Real Talk: Is it Food or Fuel?

Is it food, or is it fuel?

This week the Salty gals got going on whether it’s best to think of food as fuel or more holistically as food. So often we hear things like, “I can’t have that, it’s all carbs,” or we hear people refer to a post-run snack as ‘fuel’. Gotta have that protein ratio down! That’s my fat quota for the day. Bread and pasta is just carbs on carbs.

Do you prefer to think of food as “carbs”, “fat” and “protein,” or do you prefer to think of it as … well … food? Read on for an unedited backstage convo between some of the Saltines!

CATNIP: It’s not fuel, it’s food. I work with so many people who have feeding tubes and miss the pleasure of eating. You should enjoy your food, not just ingest stuff out of some obligation. Saying your snack or breakfast is fuel ignores the other purposes of food – social, pleasure, variety, texture.

BARLEYYes and no … when I started looking at food as fuel for my runs it got me to really look at what I was eating and be smarter about it which in turn helped my health and my running. That doesn’t mean I always look at it that way (I mean I still eat junk food, and drink alcohol). I can see how calling it fuel makes it seem like an obligation … but for some people, myself included, it wasn’t about forcing myself to eat, it just made me look at WHAT I was eating. Hey, I can’t expect that run to be fantastic if I ate shit before it.

CATNIPBut then how does that vary at a time when you’re not running? Is it food or fuel then? Does it affect the attitude toward eating?

BARLEY: For me, it’s more about making sure the meals before big races or workouts are going to give me what I need to succeed. That doesn’t mean I eat something I don’t like, but I’ll plan something that offers me more specific nutrients to get me through that workout. It means choosing things I like, but opting for certain types of foods at certain times to suit what my body needs. Protein after workouts for recovery, etc. I am not going to eat a bowl of ice cream before a run because the run would be shitty (probably literally and figuratively). Therefore, I don’t see ice cream as good pre-run fuel. But doesn’t mean I won’t choose to eat ice cream later in the day after my run is already done.

It doesn’t make me eat more or less or change when I want to eat or how much … it more makes me look at what I am specifically eating. If I don’t have a run or workout to plan for I just plan my meals or pick whatever looks good off the menu if I am out and about.

BERGAMOTI read that as I ate a bowl of peanut butter Captain Crunch that I found in the American store on sale, lol. I wrote a post criticizing food bloggers last year. I think I called it Sugar Is Not the Devil or something. I’m so tired of people irrationally avoiding sugar, gluten and dairy for no other reason than that it’s trendy.

I know someone who does not eat gluten for no real reason and will not eat too much fruit because of the sugar. She also calls foods by one nutrient: grains, fats, sugars, etc.

BARLEY: Bergie, people who do that give people who actually need to avoid foods a bad name.


BARLEY: People who say they are “allergic” to something when they really just don’t like it.

PIMENTOHave any of you ever read The Omnivore’s Dilemma? It’s by Michael Pollan. It begins by telling about this psychological study involving rats, who are omnivores. And basically by having more choices it makes us more and more confused as to what we should actually eat. It’s really good, so is his In Defense of Food.

I kind of feel like the too much information thing causes us more stress and makes us doubt our own ability to just eat food.

CINNAMON: He has a great Netflix miniseries in a similar vein, called Cooked. It’s not just informative, it’s also beautifully shot and fun to watch and will make you want to begin a sourdough starter posthaste. I actually started my starter the day I watched it!

CATNIP: I just think that calling it fuel turns it into something that leads to metrics and overthinking and a feeling of obligation, looking at the body as a machine rather than the body as you. And fuel has a connotation that leads people to engineered stuff. What about intuition, “listening to your body”? Eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full. Eat food that’s food.

PIMENTOThat is like the moral of his book: “Eat food.”

BARLEY: I can think of it as fuel and still eat when I’m hungry and stop when I’m full. How is it any different than making different choices during race week for carb depletion or loading or anything? One can make a choice on specific food before a workout and have it not be some issue other than not wanting to crap my pants or run out of energy while running.

PUMPKIN: I’m sort of in the middle of the “food is fuel” debate above! You all know my love for … all the food. And I try and not overthink my food choices or break them down into “grain” or “carb” or “sugar”, but I did find thinking about food as fuel was helpful when I was just recovering from my eating disorder, because it helped me to understand how food functioned. I couldn’t let myself have “enjoyment” food at first, but I could more easily get on board with understanding that I needed food to fuel me to do my daily activities.

Now I don’t tend to think of my food in a purely fuel sense, but more holistically. When I have a big week of running, like some really key workouts, long runs, or races, I tend to look at my meals for the week and try and add in more foods that I view as “fuel” (you know, like maybe some quinoa instead of Taco Bell … lol).

BARLEY: EXACTLY Pumpkin, you can look at food as fuel without overthinking it … but IMHO I don’t think it’s disordered to plan meals to better fuel what you have going on.

PUMPKIN: For the most part I just try and avoid categorizing my foods though, just because that can be a weird mental trap for me. Like looking at a cupcake as a “splurge” or an “indulgence” or looking at my meal salad as “super healthy”.

BARLEY: I look at food as fuel when I need to … in relation to races and workouts (again, back to the fact that it’s NO different than altering what you eat during race week to better fuel for the race). But on days I don’t have to think about running and workouts and what may or may not give me good or bad reactions … food is food. I agree on avoiding categorizing. I don’t look at my ice cream as a cheat, for example.

MANGO: I think my approach is closest to Barley’s. Sure, we can talk about intuitive eating, but the fact is that for many people their eating intuition is broken for one reason or another and they need to work their way back to it.

I also think of my food as fuel; not so much “healthy” or “bad” food, but “nutritional bang for the buck.” Will it fill me up and deliver the energy I need over the right period of time? Will it help my muscles recover? But it’s also very important to me that I enjoy my food. So, tasty high-octane fuel.

SALTY: I try to balance nutrition and deliciousness. I also have a “do not care” policy when it comes to social settings. Luckily I’m not that social. Ha!

CINNAMONIn a social setting especially!

When I was new to learning about nutrition thinking about food helped me get “on track,” so to speak. Like you said, Mango, my intuition was broken. But having learned about the nutritional value of food, now it’s way more important to me to focus on the value of food nutritionally, emotionally and culturally. I mean, if I were a chef and I heard someone calling a dish I made ‘carbs and fat’ I’d be pissed! Food is so much more than what goes into it, like Catnip said. There’s so much love to be found in food, and history.

I try to make food for myself that’s fresh and thoughtful and full of love; often that works out to the food that fuels me best too, which is pretty awesome. But sometimes I just don’t have time so I eat an entire Trader Joe’s pizza or a giant burrito. And that’s completely okay with me, because I can’t even with the self judgement and it doesn’t give me GI problems. But then again some things are even worth that. Here’s looking at you, drunk nachos.

CHICORY: Backtracking to say I love Michael Pollan. Eat real food, not too much, mostly plants!


What’s your approach to thinking about food?

Cinnamon made Salty Running, takes lots of pictures and drinks lots of coffee. By day she's a camera assistant for films and tv in New York, and by night she's on a quest for zen in the 10k. Her writing is a mix of satirical humor, finding wholeness as an average runner, cheering for runners at all paces and more.

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  1. Totally agree with Barley on thinking about food as fuel to encourage yourself to get it in in the right amounts and types when you need it. I also love what Bergamot said about referring to food as specific nutrients. I hate that to no end. Whether it’s food or fuel, it is not simply “carbs” or “fats” or “proteins”. That shit bugs me.

  2. There is so much crap out there on this topic and people get incredibly weird about it psychologically too! I also Michael Pollan. He’s awesome. But I think the point about not necessarily being able to rely on intuition is well taken. I’m a vegetarian and I struggled to lose pregnancy weight after having my first baby. It wasn’t until I went to weight watchers that I learned that cashews, for example, are full of fat, and my mega-cashew diet was expensive in more than just dollars.

    Another time I had a doctor ask if I was getting enough protein. I was ready to get all snippy-vegetarian on him when he added: How much protein are you trying to eat? How much protein is in the foods you are eating? I couldn’t answer either of those questions! In the last year or so I’ve worked with my trainer on nutrition and he has helped me enormously with understanding what I am eating and what I might want to eat. My choices now are much better informed and that feels good. Knowledge is power and intuition wasn’t going to get me there.

  3. Love that a random conversation turned into a good post for conversation starter!

    Also, I have since ordered 3 Michael Pollan books, and 1 Michael pollan cookbook. Need to start those!

  4. Food! It’s food for me. I’m super picky and like what I like. I know food gives me energy. Shit, redbull gives me wings. I can’t imagine what I would do if I measured my food in carbs, fats, protein. I’m still alive so I must be eating the right foods. I even eat a snickers if I’m super hungry and it’s just a candy bar- not sugar. Life is simple and somehow we’ve over complicated so many things such as running and food.

  5. I think we all have very, very complicated relationships with food. I am definitely more in the Barley/Mango camp. When I was trying to restructure my eating overall to stop comfort eating and get more good energy, I found it’s really helpful to think of it as fuel. Is it annoying to have someone break down foods and call them carbs/sugar, etc.? Oh yeah. I try not to do that. But my instincts are to eat mac ‘n’ cheese every day, all day, and if I don’t have the mental process of thinking about the nutrients in my meals, I eat crap. All the time. It’s a great mental tool. That I try to not say out loud 😉