Saturday, December 22, 2007

Food As Fuel

I spent some time on Saturday with friends, Keith and Ibbe, talking about food.

Keith and Ibbe are visiting from Seattle where they attend Bastyr University, a school devoted to teaching the methods of naturopathic, herbal, and alternative treatments. Together, they work with adults in different modalities to promote holistic wellness and health by way of counseling, chiropractic manipulation, herbal remedies, teas, dietary improvements, acupuncture – and that’s just to name a few.

We started talking about our experiences in working with adults and how the conversation often turns to food. Let’s be honest, most adults spend a good amount of time thinking, talking, preparing, planning or waiting for food. We spend a lot of time on food.

To some extent, I have often wondered if this is just a by product of our very convenient and accessible lives. Food is no longer something to hunt for and find. Food is there. It is always there. It is more than there. You can’t walk into most buildings nowadays without seeing some type of beverage or food. You would think we were the most hungry nation in the world because of the surplus and availability of food.

And so I wonder if our brains short circuit, in a sense, because we no longer have to work to find our food. It becomes almost the opposite effect. I would imagine having to hunt for food and being hungry you always think about food – I need it, I have to find it, I want it now. So when we are bombarded with advertisements, availability, pictures, television, messages about food do we become primed to think the same? Do we make it almost impossible for our brains to forget about food? The more we surround ourselves with visual images and printed material about food do we set ourselves up for failure with food?

It doesn’t take much of a look into social psychology to figure some of this out. Studies have shown that if you prime someone with a printed or visual message about putting on sunscreen they are more likely then to go and put on sunscreen before being in the sun. Can this also be correlated to food? If you show someone images of food (advertisements), visual reminders of food (restaurants), and printed material about food (magazines) will then they go and eat more….food?

It is therefore no wonder why many adults have such a distorted relationship with food. In a sense I think our brains are confused. We should be hunting food – our drive is to find food to stay alive. Now that we no longer have to hunt – what do we do with our drive for food and the energy we ancestrally have for hunting for food? We are primed for this drive for food – but without the hunting we don’t expend the energy and we don’t have such a need for (as much) food. But with all the food messages, images, and media around it’s hard not to be confused. What the hell should we think about food?

Then there is our upbringing and the way our society addresses children and food. How many of us were treated with a cookie if we finished our vegetables? Or ice cream if we were good? Food is not just nourishment it becomes currency and one we crave for proof that we are comforted, worthy, and good. It becomes not our survival but our reward – food means we are good.

So what, then, is the purpose of food? How should we feel about food? How should we relate to food? Is it currency, reward, biological need or fuel? Just what is food?

I think many of us would say food is our friend. We have a relationship with food. And that’s because it is always there. Friends, spouses, self-confidence may come and go but food – it’s always there. Think about your favorite food. Mine is ice cream. Now think about all of the places and times you have enjoyed that food. After a long ride, on a date, when you were away at college, when you were stressed or sad. It was a comfort and a reward. You have always been friend with the food.

But how did you feel afterwards no matter what the precursor was? Chances are you felt guilty, shameful, or annoyed by yourself and the food. How could you have eaten that “bad” food? Did you really deserve it or was the situation really that bad? Did you feel any better after you had it? Even if you ate that ice cream after a long ride, and you really earned it – did you feel that great about yourself and that food? And there it is again – do you really have to earn your food?

What you realize, then, is that food is no friend at all. And it shouldn’t be. Ibbe said it best when she said we should not have a relationship with food. That is not food’s purpose. Food is not supposed to be your friend – it’s purpose is nourishment and fuel. If you feel like eating ice cream do it because you crave it and will selflessly enjoy it. Don’t become friends with your food and certainly don’t use it to feel more good and full about yourself. Expect nothing from food other than fuel.

I thought this was an interesting view – food as nourishment and fuel which puts the purpose of food into perspective. If we spent less time hoping to fill ourselves up by eating a cookie or ice cream we might spend more time finding what we really need. And chances are it isn’t that cookie or food. What do we need to nourish ourselves? It is friendship? Understanding? Self-worth, validation or just feeling good about ourselves? And what makes us think we can find that in food?


When talking with adults you sometimes hear the term “emotional eater” when they describe themselves with food. In other words, sadness sets in, stress levels increase, frustration comes up and they turn to food. Interesting, because it’s probably one of the most self-destructive ways to deal with some very destructive emotions. And it’s not very effective for very long. Sure, you can eat some ice cream when you are feeling sad but that still doesn’t fix the fact that you are sad, something is wrong. There’s more to it than that. And think about sadness or feeling empty – now quantify the number of calories that will make that better. Better get out a big spoon, right?

And that’s why it doesn’t work. Food as a friend and not fuel. I think, then, the serving we really need is some reflection. Time with ourselves, for ourselves. When you find yourself reaching for that food or looking for food to fill you up, go sit some place, quiet your mind, and talk with yourself. Ask yourself what you really need. Or what you’re really missing. Be patient and honest with yourself.

One of food’s greatest features is that again it is here, now, fast. It requires no time or self-reflection. It’s a quick fix and that’s also why it really doesn’t work. To sit and ask yourself what you really need would take time, pain, maybe tears, and just being honest with yourself. I think of all the times I have myself been an emotional eater and it’s not because I wanted or needed the food. It’s that I needed to distract my mind away from myself.

Chances are what you’ll find is that you need nourishment, too. You need to feel more full and satisfied by yourself. Ibbe suggested we find better ways to nourish ourselves – to treat ourselves with things that make us truly feel good (without the food). Maybe it is something you say or something you do. Sometimes I think it is helping people to believe they are worth a better decision for themselves. It is ok to take the time to nourish yourself with something other than food – you are worth it. You are worthy for yourself.

Beyond that maybe it is something you say. When you feel like filling up with food insert a key phrase or behavior – maybe it is just sitting down and visualizing the best version of yourself as a strong, confident capable worthy person to remind yourself that you don’t need to fill “yourself” up with food. Or maybe it is doing something else, replacing the food. Make a list of the things you simply love to do – is it reading a book, walking in a park, reading a magazine, sharing time with friends, painting your nails, playing an instrument, building something, painting, dancing – it could be anything just as long as it isn’t food.


And this is hard to swallow, per se - food as not a reward but fuel. Again the media with magazines, visuals, messages try to convince us otherwise, convince us to have a relationship with food. Food is fun, friends, good feelings, good times. Look around - you need this food. It is the romanticization of food. But come, on it's food. Calories, nutrients, fiber, FOOD. You need it to survive. It's like air. What if we romanticized water or air? Would we want a relationship with that too?

The conversation ended and I realized it was time to change my own relationship with food. My self-worth is not linked to how much I eat or what I eat or how much I do. I cannot afford a strained relationship with food. I cannot afford to find self-worth, happiness, or comfort in food. As an athlete I need something more. I am expecting my body to do things – big things – which will require a different view of food. Food is my fuel, and I need strong, nutritious, and wholesome food.

And I hope you can see this too. Whether it’s by not taking the time to feed yourself well, emotionally eating, starving yourself, binging, or not taking the time to stock the house with wholesome food – spend some time soon to breaking off this dysfunctional relationship with food. We cannot afford to look for a friend or feelings in food. We are athletes. We need fuel. Food is….fuel.

Consider that today's food for thought – though you really shouldn’t spend too much time thinking about food...

2 comments:

Alicia Parr said...

I was running earlier today and passed by a couple of hoodie-bedecked amblers only to see their gloved hands grasping bags of junkfood accompanied by equally poor choices of beverage. I mentally pat myself for my better choice of exercise over junk food and carry on. Then I am almost run over by a car turning into an apartment complex. I turn to see another lady with one hand on the steering wheel and the other clutching a soda (that's pop, for you mid-westeners) and then decide to give the other two girls a little more credit. At least they walked to the store.

ace said...

While I was reading this I was thinking about the poem by Oriah Mountain Dreamer called The Invitation. When you read the poem it sounds like an Invitation to create the highest relationship possible when attracting a "Life Partner." Of course there is more to it than that. But as I read your post it occurred to me the relationship the poem speaks of could be referring to the most sacred of relationships -- the relationship we have with ourselves. Our relationship with food merely mirrors our relationship with ourselves. Are we generous or do we short change ourselves? Are we the victims of our own self sabotage? Are we honest and straight forward? Are we even conscious? Do we even like ourselves? Most importantly, are we even courageous enough to find out? The last several lines in Oriah's poem asks in this way:

"...I want to know what sustains you from the inside when all else falls away.

I want to know if you can be alone with yourself and if you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments."

Thanks for an excellent, thought provoking post.