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Focus on the pleasurable aspects of eating well, exercising

Editor’s note: This column by Jennifer Motl will appear in the Healthy Living section on Sunday, Feb. 19.


It sounds like a paradox, but doing what feels satisfying can make you healthier.

Societal pressures to starve ourselves and exercise to exhaustion in the name of beauty and health are all wrong, according to psychologists.

Focusing on the immediate pleasures of being active, not the long-term health benefits, makes it easier to maintain healthy behaviors, according to Michelle Segar, a psychologist and researcher at University of Michigan.

While Segar’s research focuses on exercise, it can be applied to nutrition as well. Segar studied nearly 400 women ages 40 to 60 and found that the ones who worked out most focused on how exercise improved their daily quality of life. These ladies worked out up to 34 percent more often than women who focused on weight or health.

So, as you strive to improve your health habits, focus on quality of life. That’s how exercise or eating well makes you feel better immediately. Lots of women in Segar’s study reported that exercise helps them relax, sleep better and feel more energetic, and that it improves mental focus and creativity. It also cheers them up and makes them more patient parents—and less irritable.

Not mentioned in Segar’s research but often cited in studies of men: better sex. Physical activity and healthy eating have been shown to reduce erectile dysfunction. So, more fun between the sheets is one more happy result of exercise and eating well.


Hating your body makes it harder to exercise and eat well, according to Portuguese researchers.

They found in a study of 240 overweight women that those who focused on accepting their bodies as is paradoxically lost three times more weight over a year than those who did not learn to like their bodies.

When we like ourselves, it’s easier to take care of ourselves.


It’s important to pick something you enjoy. If you hate working out alone on weight machines, consider something fun and social like a dance class or a brisk walk in the park with a friend.

That way, being active feels like a breath of fresh air, an escape, a way to pamper yourself. In other words, it’s your desire rather than an obligation.


Segar’s research on pleasure may indirectly explain why nutrition labeling in restaurants isn’t particularly helpful so far. French researchers found that although 43 percent of people noticed nutrition labels in restaurants, only 5 percent of people used the labeling information to choose what to eat.

Looking at numbers doesn’t appeal to us on a short-term basis—it doesn’t make us feel anything.

It’s important to make eating well enjoyable, so choose refreshing treats rather than diet foods that are pale imitations of real food. For example, if you love the juicy sweetness of fresh strawberries, consider splurging on them at the market.

Over and over, I hear people complain that produce is too expensive. Yet it’s no more expensive than fatty snacks. According to a price survey at comparegrocery, even in winter you can buy frozen strawberries, raspberries or cherries for about $3 a pound, about the same price as bag of potato chips weighing the same amount. Most folks don’t hesitate to buy a bag of chips, so why quibble over fruit?

Fresh or frozen berries taste fabulous in smoothies or as a topping for hot cereal. For breakfast, consider treating yourself to a berry parfait. In a pretty glass, alternate layers of strawberries, granola and yogurt. It’s beautiful and delicious.


Consider journaling about how you feel after eating different meals. What meals make you feel energetic and creative? Which foods make you tired and sluggish? Which meals give you a burst of energy followed by a crash?  By journaling, you may find patterns.

Eating junk food occasionally may not hurt at all, but if you eat it for a few days, you may feel different. I tend to eat more fast food on road trips and vacations. The first day, it’s fun: the fries and cheeseburgers satisfy some cravings. But on the second day, I start to feel tired. By the third day, I’m actively looking for places that have salads and fresh fruit, because I feel so much more energetic when I eat well.


Consider involving everyone in your household as you seek to improve your health habits. Lots of evidence shows that it’s easier to make changes when everyone is supportive, rather than sabotaging the person trying to change.

You don’t need to impose your new regimens on others, but consider asking about their preferences. For example, if you’re trying to eat more fruits and veggies, consider borrowing from the library a cookbook with appealing pictures. You might ask family members to choose recipes they’d like to sample; or involve them in shopping at farmers markets and grocery stores.


If you think you won’t like eating more veggies, consider adding puréed veggies to favorite foods. Pennsylvania State University researchers found that folks who ate macaroni and cheese that had puréed cauliflower and summer squash added to the cheese sauce didn’t taste the difference, but they got more nutrients and fewer calories. You can get the mac ’n’ cheese recipe online at

Another healthful food that tastes like a treat is guacamole. Turns out, the combo of fresh avocados, garlic, cilantro and tomato is not only packed with flavor, it’s great for your heart and far lower in calories than cheese or sour cream.

So if you like tacos, consider topping them with guacamole. One step at a time, you’re moving toward healthier foods. And you can feel that you’re indulging yourself as well.

Eating well can satisfy your taste buds and make you feel good.

Jennifer Motl is a registered  dietitian. Formerly of Fredericksburg, she now  lives in Wisconsin. Jennifer Motl welcomes reader questions via her website,, or by email at healthyliving@freelance