Food is Fuel…Or is it?

  Sep 19, 2018  |  #Intuitive Eating

You’ve probably heard the saying, “food is fuel.” Maybe it’s been whispered among your fitness community, trainers , employees or classmates. Or, perhaps dietitians you’ve seen have underscored the importance of food by calling it fuel. Maybe past diets you’ve tried have drilled it in your head, “food is fuel.” It’s such a common saying that I don’t even know what I think of it anymore.

Let me explain.

I think by only saying Food is Fuel, we are taking away so much from the power of food. And don’t get me wrong, I’ve said it before. I’ve probably written it somewhere here on the blog. And to some extent it’s very true. I wrote a local freelance article about something similar which gave me the idea for this blog post.

Food has a purpose as fuel. But it also has a purpose as so much more.

Is food really fuel? Is that all it is?

Well, we certainly need food to go about our day. While the comparison is overused, I feel it’s a good one so I’ll write it here. Eating throughout the day is similar to the gas gauge on your car. Just like we need to fill our engines with gas to drive more efficiently, our bodies need fuel to operate most efficiently. In our case, that’s protein, fats and carbohydrates. These macronutrients break down into calories (aka energy), vitamins and minerals, that help us thrive (I really like THIS word) and go about our day.

So, when I’m talking with clients, we usually use the word energy instead of calories. I feel like it’s easier to initially picture why we need to eat regularly when we’re talking in terms of energy. Calories can go down a rabbit hole quickly. We need energy to brush our teeth, drive to work, to function at work (our brain runs on glucose), and to get through our workout. In these scenarios, it’s easy to view food as fuel because it literally is fueling us through our day. No, coffee doesn’t do that 🙂

Food is fuel

Fueling for Exercise

I do like to view food as fuel when we’re talking about sports nutrition, too. Mostly because athletes get this term and when I explain it this way, it clicks for them. They know they need to eat before and after a tough workout to reap the most benefits. There are foods that can help you recover quicker and more efficiently. Also, if we’re exercising for hours at a time, we’re likely going to need food and supplements to “fuel” that exercise. Our glycogen stores can only last so long, so consistent energy is necessary for optimal functioning.

I did a 6 mile run the other day. That is the longest run to date since having a baby. I was STARVING after. You can bet I came home and had a larger than normal post-workout snack. As someone who is still nursing + the stress of a longer run in the rain makes for a hungry mamma. I honored my body by just eating what I craved in the moment. In this situation, it was egg muffins and toast with peanut butter and banana. It wasn’t worrying about how much energy I should eat in the moment, but moreso like ENERGY – GIVE IT TO ME NOW. Have you ever felt that way?

Food is fuel

In this situation, I wasn’t eating out of emotion. My gas gauge was low – I needed fuel.

What “Food is Fuel” Misses

While I do believe that all of the above are absolutely true, I acknowledge that our bodies aren’t machines. We don’t operate the same way everyday. Just as we don’t eat the same foods every day, we’re likely not doing the same kind or amount of exercise. While some of us may have a routine in place, we often don’t eat the same three meals or snacks every day. We’re humans – we crave fluidity and variety. And sometimes, the “food is fuel” statement can seem robotic.

Furthermore, only looking at food as fuel takes away the notion that sometimes we eat out of enjoyment. And pleasure. It’s okay to eat foods for reasons outside of nutrition – we want joy, nostalgia or comfort. Or, we want to satisfy a craving. Maybe we even have emotions at stake (More about emotional eating here). Recently, I was feeling a little stressed from a combination of little sleep (sleep training, ugh) and the threat of a potential hurricane coming our way. I wasn’t necessarily hungry but I had a significant craving for pie. So, I enjoyed every last bite of pie with some ice cream.

Was it emotional? Yeah – probably. Was it what I needed in the moment? Yeah. I also spent some time outside breathing in the fresh air, and lit a candle and took a bath that night. Emotional eating gets a bad rap when eating is your only solution to dealing with (or not dealing with aka numbing out from) emotions. But, it’s normal to want certain foods when you’re in a food, or stressed, or sad, or glad, etc.

Food is fuel

Simply put, food is emotional. It’s nostalgic, and it’s what we create new memories around. We celebrate birthdays, housewarmings and going away parties with food and drink. It’s supposed to be enjoyable and have emotion attached to it.

Another point here is that if we’re only viewing food as fuel, we’re more likely to feel shame or guilt when we eat in a situation that’s not necessarily for “fueling.” What about the experiential part of food? The fact that sometimes it’s linked to positive memories. Acknowledging that sometimes we’re not hungry for that piece of cake, but we eat it anyway because it’s a dear friend’s birthday. And it tastes good and we’re soaking up the experience.

Sometimes, food isn’t fuel and that’s okay.

What are some foods that bring back positive memories for you? For me, it’s my mom’s chocolate chip cookies and store bought take and bake cinnamon buns.

10 responses to “Food is Fuel…Or is it?

  1. I love this! Yes we need food to fuel us but the saying doesn’t take into account certain situations. We may eat unhealthy on vacation because we’re trying to enjoy local cuisine or specialties. Maybe it’s a holiday and you’re going to parties and eating more baked goods than normal or you’re celebrating a family member or friend’s birthday so you have an extra slice of cake.

    One food that brings back positive memories is ice cream pie since it’s a staple at my grandparents house when we go in the summer.

  2. YES to every part of this; I think people try to reduce food to simply, calories in vs. calories out or like fuel for a gas tank, but we can’t treat humans like cars because we’re not cars.

    Honestly, the summer was overwhelming here, and more and more I’ve been craving what some people might call ‘junk food’ in the evening to just munch on; I don’t usually feel like I go overboard with it, but I am enjoying Cheez-its or potato chips or pub mix every night without guilt, and I would say some of it is the emotion of tiredness + night hunger.

  3. You’re so right. Food is MORE than just fuel. Much more. If we think of it only as fuel that definitely opens up for grief to come on when you ate for simply pleasure or desire or curiosity.

    Foods that bring back positive memories for me. Oh so many. All the casseroles that my Dad used to make in the slow cooker. My mom’s simple and delicious chocolate cake. Her lasagna… oh man… she makes the best lasagna that always reminds me of wonderful friend gatherings.

  4. Ah yes! I love this so much! There is SO much to food besides just the macro breakdown or caloric amount. I’m taking a nutrition class right now where we discuss different cultures and their foods/rituals and where their ideas come from and it’s so interesting to see all the different memories and experiences people have with different kinds of foods!!

    For me, I love Thanksgiving day turkey 🙂 My family hosts thanksgiving at my house and we have around 20-30 family members over so it’s a big buffet! My grandpa would always be the one to carve the turkey (yes, even after a few drinks hahaha) with my dog always sitting at his feet waiting for bits to fall. and of course it tasted AMAZING 🙂

    1. That sounds like such a fun family holiday and memory! I love that the dog just sits waiting for scraps 🙂

  5. I am loving this article as well! I’m excited to see a trend in getting rid of shame and guilt when it comes to our bodies and what we eat! Food should be enjoyed! One of my favorite times of day is after we put our 2 little ones to bed, and it’s quiet and peaceful, and I can sit and enjoy a night time snack…last night it was microwave salty buttery popcorn with some artificial white chocolate I had in the cupboard! And I enjoyed every delicious bite-and I went to bed happy and finally didn’t beat myself up the whole morning when I got up! It’s so freeing to be good to ourselves and get rid of the negative self talk in our heads!

    1. That sounds like it’s an enjoyable experience for you, Samantha. A perfect sweet and salty snack!

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