Food = Fuel and Building Material

When any of my clients ask me about changing their body composition the first thing I do is ask them about their relationship with food. What I’m looking for are their thoughts and feelings about eating, how food makes them feel and their motivation for eating. Depending on what is uncovered, the solution to their body composition concerns will be different. Below are some of the things that keep coming up when I talk to people about food.

Eating only when hungry. On the face of it, this approach seems like a good idea. However, it has one major drawback, it body doesn’t always tell you it needs food. For example, many people wake up not feeling hungry and skip breakfast because of it. They may even skip lunch for the same reason. The problem is that the body no longer needs to motivate you to eat because it has begun to use protein for sugar. This destroys muscle tissue, slows the metabolism and robs the immune system of the protein needed to keep it running smoothly. Later on in the day you will feel ravenous and overeat in response to this intense hunger but unless you wake-up and have breakfast the next morning, you are going to repeat the pattern, gaining fat and losing muscle everyday you allow your feelings of hunger to dictate when you eat. Eat breakfast EVERYDAY even if you don’t feel like it. Your body needs the food.

Convenience eaters. One client said that she only ate when she was hungry. I probed a little deeper and it became obvious that she is a convenience eater – she would eat whatever was right in front of her when the hunger started. She suffered from low energy in the morning and tended to eat high sugar foods around 3 PM every day. The solution we came up with was to replace the junk convenience foods with healthier options – she got rid of all the chocolates and candy in her office and now has almonds, fruit, and protein shakes. She also eats breakfast every morning REGARDLESS of her lack of hunger. Her lack of energy stemmed from a lack of fuel and now that she’s filling the tank first thing in the morning she is more alert and doesn’t find herself so hungry around 3 PM when she reaches for the more healthier snacks.

Carbs for energy with sedentary people. Another client tends to eat too many carbs because they say they are “needed for energy”. The problem is that this person is not very active and not active enough to burn off all the food they are bringing it. Their believe that carbs provide the body with energy is correct, but the amount of carbs one eats should be balanced by the amount of activity they perform. If there isn’t much activity one should limit their carb intake and use vegetable sources vs. refined grain and sugar products.

Fat avoiders. A common habit is to avoid fat as much as possible. This believe stems from the antiquated notion that fat makes people fat. The issue with this belief is that it is only true if one eats a lot of fat and too many carbs or eats too much in general. Your body uses fat for most of its activities. Other than high intensity movement and brain activity, both of which rely on sugar, the body is constantly using fat for energy. Keeping this in mind it’s clear that the need for sugar is reduced if one is not involved in high intensity movement. Since there’s a trend for very active people to be leaner, there’s a very good chance that you won’t be looking to alter your body composition if you need carbs because you’ll be active enough to burn whatever you are eating.

Carb avoiders. The inverse is also present – there are people who are carbophobic and will eat as few carbs as possible. This often presents a problem because many of these people are active and require sugar for fuel. By eliminating it, they are forcing their body to breakdown protein to generate sugar for intense movement. Often, the body will use muscle tissue as the protein source which will result in a reduction of lean body mass. This is not a good thing because gaining muscle is an active process requiring energy and time. When we use muscle for energy we are taking a step backwards in the body composition game. The key is to eat sufficient amounts of carbs to fuel the intense movements and to eat them surrounding the workouts. From my personal experiences, I have found that I can ride further and faster if I eat carbs before my rides and if I consume dextrose and whey during the ride. I also grow more when I consume dextrose and whey before and during my weight workouts. But if I have a huge feed of pasta on an off day, I get tired and probably fall asleep soon after.

Infrequent eater. Another approach is to eat large enough meals so that you only need 2 or 3 of them per day. This does help fight off hunger because large meals require more time to digest. However, the longer something stays in your stomach, the longer your body is going without the nutrients the meal provides. It is possible for someone to have lower blood sugar while having a full belly. Remember, food doesn’t impact the body until it leaves the stomach and begins to be absorbed into the blood stream in the intestines. Smaller meals that require less digestive time are better for body composition than larger meals that require a lot of work to break down.

Certain food avoiders / eating too much of one type of food. Many people eat the same foods day after day, rarely switching out foods or adding new ones. The problem with this approach to eating is that it boosts the chances of not getting all the nutrients your body needs. As much as I like my oatmeal, I NEED to eat blueberries every now and then to boost my antioxidant intake. However, if I ate nothing but blueberries I would suffer from low protein and likely end up getting sick. The main reason I hear for avoiding food or eating too much of one type is that of preference – “I don’t like blueberries” or “I like chicken”. While I can relate to liking particular foods, people who eat solely for enjoyment reasons need to adjust their thinking to regard food as fuel and building material.

Changing your body composition can be a challenge but by making a few changes in the way your approach and think about food will make this challenge a little less daunting:

  1. Food is fuel and building material for the body. It is fine to eat for enjoyment occasionally, but most of the time when you eat it is for nutrition.
  2. Eat breakfast EVERYDAY regardless of your hunger.
  3. Eat smaller meals every few hours.
  4. Eat only as many carbs as you need to fuel your activity level and eat them surrounding your activity.
  5. Surround yourself with healthy foods so when you get hungry you reach for them.
  6. 30% of your food calories should come from healthy fats. 0% should come from trans fat.
  7. Eat a variety of foods and try to eat seasonal foods from your geographic environment because they contain a lot of what is needed to thrive in your environment.

UPDATE – I took a second pass at this topic a few months later in the post titled Food As Fuel and Building Material (again).

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