Food is Fuel (and it's not)
[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
If you're a person who's halfway concerned with health or fitness, you've likely heard the phrase "food is fuel." Maybe you've seen in on a magazine or plastered cheaply to the dingy wall of your local LA. Fitness. You may have even thought, "what a useful way to think of food!" Calories in, calories out, or something. The comparison of the human body to a car, let's say, is as convenient as it is unsurprising. Put quality gas in your car and it'll run well. Put quality food in your body and it'll run well, too. If you run out of gas, your car won't work. If you're under-nourished, your body won't work. And if you over-fuel your car, you'll end up standing in a puddle of gasoline, which is sort of where the metaphor breaks down (ha).
The largest (most annoying) problem with the food-is-fuel mindset is that living organisms aren't machines. We're not that simple, unfortunately. Our bodies are incredibly complex, self-regulating, and dynamic beings. If you're like me, you may have spent a lot of time doing "calorie math:" counting how many calories you eat (or estimating since getting exact calorie counts is nearly impossible), and estimating how many calories you expend. I counted calories for so long that I know how many calories are in nearly any common food item. I could even closely guess the calorie counts for restaurant foods or take-out items. And throughout my years of calorie counting, I lost, gained, and maintained weight. Once I stopped, I maintained my weight with little to no effort for years. I still am.
If food were just fuel, the oversimplified world of calorie counting would work more often than it does. And since what we eat isn’t necessarily what we absorb, the act of calorie counting is even less reliable. But I'm no expert in the science of nutrition. My last dietitian was of the "set weight" camp, which is essentially a theory arguing that our bodies try to maintain a weight within a preferred range. This theory is proven in some ways; many people stay within a more or less small range of body weight throughout their adult life. Set point theory recognizes that body weight is the product of genetic effects (DNA), epigenetic effects (heritable traits that do not involve changes in DNA), and the environment. The idea is that if you don't excessively over/under eat, your body will likely be the size it's supposed to be, which doesn't necessarily mean you're happy with it, but I digress.
Fuel is just one way we can think about food, and it might be useful, but it's also not very nuanced. Food is fuel in that it's carbs and protein and fat. I don't think anyone would argue that the quality of our food doesn't matter. But food is more than carbs/protein/fat. It's vitamins and minerals and phytonutrients. It's culture and tradition and socializing. Food is (quite often) a privilege. It is also hardship. Growing food is a practice, and in some cultures, a deeply respected one. Above all of that, food is nourishment and how many people show love. Food is also the first thing many people turn to for coping mechanisms, and in that way, food can be a drug.
I have a unique perspective in that I've been on the side of the aisle where food was just fuel. I approached eating almost like a business transaction, but the problem with that is that the deal didn't always end up in my favor. Food isn't like a checkbook that you can neatly balance at the end of every day and put away for later. Nourishment isn't so black and white, and it seems sort of sad to believe in such stark absolutes.
I've also seen food as an enemy, as something to hide, as something to be ashamed of. There were many problems with that, the physical side effects being only a small part. And I worked for a long time to heal both attitudes toward food, and to nurture this neutral attitude; where food is good if I'm hungry and unnecessary if I'm not. Where I eat the birthday cake and go to yoga class. Where I have a beer with my friends and skip breakfast if I'm not hungry. Where I buy big bags of arugula sometimes, and sometimes, order takeout or microwave a frozen dinner.
I asked my small Instagram following to finish the sentence "Food is..." and some responses included: yummy, nourishment, fun, what you make of it, everything, life, vice, fuel, and love. Most good questions don't have one correct answer, and I think these responses are telling. Food is a lot of things, including but not limited to fuel.
P.S. Read In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan, read this take on the food-is-fuel debate from Precision Nutrition, or watch this video about being connected to the food you eat here. Or read the (problematic) article that inspired this blog here.