As anyone who knows me is aware, I love food. I love to cook, I get excited about trying new restaurants, I order dessert. I don’t skip meals. I don’t think I have ever “forgotten” to eat.
Like so many other people, I also have my fair share of issue when it comes to what I eat. I have dieted to the point of disorder. Obsessed over so-called “diet” foods and counted calories. Eaten food I’m not hungry for just because it’s in front of me. Polished off pizzas and chips and chocolate bars at first because they taste good, but not long after because eating them would mean I wouldn’t have to look at them anymore.
So you can imagine that the concept of “food as fuel” has never particularly appealed to me. Mostly because it sounds so boring. It smacks of deprivation: only eating as much as you need and when you need it. And even when I have deprived myself, it hasn’t been a question of what my body “needs”; it’s been a question of how little I can get away with.
I don’t think I’m alone here. But if you’re anything like me on this issue, my suspicion is that you – and I – are thinking about this issue all wrong. Treating food as fuel is partly about freeing yourself from the cycle of obsession I described in my second paragraph, yes, but it’s not about deprivation.
It’s not about eating only when you’re really hungry (ie, when the tank is empty), or about stopping eating as soon as you’re not. It’s about saying, “Okay, I have this tank/stomach/body. What is the best fuel I can fill it with?”
It’s a subtle distinction, but it’s an important one. And I think it might just be the key to ending that cycle of excess and deprivation so many of us participate in, even if it’s usually more subtle than the diagnosed bulimic’s binge and purge.
I’ve been experimenting with my diet over the past couple of months. I gave up Coke Zero over Christmas, when a bad cold meant I stopped craving it for a few days, and I decided to roll with the lack of cravings instead of jumping straight back into my daily habit. I made a bunch of other tweaks before I went to the US a couple of weeks ago, which I won’t go into much detail about here, but which basically follow the same advice everyone from Michael Pollan to Sarah Wilson will give you.
Within a week, I felt fantastic. Clear-headed, alert, body-image issue free. “This is clearly the food my body wants and needs,” I thought. Then, of course, I went to the US, resumed eating the way I had been before, and almost immediately felt oddly sick and gluggy.
So, here’s the main thing I learned, and what I suspect “works” for me, in terms of giving me a happy, healthy body. It’s so simple and so obvious, it will probably seem laughable. Eat more vegetables. Eat whatever else you want, just eat more vegetables.
Seriously. I thought I was eating a lot of fruit and vegetables (mostly fruit) before. I loved my spinach, didn’t I? And I always tried to order something vegetable based when I ate out. But really, my standard daily diet looked more like: fruit and muesli for breakfast; sandwich, fruit and a cookie for lunch; fish and stir-fried veggies for dinner. Plus a bottle or two of coke zero. And maybe dessert. Not unhealthy, but not exactly vegetable heavy, either.
Then I started eating vegetables not just once a day (plus a bit on my sandwich at lunch), but at every meal. Not the puny little garden salads I used to nibble on back when I was hovering on the edge of starvation in my early 20s, but big piles of vegetables. And not just big piles of vegetables by themselves, either, but alongside fish and chicken and omelettes and brown bread and hummus and nuts and cheese.
The point is, once I went from eating moderately healthily, to super-healthily, I felt fantastic. I didn’t feel hungry, because my meals were huge. I also suspect that part of the reason I didn’t feel hungry was because not only was I consuming a whole lot of food, but I was also consuming a shitload of nutrients. And for the first time in my life, I “got” what those people were talking about when they spoke of “food as fuel”.
I’m not yet one of those people. I’m still prone to ordering dessert when I’m already over-full from dinner, because I’d made a decision earlier in the night that dessert would be nice. I’m a long way from being someone who can stop at two slices of pizza, or one row of a chocolate bar. I still feel a little too satisfied if I weigh less than I did the week before.
Moderation does not come easily to me.
I can tell you this, though: what I have been doing – or what I am trying to do, because I don’t always get it right – feels great. It feels fresh and energetic and high functioning, like a machine that’s been filled up with top quality juice. It doesn’t feel like deprivation, starvation or self-hatred. In other words, it feels nothing like an eating disorder.
Or a “diet”, for that matter.