Why It's Important That We See Food as More Than Fuel

The first time I heard the phrase ‘food is fuel,’ it wasn’t in a diet-y context. It was actually quite the opposite — my soccer coach as a kid would remind us of the fact that we needed to eat enough nourishing food before and during our tournaments so that we would have energy and endurance on the field. But as I got older, I started hearing that phrase being used in a very different way:

Food is only fuel. If it isn’t serving the purpose of fueling your body with a perfectly ‘clean’ balance of macro and micronutrients, you shouldn’t eat it at all.

– Diet Culture

Obviously one of the most important purposes of food is to provide energy (fuel) for our bodies so that we are able to perform all the necessary tasks and activities of life — everything from beating our hearts to moving our legs, to working our jobs and enjoying leisure time. Each of those actions requires energy. But ‘fuel’ isn’t the only purpose of food in the human life.

Back in my days of disordered eating, I definitely viewed food through a ‘fuel’ lens, though I honestly wasn’t even all that concerned with properly fueling my body at all. Frankly, I tried to limit the amount of ‘fuel’ I put in my body as much as I could. But whatever I did eat, I made sure it was as ‘clean’ as possible, pretty much stripping away every other potential role the food could play in my life beyond the fueling part. (And the taking away the hunger part.)

By putting food into such a small box, I missed out on a lot in my life that would have added meaning, value, and enjoyment. If my friends were going out to dinner, I stayed home — restaurant meals were off limits. If a party was going to be serving desserts and drinks, I stayed home — the temptation to partake would be too high. Dinner parties? I agonized for hours beforehand, “saving up” calories only to feel guilty anyways for every morsel of food I put in my mouth. And the thing is — I placed this restriction on myself regardless of my weight. I struggled with disordered eating and a very difficult relationship with food when I was severely underweight but also when I was 20+ pounds above my body’s ideal weight.

A few weeks ago on a cloudy and windy morning, I was scouring Pub Med on my computer. Basically that means I was reading full pages of very fine print…for hours. Around 9 am, I started noticing some vision loss in my right eye. For me, the aura before a migraine basically involves a huge part of my vision becoming blurry and fuzzy, and it’s followed by an extremely intense and debilitating headache. At first, I just thought my eyes were getting tired, as I had been working pretty hard at my computer without taking breaks. But then the throbbing started behind my temple, and my stomach started feeling squeamish.

As the pain got worse, I dug around through my bag to look for some ibuprofen. Once I found it, I realized it had been a few hours since breakfast. I know better than to take Advil on an empty stomach (that has ended very badly for me in the past) so I wolfed down a granola bar as fast as I could so I could take some medicine without it making me throw up. Unfortunately for me, painkillers don’t work if I take them once my migraine actually starts — they only seem to be effective during the aura/fuzzy eyesight stage. The migraine consumed my morning, which was no fun. But, I got through it. C’est la vie.

Thinking back over that day, I had the realization that food played a very important role in treating my migraine. (Or, it could have, had I timed it correctly.) On that day, the granola bar played a much bigger role than just ‘fueling’ my body. I wasn’t hungry when I ate it — I used it as a means for safely administering medicine. If I had been in the same situation even 5 years ago, I’m not sure that I would’ve let myself eat the granola bar because I would’ve been afraid of the extra calories. In fact, as horrible as this sounds, I might have actually been grateful for the lack of appetite brought on by the migraine because it would’ve made avoiding food easier. It makes me so sad to think about how sick my mind was at that time in my life…

[Eating a totally funky fried fish on my honeymoon last spring. One of my favorite things to do with my husband is try new foods!]

Anyway, all that is to say that there are very measurable and real roles that food plays in our lives beyond merely fueling our bodies. It allows us opportunities for social connection, enjoyment (no, taking pleasure in food is not a bad thing!), opportunity to engage with our environments & God in new ways, and even can make it possible to take medicines that our stomachs wouldn’t tolerate if they were empty. Fearing food because of the calories (or any other reason) puts so many limitations on us, consumes our energies, and literally drains the life out of…our lives. In fact, the time we spend avoiding food is time that is completely wasted.

What are your thoughts on this? Have you ever struggled to see food as more than fuel?


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