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The questions surrounding what to eat—and when—in our society are abundant: Did we exercise enough to earn our spaghetti dinner? Did we eat less before an extravagant meal so that we can feel less guilty enjoying it? Almost everyone has probably heard, or uttered, phrases like, “I deserve this meal because I went to the gym earlier.” But you don’t have to earn your food, and a meal should not just be a reward. Calories are necessary for our bodies—even without exercise—and food is a vital connection between people, their communities, and their heritage. So it’s time we started thinking about it that way. Here’s why.
You need more calories than you think
In simple terms, calories are units of energy that our bodies need to function. If we eat 400 calories of food, that is 400 units of energy that our body can then use. Our bodies don’t just need calories for movement and exercise. We need them for everyday living. “Our body uses more than 50 percent of its calories for basic life functions, such as keeping your heart beating and lungs breathing,” says performance dietitian Christina Chu. On average, the brain uses 240 to 320 calories a day (and a tiny bit more if you’re doing focused work), the liver 200 calories, the heart 440 calories, and both kidneys 420 calories. That’s 1,300 calories total, more than some diets allow for a daily limit. How we utilize calories also depends on numerous factors, including the type of food we eat, the body’s metabolism, and our gut microbiome.
Why should we talk about the term “earning food”?
“When we believe that food must be earned, we create a negative relationship with food, exercise, and our bodies,” says Jaimee Cooper, a performance dietitian based in Chattanooga, Tennessee. This leads to us viewing food in a hierarchical way, and in doing so, we associate a moral value to ourselves we when eat, categorizing foods into good and bad groups instead of recognizing that it provides more than just nutrients. This can also apply to our relationship with movement: oftentimes, we see exercise as an activity that earns food, instead of an activity that can make us physically stronger and supports mental health.
We should also remember that food represents much more than fuel to our bodies. Our meal choices are based on individual preferences, cultural heritage, finances, accessibility, and more. “My hope is that people can connect with the benefits of exercise and recognize that eating enough food is the way to get the most out of those benefits,” says Eling Tsai, a dietitian based in Brooklyn, New York.
What should active people eat?
Diversifying your plate is both a simple and proactive way to think about how to eat. Different nutrients are going to come from different foods. Some foods, like animal proteins (beef, poultry, oysters, etc.) and plant-based foods like fortified cereals, beans, and spinach, provide us with iron, which is crucial for maintaining healthy red blood cells and enhancing performance by preventing dizziness and fatigue. Carbohydrates provide sustained energy for physical activity. A variety of foods in our diet is going to provide us with different antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals and can also help support our gut microbiome, which is important for the immune system and heart.
Have the urge to skip a meal due to inactivity? Think again. Eating every three to four hours helps keep blood sugar consistent and optimizes stomach digestion, prevents lethargy, and could guard against heart health issues. “You need to eat more food than you think,” Cooper says. “It’s a popular myth that training fasted will burn more body fat. While the body may burn fat as fuel, it will also break down muscle as fuel too. Training with food can help your body work more efficiently to get you to push your body further.”
Practice makes perfect…sort of
There is no such thing as perfect eating because our needs as humans are individual—we are not going to have the same needs and preferences as the person next to us. Our own nutritional needs will also change daily due to our different movements, hormones, and lifestyles, which is completely normal. Tsai encourages people to tailor their nutrition to the type of exercise they are doing that day—a three-hour run will require different fuel than, say, a 45-minute yoga class. “Trial and error is one of the best ways to understand which foods work the best for you before and after you work out, and can make you feel the most confident,” Tsai says. And if you are still confused, a professional performance dietitian could help.
Most importantly, establishing a healthy relationship with food is essential for all of us. This means viewing food as fuel, but also celebrating its social and cultural aspects as well.