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Food is Just Fuel? Not the Whole Story

Food is fuel is a common saying that you’ve probably heard a million times.

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 and fuel only.

Maybe past diets you’ve tried have drilled it in your head. The food is fuel quotes are so common and widespread, but they leave out so many other roles that food can play in our lives.

My perspective on nutrition views food as so much more than fuel.

It’s why I created an ebook all about Hunger, Fullness and Simplifying Eating that helps normalize the different thought patterns that come up when we’re eating. 

Finally Understand How to Fuel For Running!

This is the resource you’ve been missing in your traininggrab it now!

intuitive eating ebook

How to Change Your Relationship with Food

I think by only saying looking at food as fuel, we are taking away so much from the power of food.

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

What does this picture bring up for you? A fun, social outing? Fear of fat on the plate? Good memories? Lots of flavors?

Platters of food and drink on a table

I think the best place to start to change your relationship with food is to recognize that food is so much more than fuel. 

Challenge your old thoughts with food.

Recognize that food is memories and bonding late night. It’s soaking up emotions from raw moments.

It’s figuring out your favorite flavors and textures, and what seasonings and flavorings you gravitate towards in different times of the year. 

Food Provides Fuel By Its Practical Nature

We certainly need food to go about our day. Food provides calories and energy, which our body needs to go about its normal daily tasks. 

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 (aka calories) 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 and go about our day.

Bagel with smoked salmon and cream cheese

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 this 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

Fuel 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 recovery more efficiently and reduce inflammation.

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.

Avoiding carbohydrates before and after exercise is a top sports nutriton myth. 

Toast with peanut butter, flax seeds, banana and cocoa nibs

If we aren’t eating enough to support exercise and physical activity, our bodies won’t function efficiently.

Things will start to break down. Our immune system will start to falter and our risk of injury goes way up. This is why diets don’t work because their core purpose is to underfuel us.  

What We Miss When We Think of Food Only as Fuel

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 every day.

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.

Pancakes with banana, peanut butter and berries

Another point here is that if we’re only viewing food from a fueling standpoint, we’re more likely to feel shame or guilt when we eat in a situation that’s not necessarily for “fueling.”

Food choices are supposed to be neutral and they in no way, shape or form, affect you or your morality as a person. All they really explain is something that you wanted in the moment, or something you had access to. 

Acai bowl with toppings

Other Reasons We Eat Outside of Fueling Our Body

There are several other reasons we may choose to eat something, too. Think of it as filling up for gas when you’re not necessarily empty. 

We Eat For Enjoyment and Pleasure

Only looking at food in one light 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. 

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.

Satisfying Food Cravings

Whether you believe in the idea of cravings or not, I’m sure there’s been a time where there was a particular food you couldn’t get out of your head. 

It’s okay to give yourself permission to eat that food even if you aren’t necessarily feeling hungry. 

Recently, I was feeling a little stressed from a combination of little sleep and a work project. 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.

Blueberry pie with ice cream on white plate | Bucket List Tummy

Was it emotional? Yeah – probably. Was it what I needed in the moment? Yeah. Honoring my hunger in that moment was what I needed to do. 

I also spent some time outside breathing in the fresh air, and lit a candle and took a bath that night.

Eating Out of Emotion

Yes, it’s normal to even eat foods due to emotions you are feeling in the moment. 

It is completely normal to want certain foods when you’re in a mood or feeling stressed, or sad, or glad, etc. If you want french toast for breakfast declaring peace with emotional eating, so be it!

In fact, we usually link certain foods to certain feelings and that’s okay. Maybe some ice cream helped you start to understand a breakup. Or, your mom’s homemade pot pie recipe brings you back to your favorite family dinner memories growing up. 

cookie with frosting and sprinkles | Bucket List Tummy

All of that is normal. 

Emotional eating gets a bad rap when eating is your only solution to dealing with (or not dealing with aka numbing out from) emotions.

In my ebook, Simplifying Hunger and Eating, we talk a lot about emotional eating and how to distinguish/differentiate the causes and reactions to it. We also share lots of ideas for other outlets to try if you feel like you keep coming back to food. 

Food Creates Memories

Simply put, food is emotional. It’s nostalgic and what we create memories around. Food is more than just nutrition.

We celebrate birthdays, housewarmings and going away parties with food and drink. It’s supposed to be enjoyable and have emotion attached to it.

Food can be linked to so many positive memories and emotions too, not just negative. 

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.

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  1. I love this. I think with intuitive eating people can forget that it’s not to just fuel your body’s hunger but also fueling your body’s emotional needs or memories. One food that brings back memories is no peak chicken which is something I would request on super cold winter days growing up. It’s warm and comforting to fuel your soul.

  2. 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!

  3. 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 🙂

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.