Food is fuel

It’s something I’ve known for a long time, but lately I’ve been reminded of it more and more: what you put in your body directly affects how it functions.

It seems so simple – because everyone knows we eat for energy and nutrition. But at the same time, we don’t. We eat because things taste good or are cheap or suit our cravings. Too often, we forget that eating is really about providing what our bodies need to function at their best.

Tosca Reno’s latest column in Oxygen reminded me of just how detrimental sugar can be. Also, she makes the excellent but often unacknowledged point that sugar is addictive, which I know from experience is true. I’m one of those people who have a hard time resisting anything sweet, and the more sugar I eat, the more I crave sweets. And that’s bad.

Besides the obvious traps of desserts and sugary cereals, sugar sneaks its way into many non-sugary foods, including breads, meats and frozen produce. Anything processed? Chances are it’s loaded with sugar and sodium. That’s a problem because replacing complex carbohydrates or whole grains with refined sugar greatly reduces the nutritional value of what we eat and hollowly fills us up, causing hunger to yo-yo throughout the day.

Sugar’s like a drug in the way it provides a buzz and then a crash, wreaking havoc on our blood sugar and energy levels. Like caffeine, it interrupts focus and sleep cycles. It can ruin teeth and cause skin to break out. It contributes to headaches, mood swings and depression.

I’ve seen this in myself lately, as I’ve fallen off the healthy food wagon a little, and as a result I’ve had more headaches than usual. It’s hard for me to focus after a sweet snack. I’ve had trouble falling asleep, I wake up repeatedly throughout the night and in the mornings I feel less refreshed.

When I’m staying on track and eating mostly fruits and vegetables, yogurt and nuts, whole grains and good carbs, my body feels good. I wake up feeling healthy and energized. I can focus throughout the day. My hair and skin look good. When I get in bed at the end of the day, I can quickly fall asleep and sleep well through the night.

Since I’ve gotten more into running, I’ve also seen how greatly what I eat impacts my abilities. If I eat unhealthily one day, I feel it on the treadmill the next. I’m lethargic or feel weighed down. Eating late at night and eating empty calories also make it harder to keep my legs moving and my breath flowing.

But it’s not just sugar that causes these changes. Everyone’s body reacts different to different things. For me, cutting out meat brought huge improvements in my energy, sleep, skin and digestion. I never realized that my cramps and stomach aches were likely because my body has a hard time digesting meat until I became a vegetarian and those problems disappeared.

Some people have a hard time with dairy, some with gluten. Certain vegetables cause indigestion for some while fish or spices don’t sit with others. It’s so important for people to listen to these things,  to pay attention to different how foods affect us, because everyone’s body chemistry and needs are different. But, as a universal rule, we should all watch out for sugar, both in sweets and as refined carbs, because they’re getting us all down.

And with all the temptations of holiday treats and free end-of-semester food, that extra reason to be selective is important when calorie motivation is waning.


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