Food, Fuel, and Feelings: An Epiphany

The phrase “food is fuel” comes up time and time again in the running and fitness communities. “You need to fuel your body with foods that help it feel good and perform at its highest level.” I’ve heard that a thousand times, and more than one therapist told me to try and view food as fuel during the darkest times of my recovery from my eating disorder. We also hear a lot of recommendations to think about how a certain food makes us  feel and use that information to decide what to eat, how much to eat, and when to eat. To be honest, I have never been terribly successful at this, but I didn’t really think about why until this past week, when I had an epiphany (you guys know I love a good epiphany).

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A quick google image search of “food is fuel” returns about a thousand memes and images like this

Let me back up a bit. I’ve been teaching and taking barre about 5 days a week, and of course, I’ve been training for a marathon. In an effort to eat more vegetables, I’ve started eating yummy salads for lunch each day, and I’ve bumped up my fruit intake as well, just trying to eat a more balanced diet. I’ve cut back on alcohol with the simple rule of making sure I don’t drink on more days of the week than days that I do. That’s it.  I haven’t thought about or tracked my calories at all, I’ve just tried to think about eating as many whole foods as possible and let the rest take care of itself. As a result of cleaning up my diet a bit and finding a great balance between barre and running, I have lost a few pounds, but most importantly, I’ve felt better than ever. I’m prioritizing my sleep, staying organized, and trying to keep my stress levels down. I feel truly strong and powerful but also graceful and lean, and it has been awesome!

Last week, though, I had a busy week involving a couple days in the swamps for work, a hectic morning where I thought I would be working from home but ended up having to run into the office (thereby not having any lunch or snacks), and I ended up eating out a lot more than I normally do. I got out of my routine, and I didn’t feel great.

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What, your job doesn’t involve you wearing a headlight and walking in knee deep water in culverts underneath the interstate to look for endangered bats? Weird. I thought everyone’s did.

But the reason I didn’t feel great wasn’t because I felt “fat” or heavy or whatever else, which is how I normally thought about how a food makes me feel. In the past, if whatever I was eating made me feel “skinny,” no matter how lethargic or run down I felt or how junky the food was, I equated that food with making me feel good. If the food made me feel “fat” or bloated or heavy or whatever else, even if I had a lot of energy and it was good, whole foods, than that food automatically, in my mind, made me feel bad. I honestly did not have any other frame of reference for feelings that food could give me.

I realized last week that that is an incredibly oversimplified (and honestly STUPID) way to look at food. Last week I was eating foods that actually didn’t make me feel fat – they were still decent enough choices, really. Nothing too crazy. But I was eating out a lot, eating more simple carbs and less protein than usual, and I realized I was more tired and lethargic. I didn’t have as much energy! I didn’t really feel any heavier, but I still felt bad. It was a light bulb moment for me, as dumb as that sounds. It is possible for a food to make you feel bad without it making you feel fat. Whoa!

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A few too many bagel sandwiches were probably consumed this week

I also found that I was a lot more hungry than usual, most likely because I was not fueling (there’s that word again) my body with the highest quality stuff, and wasn’t eating the whole foods I’ve become used to.  Nothing catastrophic happened this week. I didn’t collapse at my desk or anything, but I did realize that if I can feel really good, why would I not want to? It’s awesome (and necessary, for me at least) to indulge at times and eat foods that are just delicious and don’t offer a ton of nutritional value, but doing that day in and day out is just not how I want my body to feel and work each day.

So yeah, I guess this is one of those “OMG duh, Danielle” blog posts that I have been known to write, but I love learning more about myself and my body. It’s exciting to discover that all the things that I used to think were the gospel truth about food and body confidence aren’t necessarily the case at all, and learning to separate the feelings of “good” and “bad” from “skinny” and fat” is a pretty important lesson. Hey, the more you know!

LEAVE A COMMENT: What foods make you feel great and what make you feel terrible? Do you think of food as fuel, or is that a challenge for you also?

12 thoughts on “Food, Fuel, and Feelings: An Epiphany

  1. Yes! I learned this when training for an Ironman. If I feed my body empty calories I’m hungry all the time. If I feed it real food / fuel (fruits/veggies/protein) I feel so much better. I think it’s one of those things we have to figure out.

  2. I think that my husband Alex, is a great example of food is fuel: when he is on night float, he eats a very healthy and structured diet, because he takes everything in (and I cook the main meal). It helps keep him functioning and satisfied and clear headed. When I don’t eat well, I feel like I think about food more because it pings all my cravings, so I never feel satisfied.

  3. I’ve just learned the things that work for my body and the things that make me feel awful. And when I do indulge heavily it’s a reminder that it’s not worth it and I go back to what works.

    1. You’re right, Ashley! And I think they are different for everyone. I have a very sensitive stomach so eating a lot of white rice makes me feel great, but it sometimes makes other people feel awful! It is all about finding out what works for you and building a base of nutritious foods from there.

  4. The way you ended made me think are you in an NBC commercial LOL. But great post cuz it’s true! On the days I don’t eat so well I get hungry between meals a lot faster than if I had eaten well. I hope you will meet your goal in November. Just wish I was there to see it. Much Love!

    1. Yes, I agree. It is easy to tell when you eat junk! Amazing how even if you eat a TON of junk food, you’re still much hungrier. Thanks for your support!

  5. This is so very true. I have a difficult time viewing “food as fuel”. Many times I view eating as just a necessity of life…it’s what I have to do. :/ Yes, I try to make sure I am eating good, healthy whole foods BUT…that is because (like your epiphany), I realize that is when I feel “GOOD”.

    Happy to hear you had your little epiphany. Sometimes no matter how much we read or others tell us, it is not until we have that revelation to us personally that the words will truly resonate within ourselves.

    1. Yes! Isn’t it so funny how we can be told something a thousand times but not believe it til we experience it? Pretty amazing!

  6. I feel good after having a healthy smoothie or salmon salad. I don’t feel good when I’ve had too much carbs because I feel “weighed down.” I have to always remind myself to remember food is fuel and I totally feel that on runs.

    1. I can definitely relate to how you feel! I certainly don’t shy away from the carbs, though – especially the day before long runs!

  7. Just catching up … and I just love you for writing this 🙂

    It is funny – a guy I work with (closer to your age) has struggled through injuries to lose weight, and has finally had some success getting down 40 lbs to his ‘high school athlete’ weight, and it is awesome – it is something I love seeing – but he is really funny with food now because he needed to change some basic habits to get there. Yesterday a coworker I have worked alongside for about 2 years on this project and I were walking and we saw him and I commented on how awesome he looked, and he retorted ‘nothing like what you accomplished, but I’ll take it’. And I realized that the woman coworker – along with EVERYONE I work with on this project – has never seen me >185lbs. They have no idea how absolutely crazy I am about foods … they just know me as that crazy runner guy who gets up too early and goes out when it is too cold.

    This is the first Halloween in 4 years I have eaten any packaged candy. I know it is stupid, but I looked at it all as a trigger … and just didn’t eat it. And while I am limiting what I have – a mini-snickers cut up with berries – it was a psychological move telling me that *I* am in charge of my food intake, not the other way around.

    The mantra of Food Is Fuel is INCREDIBLY important, especially as a runner … a few weeks ago I had to get bloodwork done for a doctor appointmnent and it was fasting, so I just went for my normal 10-11 mile run, didn’t eat, and got my blood drawn and then ate my packed breakfast starting about 1 – 2 hours after my normal time. The next day I was *sore* and fatigued. Why? Because I failed to properly fuel my recovery. Our bodies are amazing machines, but we need to take care of them properly.

    Don’t look at this as a ‘well, DUH Danielle’ post … look at it as a step on the long learning journey of the life of someone with a ‘complicated’ relationship with food.

    1. I knew you would really appreciate this post, and I thought of you when I wrote it. I’m glad to hear that you were able to enjoy some Halloween candy this year on YOUR terms and overcome some of that fear! Thank you for a thoughtful comment, as always.

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