Food IS Fuel And There Is Value In Viewing It That Way

This piece was co-authored with Margaret Yúfera-Leitch, Phd

Even smart people make mistakes.

Since we’re on the subject of smart people, before I get into this piece I would like to introduce you to my good friend Margaret. She has her PhD in psychology from the University of Sussex and is an expert in the field of eating behavior and the link to obesity. She was my co-author on our entitled Lose it Right, published by Random House Canada.

Now back to some other smart people who made a boo boo.

John Berardi, by all indications, is a smart guy with an impressive background. If you’re on Facebook, and into fitness, there is a chance you saw this post by his company Precision Nutrition (I saw it as a “Sponsored” post). Co-authoring the piece we have Brian St. Pierre and Krista Scott-Dixon, who also both appear to not be lacking in intelligence.

Now I know I have a reputation for being sarcastic and for ripping into things/people that piss me off. I’m not pissed off and I’m not being sarcastic. This time. I respect the authors of this piece and their work. However, there is a flawed premise in their most recent, and very popular, article that I need to address, because I fear it may lead people astray.

The title of the article is, “No, food is NOT fuel. (And, thankfully, you’re not a Ferrari.)”

I only agree with the second part of that title. Hence, my title saying food IS fuel. Bear with me, as this is going to boil down to semantics in some ways, but I have a damn good reason for being nitpicky on this issue, which I will soon make clear.

I appreciate what Precision Nutrition is saying in much of their article, but there is a baby and bathwater issue at stake. Their premise is that “Food is so much more than ‘fuel’ or ‘energy’ or ‘calories’.”

Yes. Absolutely true. No argument.

But here is the problem with the piece, from which I directly quote:

Just the other day, on Facebook, we posted this

Food is ________.

Of the wildly varied, and often interesting, responses, “fuel” appeared 33% of the time.

That’s when it really hit home: For most people, particularly fitness people, “fuel” is the only story they can tell about food.

That worries us.

Check out that bolded part. That’s their bolding, not mine, and it is a straw man argument – a misrepresentation of your opponent’s position as something that is easy to tear apart. They are attributing something to “fitness people” with no evidence to back it up. Fuel is the “only story” we can tell about food? I’m sorry, but that’s bullshit.

In such “polls,” the underscore lends itself to a one-word answer. Had I seen it, I’m certain I would have answered with “fuel” as well. Perhaps if they really wanted to know what we fitness people think, they would have asked an open-ended follow up question: What does “food is fuel” mean to you?

But they didn’t ask that question. They just assumed we couldn’t think beyond a single word. However, after this straw man, the article gets good. I suggest you read it. Here’s the link again.

The article is a lot to digest, isn’t it? (Pardon the pun. I suck at those.) PN dropped a major science bomb and told a cool story about what food does for your body.

But there is still that pesky issue of viewing food as fuel. And I’m going to argue in favor of it. First off, let’s bullet point some info to provide perspective of the world we live in:

  • According to the National Center for Health Statistics, in the U.S. almost 70% of adults are either overweight or obese.1
  • In the last half century, the amount of American food dollars dedicated towards eating out has risen from 25% to 49%.2
  • According to a Center for Disease Control survey, fewer than a quarter of Americans consume the recommended minimum of five servings of fruit and vegetables each day.3
  • According to a Gallup poll from last year, 46% of Americans don’t believe in evolution.4

Why did I show that last one? Well, not believing in evolution reveals a lack of scientific literacy. In other words, a lot of people will look at the PN article and see Greek.

People are overweight, they eat out too much (which means they eat too much heavily processed food that is high in fat, sugar, salt and calories), they don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables and they’re not big on science. So, simplifying things for them is logical, especially when you consider that there is a lot of research to show that the more complex a diet or health regimen is, the lower the adherence rates are.5

And so, let’s expose the straw man. When you refer to food as fuel it does NOT mean that you dismiss all the things that food is and does. It does not mean that you see fuel as the only story. Rather, it’s a way of communicating food to people in a way that they can relate to and follow.

Hang on; it’s my turn to get all science-y on your ass. This is why Margaret and I justify the use of the food-as-fuel metaphor: It’s because most of us don’t eat for fueling-based reasons. Instead, we’re eating for pleasure-based reasons, and that is what has lead, in large part, to the prevalence of obesity.


A calorie is a calorie, but not all are equal

I’m going to quote an article by Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale Prevention Research Center, who I interviewed  for my and Margaret’s book. Despite the fact that he has some disturbing opinions in regards to alternative medicine, I have found him to be one of the wisest men in nutrition and weight loss, and he said a calorie is a calorie the same way a mile is a mile. These are units of measure, but they can still be different: “A mile is a mile. But walking one over flat ground when well-rested feels very different from climbing one up a mountain when exhausted.”6

And different calories feel different too, which brings us to …


Your brain on food

Have you seen Trainspotting, that movie about heroin addiction? It’s a serious bummer and I don’t recommend it.

There’s a scene in which a woman injects the drug for the first time and she says … well, I can’t write what she says because I’m trying to keep things PG. Anyway, she suggests that heroin is way better than sex. I’d never touch heroin, so I can’t weigh in on the debate, but it does make me wonder what kind of lame lovers she’s had.

Why all this talk of heroin? Because although the degree is far less, highly palatable food hijacks your brain’s reward system in the same manner.7 (NOTE: This does not mean it’s addictive.)

Think of an apple. Imagine taking a big bite. Even if you love apples, you can’t imagine eating six of them at once, right? Because no matter how good they are, it’s not as though your mouth just had an orgasm, is it?

Crème brûlée, though? Or cookie dough ice cream? Or “Mmmm … I love Turtles”? Total mouthgasm.

Unlike a real orgasm, however, junk food doesn’t offer much of an afterglow. Plowing through half a pizza or a box of chocolates may make you feel good for a few minutes, but that feeling doesn’t stick around for the rest of the day. A sexual romp can keep you sated for a long time, but junk food begets more junk food: you keep eating well beyond the point of bodily energy requirements, losing track of how much you ate and being unable to tell whether you’re still hungry. Why do you do this? Because the reward is outstanding. Before you know it, the compulsion grows, and you need ever more sugar, salt and fat to quench the desire for the next mouthgasm.

I’m going to stop writing that word now, okay?

Here’s the thing: evolution programmed us to like certain flavors. One of the reasons we like sweetness is that it represents nutrition. A piece of fruit is at its nutritional peak when it’s at its sweetest. For the millennia of human evolution, seeking out sweetness was good – until technology started messing with things and making nutritionally vacant yet calorically dense hyper-flavored sugar-fat combination treats like hot fudge sundaes. What’s more, such foods are soft rather than crunchy, allowing for a fast ingestion that generates an immediate sense of pleasure. It seems similar to the difference between smoking heroin and injecting it.

Have you ever had a perfectly ripe mango? It’s one of the most amazing-tasting natural foods on the planet. One mango has about 130 calories. How many can you eat? I’ve tried to eat more than one in a sitting, but halfway through the second I didn’t want any more. Something in my brain shuts down so a second one doesn’t seem that appealing, no matter how good the first one tasted.

Compare that with a high-sugar/high-fat restaurant dessert such as the Keg’s carrot cake à la mode. It has 2,344 calories. That’s 18 times as many calories as a mango. I know I would eat the whole thing and then lick the plate clean; the flavor is so overwhelming that all appetite control is lost. (Then I’d have to do a full marathon worth of running to burn it off. Think on that math.)

So what the hell is going on here? It’s neuro-chemistry. Sugar, fat and salt all create a chemical cascade in your brain, an intricate interaction of hormones, neurotransmitters, endorphins, satiety signals and reward sensations. Mangos are a simple taste of natural sweetness – delicious, yes, but we get bored with it quickly. Processed treats, on the other hand, amplify and combine flavors to create an overwhelming taste sensation that’s hard to get tired of.

What we’re talking about here is basic operant conditioning psychology related to the stimulus-response model of behavior change. If a stimulus (such as putting a chocolate bar into your mouth) elicits a positive response (such as thinking, Whoa, Mama, that tastes good), the stimulus behavior is reinforced and you seek out that rewarding feeling again and again. It works the other way as well, where a bad taste is seen as punishment, causing you to avoid foods you don’t like.


Hedonic vs. homeostatic eating

It’s all about the hippopotamus.

Wait, what? Oh, sorry. Hypothalamus. My co-author Margaret insists it’s the hypothalamus, and she would know, because of the PhD in neuroscience psychology something something.

There is much recent research about the metabolic and neural feedback signals that are responsible for our desire to eat.8 Many of these are generated in the hypothalamus, which is like a thermostat for your body. It regulates internal temperature, hunger, thirst and sleep cycles.

So far, so good. If hunger were just a matter of hypothalamic inputs, the brain could hypothetically adjust our appetites to keep our bodies in a healthy weight range; it could stop us from eating when we’d had enough to meet our daily energy requirements.

But that ain’t happening.

Our ability to regulate food intake “cannot withstand the strong environmental pressures in most individuals,” said Hans-Rudolph Berthoud, neurobiology of nutrition professor at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Louisiana. “Our brain is designed to strike a balance,” Nicole Avena told me. “But our brain can sense if we’re deficient in nutrients. It’s possible to be overfed but undernourished.” At least, it’s been possible in the past century. Junk food provides a lot of calories but little nourishment. For most of human history we didn’t have this problem; things are now out of balance. “And the brain is still seeking out those essential nutrients, so it sends out more hunger signals to get them. There is a cognitive element to getting the vitamins and nutrients we need.”

Runaway food consumption is a breakdown between two systems that drive eating. One is physiological, called homeostatic hunger.9 It regulates your body’s need for sufficient calories to maintain homeostasis.10 In less scientific terms, it’s about fueling your daily energy requirements, and not much else.

The other system is psychological, called hedonic hunger. Think of the word hedonism. It’s all about the pleasure, baby.

Physiological hunger – the kind that keeps weight “normal” – is guided by signals sent from the gut, blood and hypothalamus sensing levels of glucose and amino and fatty acids.11 If you are experiencing this type of hunger because your body needs food, just about anything is going to taste good.

I remember being out for a run once and “bonking,” which is a runner’s term for, Oh God need food now feel wretched can’t run without food please feed me. I made it back to my car ready to eat the steering wheel and found a prehistoric granola bar that my wife had left in the glove box. I don’t dig granola bars, especially ones whose best-before date are from around the time a baby Justin Bieber burst out of an alien torso, but I wolfed that sucker down as if it was the antidote to fast-acting poison, and it was scrumptious.

On the other side of the equation, psychological hunger – eating for pleasure – arises from a chain of events that start in the middle of the brain, and that bitchin’ vibe you get from eating something sweet and fatty hits those same reward paths as drugs, alcohol, gambling and even sex.12 This is about cravings. You don’t need to eat this tasty food, but you want it.


Going against gut instinct

Time for a reality check: your body has no wisdom when it comes to food.

Some alternative practitioners speak of the “wisdom of the body,” and hold that humans have an inherent system designed to seek out only the nutrients we need.

Did anyone else just hear a flock of ducks go by? Quack, quack, quack …

If this was the case, we’d have a kale shortage and childhood obesity would not exist. The only things the body – and brain – respond to immediately are sugar, fat and salt. This is because each of these compounds produces an immediate signal to the brain, telling it that they hold value: energy to allow for movement (like hunting for more food and procreating) and to build up fat stores to survive the next famine.

Salt, of course, is an exception in that it doesn’t contain calories, but it is nevertheless critical to survival.13 It’s important for brain development, and the salt that’s sweated from our bodies also needs replacing. Food companies have used it liberally to make their products taste better and promote additional consumption.14

In short, the body wants what it wants, and it does not have a magical mechanism for obesity prevention. Neither do dogs, by the way, animals that are suffering their own obesity crisis and will eat chocolate with abandon even though it is toxic for them. Canine bodies have no more wisdom to prevent obesity than human bodies do. Obesity rates prove that our tastes are pretty basic, and in this land of constant plenty, most of us are going to gain weight.

There is no magic mechanism, but there is consciousness. And this is where separating fuel-based eating from pleasure-based consumption is valuable.


Fuel vs. pleasure

It’s a simple story: choose foods that fuel performance more often, and choose ones that are eaten purely for pleasure less often. Indulgence is fine, sometimes. I do not advise a life of constant dietary deprivation. Look at a tasty treat, understand how many calories it contains, and decide if it’s worth it.

It doesn’t take long for people to get an idea of what fuel-based eating is. Simply telling them to focus on foods that are unprocessed helps a lot. It becomes pretty easy to recognize the difference between apples vs. applesauce, tomatoes vs. ketchup, oranges vs. orange juice, kale vs. kale chips, steak vs. Big Macs, potatoes vs. French fries, cherries vs. Cherry Coke, chicken breasts vs. McNuggets, grilled salmon vs. fish sticks …

Getting people to stop and ask the question, “Does this fuel my body to a higher level of performance, or is it something eaten purely for pleasure?” is a powerful tool that should not be so readily dismissed. It’s not complex, which makes it a lot easier to follow than micromanaging one’s diet, and as I already pointed out, higher diet complexity = lower adherence.


The perils of precision

Precision Nutrition is the name of Berardi’s company, and there is merit in being precise for certain populations. So think about your food intake, not just for today, or tomorrow, but for the rest of your life. Just how precise do you want to be?

I wrote an article two years ago that told people to stop worrying so much about separating fly shit from pepper and just focus on the important stuff instead of getting obsessive over micro details, and it continues to generate fan mail (just got some last week) from people telling me it completely changed their perspective on both training and eating for the better.

There was a question I asked in the article: “Do you get all waxed, tanned, oiled, and Speedo-ed to pose on a stage? Do you have a rippling six-pack? Are you questing for the shredded eight-pack? Do you have the job of protecting your quarterback’s spleen from being ripped out by some behemoth defensive lineman? Do you regularly step into a ring and need to hit people so hard their grandchildren are born dizzy?”

And then I quoted my friend and nutrition expert extraordinaire Alan Aragon: “The fitness & nutrition world is a breeding ground for obsessive-compulsive behavior. The irony is that many things people worry about simply have no impact on results either way, and therefore aren’t worth an ounce of concern.”

Precision in the world of nutrition can be a valuable thing, especially if you’re a competitor or if you’ve tried the big picture approach and it doesn’t work for you. Some people need the hard rules, the in-depth planning and the micro tracking.

But some don’t. Some get confused and/or burned out by such attention to detail. Some need simple rules to follow. Some just create a basic story of what is good fuel and what is eating for pleasure, and that is what works for them. If I obsessed over my diet, I might actually have six-pack abs. I might also be miserable. So I don’t obsess, and settle for a four-pack. Four-pack abs is what I can happily sustain.

And that’s good enough for me.


Side note: Vroom vroom

On the “You’re not a Ferrari” side of things, I’ll agree by quoting a passage from my interview with Rush drummer Neil Peart for the LA Times: “…humans are the exact opposite of mechanical systems. If you own a classic vehicle (say, an Italian Barchetta-style sports car), to preserve this old machine you need to keep it in storage most of time, perhaps taking it out only for Sunday drives. Biological entities are different because we have self-repair built in. And for a rock drummer to keep his engine responding with a roar for 50-odd years, he needs to rack up the mileage.” My article was exercise instead of nutrition focused, but I do agree that a human is not a sports car and should not be treated as such.



Yes, in part it is a matter of semantics, but it allowed me to tell my side of the story. This is not an either/or situation. PN went all caps commando and said food is NOT fuel, as if thinking of it that way is wrong, because if you are thinking about it that way then it’s the “only story” you know. Again: straw man. Again: bullshit.

Food is fuel, and a lot of other stuff that goes beyond it being fuel, as their article points out. But for most of us, we can interpret “fuel” to be “rocket-fuel-go-juice” that motivates us to make healthier, unprocessed choices instead of highly palatable indulgent ones based on pleasure seeking.

And that is a lot better than what the majority of the developed world is doing. That makes viewing food as fuel as being worthwhile.


This piece was first published on my old website on November 28, 2013.

Follow James on Facebook and Twitter.

James S. Fell, CSCS, is an internationally syndicated fitness columnist for the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and AskMen.com. He is the author of Lose it Right: A Brutally Honest 3-Stage Program to Help You Get Fit and Lose Weight Without Losing Your Mind, published by Random House Canada.



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