Foods is fuel?
Yes, you can view food as fuel. But for me, food is not just fuel. It’s so much more than that.
A few years ago if someone asked me if food is fuel I would have told you – in a very definitive way, that food is fuel – and that’s it. It’s supposed to give me energy, get me through my workouts, and act as a resource to get me through my day.
This was my fitness and nutrition consulting brain talking.
Viewing food as fuel only takes into account the physiological effects that it has on us and neglects the thousands of other ways it impacts our lives.
Seeing food only as fuel is an awful way to look at it. It creates a terrible relationship with it, one that undermines the complex reactions that food creates in our bodies, the messages that it delivers, and the social, emotional, physical, and mental changes it can influence.
So if someone asked you what food is (I guess I’m asking you now), what would you say?
Today’s article explores what food actually is and why the way you define it affects your relationship with it.
Table of Contents
IS FOOD FUEL?
It is true that the macronutrients protein, carbohydrates, and fats in food contain energy or calories. These things help to create a complex chemical bond, that when broken, is used to create ATP or the energy that keeps us going.
But the food we eat that provides those things also includes micronutrients, phytochemicals, zoochemical, water, and more. We need these things, and other vitamins and minerals to keep our body from breaking down. But none of these things are fuel.
WHY IS FOOD NOT A FUEL?
Is food fuel?
Of course, it is. Or more specifically food is calories or energy and energy is the ability to do work – the capacity to cause things to happen. Food is one of the reasons you can run, jump, think, tell jokes, rock climb, read, shoot hoops, play chess, and a bunch of other really cool things that humans can do.
- Food is macronutrients: Protein, carbohydrate, and fat.
- Food is micronutrients: Various vitamins and minerals like B12, magnesium, and vitamin E
- Food is phytochemicals, zoochemical, water, and fiber.
But food is also so much more than those things we often consider just fuel.
Food is like the mailman. It delivers messages to your brain, gut, and other areas of the body – It influences hormones and sends signals to your brain like when you’ve eaten too much. It tells your body how to perform, what to do, and what not to do.
The eating process itself is sort of like one big information highway.
- It starts with your teeth breaking up what you’ve eaten and then enzymes being secreted to help facilitate the digestive process.
- Food then travels from your esophagus to the stomach.
- The stomach then produces acids to kill bacteria and releases an enzyme to help digest proteins. The stomach then breaks down what you’ve eaten into small particles and pushes it to the small intestine.
- The small intestine is where a lot of the digestive and absorption of nutrients takes place.
- The pancreas then releases more enzymes to help with the digestive process.
- Your liver makes bile and stores it in the gallbladder, releasing it to help with the digestion of fat and fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E, and K.
- Nutrients are then absorbed by the intestine, pass into the bloodstream, are carried to the liver – where nutrients, vitamins, and drugs are processed.
- Protein, carbohydrates (sugars), and fats are then used as energy with the help of insulin and other hormones.
Depending on what you eat, this process can be very different because not all food is created equal.
Eating a Twinkie and drinking coke for breakfast is going to set off a very different chain reaction in the body than a breakfast of organic free-range eggs, spinach, and green tea will.
Food is not just fuel. Food facilitates a very complex system of events that those 8 points probably don’t do justice.
HOW DO YOU FUEL YOUR BODY WITH THE RIGHT FOODS (IF YOU WANT TO USE IT AS FUEL)
I don’t think we need to make this complicated. We can take a common-sense approach and be very successful.
Step 1: Set up your environment
Make eating the good stuff easier to do and the not so good stuff harder to do. I have a rule if food is in my home or where I spend the most time it eventually will be eaten. Don’t keep trigger foods or other foods you have a hard time within your environment. If that’s not possible, make them harder to get to.
Step 2: Decide what you like and make a shortlist
Choose your 3 to 5 favorite proteins, vegetables, starchy carbs or fruit, and healthy fats. These can make up the majority of your meals. Eat these foods 90% of the time and 10% of the time eat “that other stuff 🍕🍷” and you’ll be fine.
Step 3: Keep it simple and practice uniform eating until you’re consistent
Uniform eating is enjoying the same few meals over and over again. I recommend creating 3 to 5 go-to meals that you enjoy and rotating those until you are consistently eating well. For help with this, use our FREE getting started guide for improving your diet.
Step 4: Build some sort of routine around it
Grocery shopping, planning, and prepping. Use our FREE simple meal planner to help with this.
WHAT CAN EAT TO FUEL MY WORKOUTS (IF I WANT TO USE FOOD AS FUEL)
Anything you eat will act as fuel for a workout. So will the glycogen you have stored and body fat you have. Your body will use what it has. But there won’t be anything you can eat to give you a boost that you’ll physically feel outside of caffeine. It’s the way you eat the days leading up to workouts will determine how you are fueled for your workouts.
But if you are looking for something to eat a few hours before a workout to help fuel you there are a few things to consider.
- personal digestion
- time eating before a workout
Keeping the meal light makes the most sense for most people. A little protein and maybe carbohydrates like a piece of fruit can be a nice pre-workout meal.
WHAT FOOD ACTUALLY IS IF IT ISN’T ONLY FUEL
My friends over at PN define food as information and I think that’s a great way to look at it but I also believe this should be expanded upon.
Food is memories.
It’s the smell of fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies and the memory of your grandmother. It’s making hot cocoa for your kids and the reminder of how your Mom or Dad made it for you on a snow day. It’s homemade nachos and the memory of that crazy night with your homeboys (or homegirl). It’s an omelet and you remember your first attempt at trying to create a healthy breakfast for yourself.
- Food brings people together and creates relationships
- Food is social, fun, and engaging
- Food can be challenging. It can force you to try new things and get out of your comfort zone
- Food unites different cultures
- Food is business deals
- Food is emotional. It can be frustrating, confusing, make you cry, make you laugh, and make you feel happy.
- Food is performance. It helps you think, exercise, dance, and do mud runs.
- Food builds muscle, clots blood, and helps your heartbeat
- Food is medicine. It can both feed and fight cancer and protect against heart disease
- Food is expressive. It can allow you to show your personality, lets you express your feelings like love, admiration, excitement, or even discontent.
- Food is a celebration. It’s a birthday cake, your favorite meal to congratulate your graduation from grad school, it’s a bottle of wine and dark chocolate as a house-warming gift.
- Food is the holidays
- Food is a choice. You get to decide what to eat and what not to eat.
Viewing food only as fuel is depriving yourself of all that food is.
If I had this attitude when I went on my trip around the world I would have missed out on some amazing social and cultural experiences. Food is a bigger part of our lives than just fuel.
STOP LETTING OTHERS DEFINE WHAT FOOD IS FOR YOU
Everywhere you look someone is trying to define what foods are for you. Companies that make “diet foods” are defining it as weight loss. Fast food is defining it as convenient and a way to save time.
Some are telling you it’s a reward, a way to “treat” yourself. While others are defining it as happiness, joy, and other positive emotional experiences.
You get to define what food is for you. Marketers, food companies, and the likes will do their best to tell you otherwise but I want you to know that you get to decide what food is for you – and you are ALLOWED to change this definition as you see fit, as your goals change, or as your lifestyle dictates.
- If dropping body fat your definition of food may change.
- If getting stronger is something you’re looking to do you may have to change your definition.
- If you’ve been practicing healthy eating habits consistently, getting results, and have a friend’s birthday coming up you may change your definition that day.
I’d like you to try something for me each day this week. You may want to journal this or you can just think about it in your noodle if you’d like. Each time you eat ask yourself why you are eating?
- Is it because you’re bored
- Is it because you feel you need it in order to be social?
- Is it for comfort?
- Is it for pleasure?
- Is it for energy?
- Is it to get ready for a workout?
- Is it just because it’s lunchtime and you feel like you’re supposed to?
There’s no right or wrong answer here. This exercise is just about creating a little more awareness or mindfulness about food, eating, and your choices.
IN A RELATIONSHIP WITH FOOD BUT IT’S COMPLICATED
Life throws curve balls.
Seeing food only as fuel is like putting blinders on to everything life is going to throw at you. If you’re dieting, trying to eat healthier, or get fitter seeing food only as fuel is going to make that process that much more difficult.
Now if your plan is to lock yourself in your room with chicken and broccoli until you reach your fitness goals than seeing food only as fuel might work out ok for ya. But that would be a miserable way to live – to be social – to experience life to its fullest is to be human.
- Birthday parties
- Special occasions
- Family outings
- The smell of Cinn-A-Bon
- Company events
- Being sick or injured
- Catalina wine mixers (rated R)
Situational triggers will occur
Like going to the movies and having a tub of popcorn, eating pizza and drinking a beer during a kickback at friends, taking your kids to the carnival and having cotton candy and funnel cake, conducting a business meeting over drinks.
These are just a few of the things that life has in store for you. Ways that it plans to make becoming the healthiest version of yourself a test.
Viewing food only as fuel creates a complicated relationship with it
You’ll end up always thinking about it, fighting with it, hating it one minute, and loving it the next (sounds like my last relationship)… did I just burn myself? 🙂
Make your relationship with food simpler
You have a CHOICE about what you will and will not eat. There’s no such thing as you’re allowed to eat this or not allowed to eat that. You can eat anything you’d like.
When I viewed food ONLY as fuel it made social situations extremely difficult and stressful. I would avoid opportunities to connect with really cool people because of my relationship with food. #thatsnowaytoliveman
It wasn’t until I reminded myself that there are tons of ways to socialize, connect, entertain, and enjoy experiences with myself and with others that may or may not involve food.
- That dinner date with drinks can turn into a rock climbing adventure
- That birthday party can involve you having some birthday cake or just enjoying the company of the people you care most about
There are no real rules when it comes to this. Just take some time before making a choice to decide if the choices you’re going to make are in line with your current nutritional goals. Doing this will save yourself a lot of depression, anxiety, stress, and fear when it comes to food.
FOOD IS FUEL. FOOD IS NOT FUEL. WHAT THE HECK IS FOOD?
A little hat tip to Chris Guillebeau and the cool picture above.
This article probably didn’t help you define food at all but that’s ok – its intention wasn’t to do that. Instead, I hope you walk away… or close your laptop, iPhone, or other reading device and know that food is whatever the heck you decide it is.
For me, most often it’s a story.
- It tells of experiences with my late grandmother, first girlfriend, moments shared with my fellas growing up, and friends that I have today.
- It tells of how I got in the best shape of my life, competed in CrossFit competitions, and my job (this website).
- It has helped write great experiences, not so great moments, and those in-between.
- It helps tell the story of my trip around the world, other travels, or simply a visit to a new local farmers market.
Food is a big part of my life and to view it simply as fuel would be a crime.