exhaustion. Exercise habits fail when they’re not sustainable.

You can’t neglect your palate

Speaking of sustainability, it’s no use going on a diet that you can’t stomach. If the difference in comfort between your old, delicious diet and your new, unappetising one is too extreme, you’ll relapse in no time. I know, because I repeated this pattern again and again.

Once it finally sunk in that I couldn’t commit to a diet I despised, I changed tack. Instead of overhauling my entire diet all at once, I started changing it bit by bit.

First, I found a healthier alternative to my breakfast. Then, I replaced my usual lunch with something else, and so on. Some of the substitutes didn’t pan out; they didn’t taste good enough to eat on a regular basis. When that happened, I tried a different one. It actually became a fun experiment to try new, healthier foods all the time. I had only three criteria: my new meals had to be a) nutritious, b) tasty, and c) inexpensive.

And that last criterion brings me to my next point.

The wellness and fitness industries want your money

There’s a lot of misinformation and conflicting opinions around health. Celebrities, Instagram influencers, and the companies who pay them are all busy making magical claims about the latest fad diet or superfood which is guaranteed* to make you Attractive and Worthy.

And that’s because health is the new wealth. “Wellness as a status symbol” has been identified as one of the top 10 consumer trends for 2017. In an age of material abundance, being a member of the fit and healthy elite has become as much a badge of prestige as owning a Mercedes-Benz – hence the rise of luxury athleisurewear, and the popular fascination with rich-people-endorsed superfoods.

But, according to Leanne Elliston, Dietitian and Program Manager at Nutrition Australia, there’s no real reason to buy into the hype.

“Superfoods are very expensive,” she says. “There’s this attitude of ‘I’m somehow superior to be able to eat this way’, and it’s just a farce, really. It doesn’t cost much to be healthy, it’s completely achievable, and there’s no such thing as a superfood.”

Convenience has a cost

So, trendy superfoods are expensive, but what about takeaway? Surely that has to be cheaper than clean eating?

Not so, says Elliston. In terms of nutrition for money, junk food is “very expensive.” Kate Gudorf, Accredited Practising Dietitian and Spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia, agrees.

“Junk foods may seem inexpensive,” she says, “But due to needing to be processed and packaged, are often more expensive than less processed food options.

“Not to mention junk foods, when eaten over time, can place a high cost on your health… Foods high in saturated fat, sugar and low in fibre (like most junk foods), when eaten over time, may increase body weight and increase your risk of developing chronic health conditions like type 2 diabetes, certain types of cancer and heart disease.”

Instead of going for a Maccas run, both Gudorf and Elliston recommend a balanced diet of fruit, veggies, wholegrains, meat (or meat alternatives), and dairy, with minimal consumption of processed foods. And unless you have a medical condition like gluten intolerance or Coeliac disease, avoid fad diets which advocate cutting out entire food groups.

Spend less and cook more

It’s easy to get anxious about your diet when you’re on a student budget, but the conflation of clean eating with wealth is little more than a marketing strategy. There’s a ton of ways to get the nutrition you need without paying premium prices.

“Look for produce in season, which will be less expensive and tastier,” says Gudorf. “When you can, use frozen fruits or vegetables. They are often less expensive, keep much longer in the freezer and have all of the same nutrition as fresh.

“Choose whole grains, which are often quite reasonable when purchased in bulk. And tins of beans, tuna or even lean cuts of meat can be quite reasonably priced.”

The other part of the equation, says Elliston, is to spend more time in the kitchen. “Get comfortable with cooking food,” she says. “It’s really, really, important. Healthy food is really quite cheap, if you just know how to prepare it and where to go in the supermarket – and it’s not in the organics section.”