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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.