I’m amazed at the power of food: It’s packed with meaning, information and communication.
Every food decision we make sends a message to our body.
Every food choice is an opportunity to direct, shape, and remake our health, our body composition, our performance, and our well-being.
Fitness and nutrition professionals often say that to get in shape, you have to treat ‘food as fuel.’ I’ve been guilty of this and after undergoing my own transformation, and now progressing towards more changes, I disagree. Here’s why.
Have you heard this or something similar to this? (I bet you have): “The human body is like a Ferrari. You have to give it the right sort of fuel or else the engine will gunk up and the Ferrari will break down.”
Just the other day I posted up a poll on Facebook asking my Community Group what they thought food was. Out of all the responses, “fuel” appeared 77% of the time.
That’s when it really hit home: For most people, particularly fitness people, “fuel” is the only story they can tell about food.
Food is so much more than ‘fuel’ or ‘energy’ or ‘calories'
For one thing, even if we’re looking at food purely in terms of its physiological effects (energy and calories), we are only telling part of the story.
You’ve probably heard the term ‘macronutrients’. These are the proteins, carbohydrates, and fat in food that contains the ‘energy’ or ‘calories’. But food also includes micronutrients, phytochemicals, zoochemicals, water, and more.
Think of these as the side character actors in a movie: they may not be the “stars” of the show as they don’t really provide “energy” (or fuel) at all, yet 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. So let’s briefly talk about them here.
Micronutrients: Vitamins and minerals
We need vitamins and minerals in our diet. Without them, our bodies break down.
For example, calcium helps:
- build bones,
- clot blood,
- regulate blood pressure,
- keep our muscles and heart pumping, and
- maintain cell communication.
Magnesium plays a role in more than 300 enzyme systems and helps with:
- protein synthesis,
- muscle and nerve function,
- blood sugar control,
- blood pressure regulation,
- energy production, and
- transport of other minerals.
Folate (vitamin B9) helps:
- convert food into energy,
- the nervous system (including the brain) function,
- tissues grow
- red blood cell production.
None of these nutrients provide ‘fuel’
This may be one reason why vitamin and mineral deficiencies are extremely common. When we only think of food as fuel, it’s easy to forget that we’re eating for other reasons too.
When you’re missing key vitamins and minerals, your body doesn’t work properly. You feel rotten. And you get sick. And that’s true no matter how much fuel is in the Ferrari.
Now let’s meet the phytochemicals.
This is a really big grouping of nutrients (phyto = plant) that definitely affects your health.
These nutrients have been shown to:
- offer DNA protection against free radicals,
- protect against cancer,
- decrease risk of heart disease, and
- reduce overall mortality.
Of course, like the micronutrients, phytochemicals don’t provide ‘fuel’.
Zoochemicals are like the animal cousins of phytochemicals.
Present in animal foods (zōon = animal), these nutrients have profound health effects.
Many zoochemicals are fat-soluble, which means they’re present in animal fats. That’s why avoiding (or limiting) animal fat intake will also limit zoochemical intake.
These nutrients have been shown to:
- reduces Inflammation
- reduces risks of blood clotting or platelet aggregation
- improve Eye Health (Lutein, Zeazanthin, Omega 3)
- protect against cancer
- improve brain functions
- improve the immune system
Like phytonutrients, zoochemicals don’t provide ‘fuel’.
Food is So Much More than Fuel, and You’re So Much More Complex than a Ferrari
You are not a machine. You’re a living organism that’s incredibly complex.
If you’ve spent any time doing counting calories, you’ll know that trying to calculate precise inputs and outputs is frustrating.
Perhaps you ate more calories than you thought you should… but got leaner.
Or you ate fewer calories than you thought you should… and gained weight (or you didn’t lose that last stubborn 5 kilos.)
Or you started eating breakfast instead of skipping it… and dropped a couple of centimetres off your waistline.
According to the simplistic ‘food as fuel’ view, none of this should be possible. Yet it happens all the time.
Because human bodies aren’t combustion engines. They’re complex, dynamic, organic, and infinitely sensitive systems.
More like the complete cast (and director, and producer) of a fantastic movie than they are like a car. Even a fancy car, like a Ferrari.
For example: Research now shows that all food isn’t created equal, and what we eat isn’t necessarily what we absorb.
Dozens — maybe even hundreds — of factors affect how we digest, process, and use the food we eat.
This means that the fuel, or calorie, value of food outside the body isn’t necessarily the same as the value inside the body.
Our bodies have their own priorities. For instance, the body will extract nutrients to keep you alive by any means necessary, often making tough compromises along the way.
This would be sort of like the Ferrari suddenly driving itself to the petrol station and holding up the cashier until it gets what it needs, or cannibalising its own headlights for fuel.
What’s more, your body isn’t even completely ‘human’.
Much of our digestion and nutrient extraction is done by the trillions of microbial critters living in and on us.
Analysis of our bacterial environments shows that each of us has an individual gut flora ‘microbiome’, like a fingerprint. Changing our microbiome changes our digestion and absorption, and hence our body composition and health.
We’re incredibly complicated, self-organising, agenda-driven, only-sorta-human systems.
The Ferrari should be jealous!
Food is… information
So if the ‘food as fuel’ story is limited, unimaginative, and — ultimately — incorrect, what is food?
Food is — in part — information.
Sort of like a script. It tells the ‘actors' in our bodies how to perform.
When we eat, we’re really delivering messages:
- do this,
- don’t do this,
- release this hormone,
- don’t release that one,
- express this protein,
- don’t express that one.
We’re essentially sending instructions that kick off a chemical chain letter.
It’s really quite amazing. Each molecule of food contributes to a beautiful cascade of events, sending all kinds of signals throughout our bodies.
Make hormones! Trigger immune cells! Switch genes on and off! Tell the work crew to clean up and the builders to get on standby!
Lights! Camera! Action!
It’s like the biggest, busiest movie set you can imagine. And somehow — unlike many film sets — it runs almost perfectly.
Our bodies process millions of calories and (let’s be scientific about this) zillions of chemical compounds a year, with nearly 100% efficiency. (Just for comparison, petrol-powered engines, like our Ferrari, would be happy to hit 30% efficiency.)
Even cooler, our thoughts, feelings, and environment can affect these processes.
If we smell a tasty meal, have a positive or negative thought about food (or anything else), are happy and relaxed or worried and rushing… it affects nutrient processing.
But let’s start by looking at what happens when we actually consume food.
As we eat, our bodies sense incoming nutrients, and send signals to our brain to let it know what is coming in.
Here are just a few examples of the different messages food delivers.
The Carb Message
When we eat carbohydrates — it doesn’t matter which type — our blood sugar goes up. Almost all carbohydrates — from sugars to starches — are broken down to the same thing: glucose.
Glucose carries the 'carbohydrate message’ that tells your gut to release various molecules and send them to your pancreas.
These molecules then tell your pancreas to release the hormone insulin.
Grabbing the chemical note and running with it, insulin prepares the rest of your body for the glucose that’s about to appear. Muscle, brain, and fat cells open their mailboxes and get ready to take in the glucose delivery.
Your pancreas then releases other stuff to tell your brain that there’s incoming food.
The more messages, and the more they keep coming (i.e. the higher these chemicals rise and/or the longer they stay elevated), the more your brain believes that you’ve had enough food. (A bit like when you’re drowning in e-mail and want to yell, “Enough!“)
Here, food is information. It’s communication. It’s a set of instructions that you give your body to accomplish amazing things.
Here’s another example.
The Protein and Fat Messages
Proteins and fats also spin a good yarn.
When they’re broken down, their ‘messages’ tell the gut to release a hormone that tells the pancreas to make certain enzymes that help digest the chicken wings now sitting in your small intestine.
That same hormone tells the gallbladder to release bile (which helps with fat digestion and absorption). It also tells the brain you’ve had enough to eat.
And while it’s popped in on the brain, it stays for a little chat with other neurotransmitter systems in the brain, such as the system which is involved in pain management and mood.
These Cells were Made for Talking
Digestion is just the story’s introduction. When these digested food compounds reach our cells, there is a communication festival.
Cells put protein components to work making hormones, enzymes, structural proteins, and of course, building muscle.
Fat components are used to make hormones and become integrated into our cell membranes. They control inflammation pathways.
Carbohydrate components are used to maintain proper hormone status (such as thyroid, testosterone, and leptin to a degree).
These responses are simply for incoming macronutrients.
Micronutrients, phytochemicals and zoochemicals also carry their own messages and communicate other unique information to the body:
- Some tell the body to boost our own natural antioxidant defence systems.
- Others help our antioxidant defence systems do their job.
- Some tell the body to make enzymes that devour cancer.
- Others attack cancer directly.
- Some stick around in our intestines and protect us from damaging compounds.
- Others bind the damaging compounds and carry them out of the body.
Yackity yak yak yak. You can’t shut these chemical communicators up. (And that’s a good thing.)
Time to Create your Food Story
So, take a few minutes and consider this question: What is food? For you?
Is it fuel? Is it information? Is it personal freedom? Is it shame? Is it self-esteem?
Then consider this question: What would you like food to be?
For me it’s a story that shapes my daily life - how I look, my health, and how I function.
Want Help with your Food Story?
If you’d like some help and support as you develop a new food story in your life, I’d be happy to help. In fact, I’ll soon be taking applications for people to undertake a 12 Week Metabolic Precision Challenge that will take people through the process of making food work for them to help build muscle, burn fat, and help recover after exercise.
I will only be accepting a small number of new clients, and I believe the spots in the program will sell out fast. However, those motivated enough to put themselves on the wait list will get a look in before everyone else.
So click the link below to put your name on the wait list as applications for spots will be processed first come, first served, and when they’re gone, they’re gone.