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Over the years I’ve heard the word food being replaced by the word fuel. Coaches say it. Personal trainers say it. Weight loss experts say it. “Did you get enough sleep? Did you get enough fuel?” It’s not so much a matter of changing semantics but of changing mentality.
And the mentality that food should be viewed only as fuel for the body is what’s probably wrong with the American diet today. Seeing food as fuel encourages a feeding habit removed of joy, appreciation and celebration, turning it into a mindless act. It teaches us to eat on the clock, rather than on the true needs of the body.
The problem is that our body doesn’t have just a single fuel gage to tell us when our tank is empty, but many physical and emotional gauges that trick us into thinking that we need more fuel. For so long we’ve been fueling ourselves by social or dietary rules that we’ve forgotten what physical hunger actually feels like.
So we’re pressured into eating the so-called “most important meal of the day.” We panic about forgetting that light snack between breakfast and lunch. We consider ourselves reckless when we skip lunch. And, darn it, we kill all of our effort in the gym if we don’t fuel up within half an hour after the workout.
At work we stock the desk with nuts and jerky, in the car we stuff the glove compartment with protein bars, and in the fridge we line the shelf with fudge-flavored yogurt. Just in case, we say, worried that a temporary hunger pang is the end of our metabolism.
So: Fuel, fuel, fuel!
What kind of ethics do we express when we eat food without joy or appreciation when others must starve? How do our bodies compare to those of the French and Spaniards, who sit down to celebrate the flavors of each meal? What if we actually seek to identify all the flavors of each bite on our plate, instead of shoveling it down mindlessly like the way we pump fuel into our cars? Would our careful and deliberate enjoyment of food allow us a higher quality of food intake, without going overboard on low-quality food with an amalgamation of disassociated flavors?
I believe that sitting down (with family and friends) to a meal is the best thing that we as a nation can do, socially, mentally, gustatorily, and physically. While eating, we ought to focus on the immense flavors of duck confit with fresh tangerine marmalade. We ought to search for the subtle sea salt hidden behind the delicate sweetness of caramelized sea scallops, and share the flavor with a glass of Bordeaux Blanc and see what dances on the taste buds. Or even venture with all our senses into the deep intricacies of a Chicago Deep Dish.
The reality is that many of us don’t have the time to sit down to a slow meal, but that’s not the problem. The problem is that we think we still must eat simply because it’s mealtime. So we fuel up mindlessly, even when the body has plenty in reserve (glycogen stores, fat stores, protein stores, etc.). We end up throwing calories into the body, but with lost opportunity to experience the joy that should accompany food.
Perhaps it’s time for us to let go of the fear and guilt of missing a meal, and allow ourselves the opportunity to learn how to eat less frequently. Maybe we should go longer between meals without letting the myth of “a slowed metabolism” interfere. It’s time to raise the importance of each meal, and place a greater focus on quality over quantity.
Perhaps it’s time to remove the fuel out of food, and put the food back into food, and really, truly enjoy eating again.