Nutrition, Exercise, and Your Health

By Allen Fox, Ph.D.  c 2014, all rights reserved

When I was competing on the international tennis circuit in the 1950’s and 1960’s we had some pretty crazy ideas about nutrition. Most of us thought our bodies were like those old Mississippi riverboats where you could throw anything that burned into the furnace and it would produce steam. The ideal evening meal was a hefty steak, cooked rare, and accompanied by baked potatoes loaded with butter, sour cream, and bacon bits, washed down with a Coke and followed by ice cream. On court we were told, if you can believe this, not to drink. It supposedly gave you stomach cramps. Imagine playing a 3 out of 5 set match on a hot, humid day and not drinking! I’m surprised somebody didn’t die.

Now we know that hydration is crucial on court and that stuffing yourself with a high fat, high sugar, heavy protein diet is bad for your game and worse for your health. We’ve learned that a balanced diet that includes plenty of complex carbohydrates, fruits, and vegetables is good for your body. And we soon find that when we are careful to eat only properly nutritious foods we feel better, both physically and mentally. Of course most people already know this stuff. The problem is not lack of knowledge. It’s doing something about it.

Despite the best of intentions, we tend to backslide in our eating habits for a number of reasons. Foremost is the fact that most of us find Haagen Dazs ice cream and Big Macs taste better than carrots and broccoli. This stems from the fact that when we were evolving our problem was starvation not obesity. In those days it was hard to get high calorie foods, and fats and sugars are very high in caloric density. Those of our ancestors who liked the taste of fats and sugars and gorged on them whenever they got a chance were more likely to survive and pass their DNA on to us. So foods high in fat and sugar taste good to most of us. But now we can get as much of these things as we want, and it takes a bit of willpower to resist overdoing. The growing obesity problem in the developed world indicates that this bit of willpower is not common.

We eat for many reasons, and hunger is only one of them. Eating good-tasting food gives us immediate pleasure. And the pleasure is a sure thing and easy to get. It’s sure because when the food is on your plate it just sits there and can’t get away. Dig into a bowl of rich ice cream, a pastrami sandwich, pizza with plenty cheese, or a box of chocolates and you are guaranteed to have a good time as long as the food lasts. It’s not risky like a movie where the story could be bad. And if you have had a long, hard day at work or with the kids what could be more enticing in the evening than a substantial and delicious dinner?

In addition, food gives us comfort, and communal meals, such as the lavish Holiday dinners with our families, are emotionally satisfying. They have overtones of love and warmth. Eating is also a stress reducer. It counteracts strong emotion. (You’ll notice it is very difficult to cry and eat at the same time.) It is a haven to which we can escape from the cares of the day and relax. And while we are eating we can put off unpleasant tasks. All of these things tempt us to sit at the table too long and eat too much.

After we’ve overindulged we feel guilty, of course, but in many cases the guilt and bad feeling induce us to eat more rather than less. While we are chewing and swallowing we have no feelings of guilt, self-disgust, or remorse. Those only start after we stop, so it’s tempting to continue eating. Even though we know we will regret it, we overindulge because the pleasure is now and the regret is later. It is a good example of the difference and even conflict between pleasure (which tends to be immediate) and happiness (which tends to be longer term). We often have to forego pleasure in order to be happy.

We will be wise if we keep in mind that eating for health and good physical condition make us happy in the long run. We just feel better mentally and physically, but to do it we have to be aware of the dynamic and exert a bit of intelligent discipline. The following are a few tips that can aid you in this process:

1.Eat for health rather than diet for weight control. Having a weight target and dieting to get there entails deprivation, and people have trouble depriving themselves of pleasure for long periods of time.  It’s better to go for the healthy diet and lose the weight as a by-product. There is no hurry. This allows you to enjoy the process more on a day to day basis rather than focusing on a distant weight goal.

2. Find recipes for dishes that are healthy, reduce the fats and sugars, yet still taste good and decadent. is a great web site that provides such recipes.

3. As you avoid rich foods and eat a healthier diet your taste buds will become more sensitive, so that fruits and vegetables taste better.

4. Combine healthy eating with a consistent exercise program. These tend to reinforce each other. When you have sweated through a workout you are less likely to blow it with rich, unhealthy foods. Recognize, for example, that a Haagen Dazs ice cream bar has about 350 calories, and you can consume it in a couple of minutes. You would need to run about 3 ½ miles to work this off. Stop and ask yourself if it’s worth it.

5.  Don’t eat “family style,” with platters of extra food on the table. Put a reasonable portion on your plate, and if you have made enough for a second helping, put it in the refrigerator where it will get cold and unappetizing.

6. Plan some activity away from the dinner table after dinner so you won’t be so tempted to sit around and eat for fun. At the minimum, get up from the table and go into another room; but better yet, play tennis or go for a walk with your spouse, your significant other, or a friend.

You’ll find that taking care of your body nutritionally and physically is not that hard once you get over the hump and settle into a consistent program. Like doing your homework used to be, the main issue is getting started. Keep in mind that the resulting feelings of happiness and well being will help you on and off the court.

***This article was written by:
Dr. Allen Fox
. He earned a Ph.D. in psychology at UCLA and is a former NCAA champion, Wimbledon quarterfinalist and a three-time member of the U.S. Davis Cup team.

He currently consults with athletes on mental issues, lectures on sports psychology, and is the author of several books on the mental side of competition.
Click on this link to read more of Allen’s articles:

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