I had a busy day today. I took a 1½-hour dance class in the morning, then had a half-hour break before a 3-hour dance rehearsal at a different studio. After that, I ran home to shower, change, and eat before heading to the Pilates studio to teach for 5 hours straight.
On days like this, what I eat is extremely important. Here’s a not-so-great version of my day:
I skip breakfast, so I don’t have enough energy in my dance class. I’m super hungry afterwards, so I eat a large meal before rehearsal, which leaves me feeling lethargic and not at my best. Still full from lunch, I don’t eat before work. But 3 hours into my shift, I’m starving. Again, I’m feeling low-energy and unable to perform at my best. After work, I eat a big dinner shortly before going to bed. The next morning, I’m not hungry for breakfast — and the cycle starts all over again.
On the other hand, if I start off my day with a healthy, fiber-filled breakfast, I’m on a great track to feel awake and alert all day. I’m able to listen to what my body needed all day long, and can continue to make smart choices that will keep me going. Through trial and error, I’ve realized that I need to eat healthy foods so I can do everything on my schedule. If I don’t feed myself healthy food, or enough of it, I can’t get through the day with energy and sanity. This makes the idea that food is fuel very tangible for me.
I’m lucky to have such an acute relationship with my body that I can hear what it needs, but it’s not always this easy. So let’s break down the way we look at food.
From a purely biological perspective, food is fuel. Like all other animals, we need food as it's the source of energy for our muscles and mind. It powers our movement and emotion, our thought and speech. In the simplest terms, we need to eat to live. However, our lives are very, very different from those of all other animals on the planet, and this is where that black-and-white approach gets grey and messy.
Many of us are fortunate enough to decide what we want to eat for each meal, and this makes our eating habits starkly divergent than those of other animals. Our options of what to eat are seemingly endless. Taste, cost, and convenience are obviously all important factors. Many people have dietary restrictions, voluntary or involuntary, that narrow their choices. And because we are constantly bombarded with options, it’s easy to lose sight of what we are eating and why. Perhaps if other animals could decide between their prey and a bacon cheeseburger with fries, they would choose the cheeseburger, but they do not have that option.
As a result of our unique relationship with food, we use food in unique ways. In nearly every culture, food is a staple of celebration — and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. I think taking time to prepare food and eating it with the people we love can be a beautiful ritual. I love baking decadent treats to share with friends and family — and yes, I eat what I bake, too! However, this celebratory aspect is not our everyday scenario. So how could we approach food in a healthy and practical way the rest of the time?
Let’s assume for a moment that cost and convenience aren’t factors. When you go grocery shopping, how do you decide what goes in your cart? What looks good? What has the lowest calorie count? What is healthiest?
Now imagine you are preparing for an intense workout: a half marathon or a TRX class or a basketball game. What would you buy to power your body? Would the items in your cart change?
For most of us, I think the answer would be yes.
I propose we shift the way we think about food. What if we always considered our body’s function when deciding what to cook for dinner? What if, before making our grocery list, we considered what foods would allow our bodies to function and feel best?
Here are my four guidelines for using food to fuel your body.
1) Think about your day.
If you are going to be running around a lot, you’ll probably need some carbohydrates throughout the day (try for the good stuff: whole grains, brown rice, oats, etc). If you know you get hangry and unfocused around 3pm, try adding more protein to your lunch, or throwing a snack (like almonds) in your bag. I know it seems like a lot of planning at first, but it will eventually become habit. (OnPointe Training photo sourced by eatutah.org)
2) Eat fruits and/or vegetables at every meal.
The fiber will keep you full, and the vitamins will keep you healthy.
3) Drink more water!
4) Listen to your body.
After an intense workout, what are you craving the most? If you’re craving sweets, try eating a high-protein meal. If you’re craving juicy fruits like watermelon, you may be dehydrated. If you want to eat all the muffins in the bakery, munch on something with fiber.