Saying “food is just fuel” is like saying “sex is just reproduction—”
It’s unrealistic, misses the point, and may be encouraging rebellious or “deviant” behavior. While many think the “food is just fuel” paradigm is the “answer” to ending emotional and/or binge-eating, I’m fairly sure it’s spurring it on.
Here are some ways in which food is NOT like fuel, and why trying to view it that way may be sabotaging your efforts to “control yourself.”
1. Like sex, pleasure plays play a crucial biological role in our lives.
Without pleasure, we don’t hear the subtle signals in our bodies that let us know how much and when to eat.
Furthermore, when we deny ourselves enjoyment in food and just eat what we “think we should,” we feel chronically unsatisfied, spend inordinate amounts of time fantasizing about food, and quite often, end up binge-eating.
And guess what usually happens after we “fall off the wagon?” We try to quiet that “I-suck-I’m-such-a-failure” voice with as many Oreos as we can possibly fit into our mouths at one time.
2. This mindset sets us up for shame.
When we tell ourselves “food is just fuel,” we shame ourselves for eating foods that don’t fit into the “food is just fuel” paradigm, even though it’s nearly impossible to stick with 100% of the time, given the fact that food is an inherent part of our cultural, social, and emotional experience.
When we don’t acknowledge the obvious — that Apple Pie will always be a part of the 4th of July, and croissants will always be a part of Paris — we feel guilty and can’t fully enjoy celebratory experiences, cultural experiences, social experiences and more. In other words, food starts to inhibit what’s possible in our lives, rather than support us in being awesome.
(PS — when our lives are really small because we’re staying at home counting baby carrots, instead of out to dinner with our friends, we get sad and depressed. And then we end up eating over our feelings. It's a vicious cycle.
3. Eating IS emotional. Deal with it.
There will always be a part of us that loves meatloaf and mashed potatoes, because it’s what our mother made us when we were young and it holds emotional significance in our lives. Maybe meatloaf and mashed potatoes is something we will always eat for comfort sometimes — and that’s OK.
We have to be a little bit flexible around emotional eating, otherwise, we’re just setting ourselves up for failure, or going on the “don't-eat-emotionally diet,” which just like any other diet, makes us feel shameful when we're "bad" and thus directly causes binge-eating.
Now, of course, using food to nourish us emotionally in lieu of developing other coping mechanisms is problematic for our health — the goal is not to sit around eating chips all day — but for those struggling with emotional eating, the “answer” may be different than you think...
There is consistent research that "restrained eaters" (i.e. dieters) are caused to overeat by emotions such as depression, anxiety, and fear, while "unrestrained eaters" experience the reverse — their appetites are turned off in the face of uncomfortable emotions. Given this information, we may be able to conclude that emotional eaters who stop dieting and/or feeling guilty about what they eat may naturally start to develop a wide range of coping mechanisms outside of food, while chronic dieters will not.
Furthermore, given sufficient access to a variety of food types (i.e. you can afford and have consistent physical access to healthful foods), non-dieters generally make choices that are in line with their health without restricting themselves, as they're more trusting and in tune with their hunger, satiety, and biological needs.
Dropping the "food is just fuel" paradigm—or any other beliefs you have about food that encourage restriction, or make you feel ashamed of your relationship with food—is a good first step in ending the diet-binge cycle once and for all.
I promise you won't end up sitting around eating doughnuts all day long, and if you find yourself in that position, you're likely dealing with underlying shame, fear, or self-judgement.
For those in need of more resources around this topic, check out my free intro guide, How To Not Eat Chocolate Cake.