As a dietitian, I am faced with nutrition challenges right and left. No, I’m not talking about challenges related to what to eat, what to recommend or what to even say to make sure I don’t upset someone. That’s a different post for a different day. Instead, I’m talking about the 30 Day Challenges, the 21 Day Resets, the 1 Week Cleanses and/or the 3 Day Fasts. These “challenges” are everywhere and more people than not have participated in them in some way, shape or form (even if they didn’t complete said challenge.) I want to dive a bit into why challenges can be good, why they can be bad and most importantly why they can be down right stupid especially if executed poorly.
If you are currently participating in a challenge or have done one or plan to do one, I’m not here to scold you or to make you feel bad. Instead, I hope that I can empower you to choose what path is right for you. Everyone’s health journey looks, feels and is different, so cool your jets when judging others and let’s figure out if challenges are worth all the hype.
Nutrition Challenges 101
Let’s start off with what a nutrition challenge even is. A nutrition challenge is a framework of eating that is meant to provide a person or people with healthy results in a specified period of time. That is the definition out of my own mouth, so take that with some liberties. The challenge framework may or may not be backed my scientific research and may or may not produce results you are looking for.
A challenge is usually based around some type of food philosophy (i.e. Paleo, Vegan, Gluten-Free, Raw Food,etc.) and almost always involves restricting food intake in one way, shape, or form. The challenge is just that, a challenge and is not meant to go on forever but is meant to challenge the person or people who are participating in hopes that they gain something positive from the experience. Sometimes prizes and money are at stake, which can change the game of food intake, sometimes for the better but also for the worse.
Where do these challenges originate?! From anyone or any group that is able to provide the framework and produce results (even if said results are fabricated). There is no governing body to determine if a challenge is legitimate or not so anyone reading this can start a challenge right now. This can be a double edge sword and is why we need to figure out if challenges are good, bad or downright stupid.
Here’s the thing not all challenges are bad and not all people suffer from doing challenges. Some challenges allow people to find a healthy path, start a new health journey and/or see results that are long term. I’ve had very successful challenges at my gym and elsewhere and find that there is a time and a place for them. So when/why/how can challenges be good you ask? Let’s first focus on the positive and why challenges might be a good idea.
They can give guidelines and a framework for a healthy diet/lifestyle.
We as humans need structure sometimes, so it’s inevitable that we will seek out something that tells us what to do and how. A challenge that gives us guidelines and a framework can not only reel us in & help us focus us on our health goals, but also reduce the stress of having to worry about what we need to eat/do/drink, etc. A little structure for some can go a long way. Not to mention, when it’s over it can give us lasting ideas/guidelines that can play a big part in our overall health.
They can provide a fresh start or a reset button.
Sometimes you live your life by the motto “YOLO” (aka You Only Live Once) and your diet and lifestyle get out of hand. It’s great to start a challenge to get that fresh start or even hit the reset button. We are human, and therefore not perfect so we may need to face what we’ve done and hit reset, and that’s okay. It’s just like the New Year, we love a reason to refocus ourselves and try something new.
They usually have a clear start and end.
While this can backfire for some, it can be a great short-term tool for others. Having that start date makes them start before they might have on their own. The set end date gives them a realistic amount of time to do the challenge without feeling deprived or like it is never ending. A clear timeline is comforting to most and can help people reach short term goals.
They are usually facilitated by someone who knows something.
Okay, this will be repeated in all categories BUT if a challenge is facilitated by the right people, it can go incredibly well. The right person will know if a challenge is working for someone or not and will be able to give appropriate guidance based on each person’s needs. Having the right people in charge can lead to a great challenge with good results. Ideally the person/people in charge have credentials that allow them to understand both the individual’s and the group’s needs. While I’m bias, a Dietitian makes for a great leader for nutrition challenges.
Yes, there are bad parts of nutrition challenges, sorry (not sorry) I said it. Challenges can put people in a negative mindset, set people up for failure and for some encourage a poor relationship with food/diet/exercise. While I would love to sit here and tell you all challenges are created equally, they are not.
Challenges don’t always take the individual needs into consideration.
This group think mentality can really backfire and when someone fails everyone assumes that that person must have not followed the diet/challenge to a T. Guess what? We are all uniquely different and even if we follow something down to the last detail we still may not see results. The group as a whole may have succeeded but to me, if there are individuals who failed, the challenge was not fully a success.
They usually have a start and an end.
While this is good for some, it can be really bad for others. Ever been on a diet/challenge and planned out exactly what you are eating the day your challenge ends? It’s a full on binge fest that can make one spiral out of control and make the challenge almost useless. You then forget everything you have ever learned from the challenge and go on a “banned” food bender. This all or nothing mentality around food and nutrition challenges kills me and makes me fear for the individual’s health in the long term.
Challenges encourage restriction.
While sometimes, under supervision, restriction is in fact necessary, doing so in a challenge setting can be detrimental to some people’s physical and mental well being. Some find that restricting works, only to continue to restrict further and further until food anxieties and eating disorders rear their ugly heads. Restriction is not for everyone, especially not without the help of a professional.
Not all that lead challenges are created equal and/or are qualified.
Anyone can run a nutrition challenge. However, not every challenge leader is the best at doing so. A leader must first know what they are talking about, also know how to deal with individuals in a group setting, and recognize when a challenge is not working for someone. A leader who leads blindly with no knowledge or training in nutrition has the potential to do more harm than good which is EXACTLY what we are told not to do in the health care profession.
Ok, we know the good, we know the bad but let’s get real for a minute and talk about the stupid part of challenges, shall we? Challenges can (and do) work but you know your body best and must stand up for yourself when it comes to challenges. Know what feels best for your body and be an advocate for your health. If you are unsure of how your body feels, hire a professional to work with your individual needs instead of relying on a blanket challenge to fix you.
Challenges encourage the if it works for me, it will work for you mentality.
I’ve written about this before, but it drives me crazy. There is no one size fits all diet or challenge and sometimes even when you try your best and do everything to the challenge rules, you still will come up short. And don’t even get me started on the people who will judge others when they fail, I have no tolerance for that. That doesn’t give someone an out or an excuse it just means that challenges are not right for everyone and we need to not be so judgey when it doesn’t work. Not to mention those who have different food philosophies that like to point fingers at others when they fail, let’s just put an end to that.
Recommending restriction without knowing the individual can promote unhealthy relationships with food.
This shouldn’t even be a discussion but boy oh boy is it an issue. Many people have a history of eating disorder OR have the potential to have disordered eating behaviors. A challenge is the LAST thing someone in this situation should be doing. Getting rewarded for doing something that will likely cause worse health effects in the long term is not good for anyone. If you know you are affected negatively by restrictions, run far from challenges and be okay with never doing them. If you have no idea how you will react, make sure you are working with someone who is trained to deal with that type of issue. I know of far too many people who encourage challenges and restrictions and have no idea the negative impact they have had on others, makes me sad.
Encourages short term quick fixes to long term health goals.
A lot of challenges only focus on the short term and forget that our health is a journey not a destination. Challenges encourage us to only focus on short term changes and when we don’t see them we give up. However, if we instead focus on the long term, we will see success and probably more happiness. Restriction in the short term for lack of long term success is just silly and stupid.
ANYONE can champion a challenge.
And I mean anyone. While this is not a knock on people passionate about health and nutrition, it is a knock on the fact that nutrition challenges have no boundaries. IF the challenge is being run by someone who is passionate about nutrition and/or has had success doing it themselves, ask tough questions and be skeptical. Challenges should be led by those who know what they are doing. I drive a car but I’m not about to give any advice on how cars function, what they need to run or how to fix them if they stop working. Same goes with nutrition, be picky with who you choose to lead you in a challenge.
The Future of Nutrition Challenges
Here’s the thing, everyone is different. You know your body better than anyone. If you don’t, find a professional who can help you in that regard. Once you know your body and how you react to different stimuluses and challenges, you will better know if nutrition challenges are good, bad and/or downright stupid for you.
As for me, I’ve participated in and organized/facilitated plenty of nutrition challenges so I am sitting in the same boat as you all. I am not one who succeeds at food challenges, unless of course it involves drinking the most coffee or eating all the eggs. When I’m told I have to do something, I’m almost always tempted to do the opposite. That’s just my personality and I’ve learned that restriction is my enemy. For others, a challenge (executed by a professional) can be incredibly life changing and empowering.
What is the future of challenges? We are humans and the challenges are bound to continue forever. What I hope, is that we find challenges that empower people to make smart choices for themselves as opposed to encourage short term restrictions for long term destruction. Let’s build better challenges and encourage long term success.