Is Food Really Just Fuel?
11/08/2022 | Andrew Tracey
Andrew Tracey is a long time collaborator with Bulldog Gear. A coach, writer and current fitness editor of Men’s Health Magazine, he has been in and around the fitness industry for the past 17 years. Having enjoyed and endured a number of disciplines from endurance racing, to strongman, to Crossfit AT enjoys getting neck deep in the practice just as much as the theory.
There's an idea amongst hardcore nutritional nihilists that food is nothing more than fuel.
Our bodies are refineries, evolutionarily designed to take any food, whether culinary delight or unpalatable disaster and transmute it into a substrate for action.
The details they argue are unimportant. We pump in a cocktail of macronutrients and the needle shifts out of the red, our tank filled, ready to drive on in the never ending daily commute to the grave.
It's a sound notion, that in many ways science gives a thumbs up to. Stripped of context and nuance it's not necessarily even ‘wrong’, even if it is an incredibly somber interpretation.
But in the real world it’s the wishful thinking of the reductionist, often looking for a ‘NO BS!’ hook with which to reel in wannabe pragmatists, those seeking a novel new solution to replace the desperately overcomplicated (and woefully dubious) nutritional ideas they’ve been hoodwinked by in the past.
There is a very real transactional relationship between the foods we consume and the lives we live, but it’s far, far more complicated than the simple cause and effect trade of ‘calories for kilometres’ that the acolytes of the food is fuel movement argue for.
So it’s about quality of fuel, right?
Further exploration of ‘human being as machine’ logic, reveals the belief that just like fuel for your car, quality of fuel matters- ‘You wouldn’t run a performance car on cheap fuel!’ or words to that affect, are catchy idioms that look good on instagram posts and that seem to make sense, at least on the surface.
But dive a little deeper and you’ll quickly find yourself in very murky waters.
How do we define quality?
The temptation is to continue to follow the ‘fuel’ rationale. What then can you find in your kitchen that bears the most resemblance (metaphorically at least), to the premium, high octane, super fuel you’ll find coursing through the injectors of pedigree performance cars?
You don’t have to look far for inspiration. Diet culture is full of misnomers, half truths and outright whoppers about what makes ‘good, clean food’. Generally speaking, a handy rule of thumb for identifying foods that devotees to the cult of clean eating would find appeasing is to search for a good ratio of micronutrient density to calorie sparsity, in foods that are as least removed from ‘nature’ as possible, the more ‘positive’ buzzwords that wouldn’t sound out of place on the weapons specs of the Death Star, the better.
At first glance this probably seems like it makes perfect sense, surely if we want to be firing on all cylinders, with minimal wear and tear and maximum economy, we want to be burning the purest fuel possible?
A very sound proposition indeed.
So perhaps we are just all meat vehicles made up of sinew and flesh, requiring regular top ups of the cleanest substrates in order to achieve the most comfortable mileage.
Food then, is just fuel?
Except it isn’t ‘just’ anything. In fact in my experience, it’s very rare that anything is just one thing.
The complexities of human behaviour mean that most subjects become nuanced, especially one as intrinsically important to us as food, a subject that we must all engage with, every single day, for as long as we live.
Of course, much like your car you must top up the tank to continue chugging along uninterrupted, but I’m going to hazard a guess that your car has never experienced a bad day at work that led it to stopping at it’s favourite petrol station, inserting the nozzle of a pretty low octane pump and going on a high pressure bender until it’s tank overflowed onto the forecourt, washing that down with a quick blast of an even more questionable quality fuel.
In fact, there’s every likelihood your car has no ‘favourite’ form of fuel at all.
No memories come rushing back to it as the familiar smell of a favourite childhood food comes wafting out of the kitchen.
No rising feelings of warmth and contentment at the thought of enjoying a meal with a loved one.
No overwhelming sense of fulfilment, biting into a slice of birthday cake and somehow tasting the otherwise ethereal concept that is another’s love for you.
Food has baggage. Glorious baggage, but baggage.
Food has cultural, social, historical, emotional value that must be considered when we attempt to define it’s quality.
Food means many things, to many people- for some it can simply be fuel, but those people are few and far between, for the vast majority of us food is a lifelong companion with whom our relationship is ever changing.
For better or for worse.
To reduce that relationship to it’s raw, transactional value, is tempting. It may seem useful, pragmatic. To be able to simply ‘consume and process’, without any of the additional, ornamental horseplay.
But what would we lose in that process?
Would you trade away the satisfaction of the first sip of a cold beer on a warm holiday?
The nostalgia overdose of going back to Mum’s for a gravy soaked, Sunday lunch?
Food is fuel, but it fuels so much more than just the firing of motor units.
The valuation of it’s quality far more complex than it’s ability to repair muscle tissue or restore glycogen.
For some this is problematic. For some it’s easily embraced. For most of us it’s simply bittersweet.
But I personally wouldn’t rush to change the dynamic, for fear of losing more than I’d set out to gain.
Like most relationships, we must establish boundaries, attempt to understand the inherent benefits and drawbacks, audit when and why we choose to make certain decisions, and overall- endeavour to nurture the relationship in a manner that’s conducive to our own well-being.
But food is far more than the sum of it’s parts; it’s the sum of our experiences.
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