More Than Fuel
An Alternative to “Either-Or” Thinking
After years of over-reliance on food for comfort, stimulation, and self-soothing, dieters often bounce aggressively to the other end of the spectrum, adopting the mantra that “food is fuel.” As in, food is not for enjoyment or for pleasure – it’s just to give your body the nutrition it needs to optimally function!
In some ways, this mindset is an improvement on an unhealthy relationship with food, as it may help someone “round out” their emotional balance sheet with human relationships, more active hobbies, and more tools in the toolbox for self-soothing. It may also greatly improve a person’s diet, filling it with more nutritious foods that truly do meet their physical and psychological needs better than a diet packed with “junk” food.
But the “food as fuel” mindset has limited potential for growth, because it doesn’t take into account the many roles that food plays in our lives. When I see clients in this mentality, I work with them to help them evolve beyond this stopping point, and embrace balance.
But first, let’s take a look at the opposite end of the spectrum, which I call “YOLO eating.”*
*If you’re like me and have to look up everything in Urban Dictionary, I’ll save you the trip: “YOLO” stands for “You Only Live Once.”
“I Just Want To Eat with Abandon”
Once, I was working with a client on meal planning, and it became apparent that she was struggling with the concept of not taking cheat meals.
As I often tell clients, it’s less about what you eat and more about how you eat it. I am not a fan of the concept of “cheat meals” or “cheat days,” and prefer to encourage clients to instead eat what they want, but to continue to listen to hunger and fullness cues and to observe smart portion control strategies whether they’re eating blueberries or burgers.
This client was experiencing a lot of inner resistance around this idea, because she was feeling the loss of control over her “cheat days” – feeling that she had this one time when she could enjoy food without thinking about it.
“I just want to eat with abandon, you know?”
In other words, “YOLO.”
I heard the plaintive tone in her voice, and I felt so much compassion for her, that so much happiness was wrapped up in being able to eat an entire bag of chips without feeling guilty.
First, I made clear to her that, because we’re adults, we can always eat whatever we want. All food choices are personal choices. As I’ve said in blog posts before, “Guilt is a feeling, not an ingredient.”
You can eat three chips and feel guilty, or an entire bag and feel fine. You are the variable, not the food. No food is “guilt-free,” whatever the packaging may say. No one has any right to criticize or shame you for your food choices.
Second, I made an analogy to this client, which I’m going to share with you now.
Eating as a Form of Spending
By replacing the word “food” or “eating” with “money” or “spending,” you can find the right balance of responsibility that is in line with your life philosophy.
For example, have you ever wished you could just “spend with abandon”?
Of course. I have, certainly. But most of us know that there are critical consequences to losing control of our spending habits. “Spending with abandon” tends to occupy the realm of wishful thinking. Are there people who make these mistakes? Absolutely. Overloaded credit cards and debt consolidation services certainly attest to the fact that many of us do lose self-control sometimes – some people on a regular basis.
On the flip side, there are people who are conservative in their spending to the point that they are missing out on life experiences.
I think most of us would be able to identify that a middle path that included both smart planning and enjoyment would be the most balanced approach.
… Does this sound familiar?
- Smart planning systems help us to manage spending.
- Smart planning systems help us to manage food intake.
- Sensible restraint helps us to avoid regrettable purchases.
- Sensible restraint helps us to avoid regrettable food decisions.
- Money is also fun to spend and brings more joy into our lives.
- Food is also fun to eat and brings more joy into our lives.
As you can see, when we translate “food” into “money,” the middle path is extremely clear. So why isn’t it so clear with food?
While it’s a similarly complex resource to balance (and can carry shame issues), money is often not loaded with the same dread of failure and loss of personal self-control associated with food and weight.
Food, eating, weight, and body image are incredibly loaded issues. When we can remove the added meaning and fears, the balanced middle path becomes incredibly obvious.
So What Role *Should* Food Play?
Where you will fall on the spectrum that I pictured at the top of this blog post is largely a personal decision, with no real “should.”
I recommend the middle territory of “Balance,” leaning in one direction based on your natural tendencies.
- If you tend to be self-indulgent, your hedonism may need to be structured a bit more by the “Food as Fuel” direction. It probably wouldn’t hurt you to track calories and plan meals, because planning ahead and seeing the big picture may be a weak spot for you.
- If you tend to be overly-rigid and dogmatic about eating experiences, you may want to soften your attitude with a little more “YOLO.” Have the croissant in Paris. Eat the hot dog at the ball game. The big picture for you is that, in the context of the rest of your diet, one meal is not going to de-rail you.
What rigidly-controlled and unrestrained eating have in common is that they both miss the big picture in some way.
A tremendous part of the process of improving your relationship with food is learning to embrace the gray areas – moving beyond the either-or mentality of having to “pick a team.” We improve our relationship with food when we couple sensible dietary restraint with genuine enjoyment, understanding that food, like money, can play many roles in life.
Food can be for pleasure. It can also be for energy. It can be part of a cultural celebration. It can also sort out your gut issues. It can help you enjoy the holidays. It can also cause or prevent disease.
Your version of “healthy eating” is going to be shaped by how you grew up, where you grew up, your struggles with weight (or lack thereof), your activity level, and much more.
Where do you think you fall on the spectrum?