Crossfit · sports nutrition

Thinking beyond exercise as punishment and food as fuel


I never think of exercise as punishment for what I eat. I love the physical things that I do even though I rarely think of it as exercise. (See Is it time to ditch exercise?)

I remember when I started to think about food as fuel instead. Cycling certainly requires that perspective. You can’t go for long, fast bike rides without planning what you’ll eat and when. My friend David sets an alarm to remind himself to eat on the bike.

Let’s rewrite the text on the above image. How about instead you think, “French fries fuel a lot of burpees! ” While I don’t generally eat french fries, I do find myself thinking that I need to eat before I work out. That’s totally different than thinking I need to work out because I ate. It’s what happens when you start thinking in terms of sports nutrition. “What would best fuel my workout?” is a different question than “What do I have to do to burn off those french fries?”

But the next step is realizing that food is fuel but it’s also importantly more than fuel.

Fuel is one of the role food plays but it’s not the only one.

“…. food also includes micronutrients, phytochemicals, zoochemicals, water, and more. Think of these as character actors in a movie. They may not be the “stars” of the show. They don’t really provide “energy” (or fuel) at all. Yet their dynamic interactions create the spark. They’re absolutely critical for energy, performance, mood, and optimal long-term health. In other words, without them, the show won’t go on. Unfortunately, the “food as fuel” story almost completely ignores these important characters,” writes Precision Nutrition’s John Beradi.  Read the rest of “Food is NOT Fuel” here.

9 thoughts on “Thinking beyond exercise as punishment and food as fuel

  1. this is a much better way to think about it!
    I stopped thinking about burning off food and about sensible eating for my current endevour about the same time I realised that exercising loads then pigging out on sweets was self defeating!(which I knew I just needed to kick myself up the bum!)

    I found out recently that it may take a certain about of burpees to burn off food, but only certain foods will power burpees…
    or to put it another way,when I ate a processed ready meal for the first time in months right before exercise, I ran out of energy surprisingly quickly!

    THe food is not fuel article is really interesting…I am only about half way through, but it struck home as last year my husband set himself on fire and had a mixture of first, second and third degree burns on his arms and face, he has also been type one diabetic since he was 5 so his immune system and healing is normally a bit iffy. After much internet research I found as much info as I could on which foods and nutrients will help burn victims heal and boost immune system and force fed him all of them! he healed much quicker than the hospital expected and much quicker than we expected, and has barely any scarring, just some on his hand! This proved absolutely the value of eating the right food for me!

    1. Yes, my daughter also had a severe burn injury. Lot of healing and a lot of calories and good nutrition to support it. Thanks for sharing

  2. Great point!

    I’ve definitely done the exercise as punishment thing. And the food as reward thing. And learned, like you, to see food as fuel. Now, I try not to worry so much whether or not I’m using food purely for my physical hunger or if I’m letting myself, say, go for ice cream because it’s warm out even if that’s not going to necessarily “fuel” my body optimally. I think ice cream is sort of like fuel for my whole being, not just my body ;)!

  3. I’ll definitely read that article. I’m still at the point where I’m fit and can run a lot, but I come home and pig out on whatever I want after. I want to get to that point where I can enjoy eating healthy foods – but still with burgers and poutine. 😉

  4. No I haven’t really thought of my cycling as punishment. At least I rarely think of cycling like that: I simply have to get from point A to B..efficiently and in an enjoyable manner.

    Food to me is partially cultural family memory: it’s partially an expression of my family’s identity. The techniques and type of dishes I prepare. I do a lot of these dishes without measuring and in near-sleep walking. How can express this?:

    I buy bitter melon, boy choy and very rarely do I ever consider nutrients. I just buy it because it’s part of “Me”, part of my eating habits, part of a food cooking legacy that subconsciously carry on from my mother.

    So I rarely see food as fuel..except when I’m on a 100 km. ride. I definitely consider how I am fuelling myself so I enjoy the ride but get to my destination safely.

  5. When I do goal setting with my students I remind them that rewards for meeting goals should be in line with what the goal is. ie: Losing 5lbs should not be rewarded with a slice of chocolate cake. In the reverse, I agree that exercise should never be punishment….for food or otherwise. It irks me to the nth degree when I see physical educators and coaches using things like line drills and laps as punishment for being late for practice or other failures in performance or attentiveness.

  6. I do think the chart is useful when applied to endurance sports…in my case, cycling. After a time on particularly long brevets ( 400k and greater), I find most food is just unappealing. Knowing what I have to choke down to complete the next leg of the event is really handy.
    90 kms to the next control stop? Exactly what do I have to eat to put 90kms of fuel in the tank .

    1. Something about this and a new way to label food was featured on the NBC nightly news this past week. Researchers suggest that it may make people more mindful of their food choices. They suggested putting only how many.minutes you would have to walk or run to burn the calories.

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