Belly Fat Isn't Your Enemy — Here's Why Eating Healthy Shouldn't Be About Losing Weight

Weight fluctuates. Our bodies are not made to fit the forms of department store mannequins, and it's physically and mentally draining to live as though they are. As important as it is to exercise and eat healthy to avoid health risks, it's equally as important to pay attention to our bodies and understand what they need to function at their peak performance level. I know from experience that it's easy to fall into a routine of looking at yourself in the mirror every day and wondering what you can do to get rid of that flab under your arms, the stretch marks on your thighs, or the way your stomach sticks out over the hem of your jeans.

Movies, television shows, and social media all play their part to feed us the idea that being fat is wrong and that having even the slightest curve on our bodies that isn't aesthetically pleasing is something that should be "fixed." That's where fad diets and juice cleanses come in. While certain diets do work for specific people, it's easy to forget that every body has different needs — even our own — so not losing weight results in personal disappointment and frustration, as if we've done something wrong in trying. We become so easily attuned to the idea that reducing belly fat and losing weight are the ultimate goal of fitness, and we lose sight of the fact that exercising and eating healthy for the sake of feeling healthy is a goal to strive toward in and of itself.

As women, we are more than often expected to have the butt and the boobs that make us look "curvacious," without any of the belly fat or other body fat that may come with our body type. Most stores are completely inaccessible for women who are anywhere above a size 12 in jeans, while the average American woman is typically a size 16, according to a study by the International Journal of Fashion Design, Technology, and Education. But many women who eat healthy and exercise still have fat around their stomach because that's the way their bodies are built. So what are we supposed to do?

When it comes to my body, I know I feel my best if I eat whole foods packed with protein and nutrients, but I also feel great when I let myself have that piece of chocolate or those french fries I've been craving every now and then without planning to punish myself for it later at the gym. And if I let myself indulge a little too often, I don't beat myself up about it, because I know that losing three pounds here and gaining two pounds there is going to happen.

In the end, we should exercise for our hearts and because it keeps us feeling strong.

Our bodies are built to adapt and change based on the nutrition and exercise we put into them, and having a flat stomach isn't a part of the equation for everyone. It isn't for me, but I still choose to eat foods that are considered healthy for the benefits they have on my energy levels, mental health, skin, and general well-being.

We shouldn't be force-feeding ourselves salads so we can pose 30 pounds lighter for an "after" picture, but there are ways of figuring out what foods and types of exercise will help us to be in our best personal physical shape — and that doesn't always involve losing weight. For me, the first step to eating healthier was listening to my body to tell me when I'm full and when I'm not, and eating the right amount of food depending on my hunger level. After all, what's the point of tricking your body into feeling full with water and nutrition shakes when you could actually eat healthy, filling foods like almonds, hummus, or fresh fruit that make you feel good and are good for you? Staying hydrated is crucial, but so is eating a healthy combination of fruits, vegetables, grains, proteins, and fats that satisfy your body completely. I'm not saying you should down a large combination pizza for dinner every night, but don't deprive yourself of food if you're hungry.

In the end, we should exercise for our hearts and because it keeps us feeling strong. We should eat healthy because it's good for our brains and gives us the energy we need to be productive throughout the day. And we should all feel free to live our lives with carbs in our bellies and smiles on our faces.