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Food is More than Fuel: Establishing a Healthy Relationship with Food this Holiday Season

Food is More than Fuel: Establishing a Healthy Relationship with Food this Holiday Season

Ani Freedman

When December begins, that is when I truly start to feel winter creeping in. A time marked by ice and snow, family feasts, wool hats and mittens, and plenty of Christmas cookies and Sufganiyot, or jelly-filled donuts for Hanukkah, this time of year can be comforting at one moment and distressing at another. Holiday celebrations and the prospect of easing up on our running to make time for family and recovery can be volatile territory as we navigate our relationships with fueling and body image. 

For runners, wintertime is often a good opportunity to focus on base-building, strength and cross-training, and to take a break from race-specific training with fall races behind us. We have time to relax with loved ones and to embrace other forms of movement to build muscle, power, and endurance before any race training may begin in late winter.

But even if you are not training for a race at this time (or you’re injured, like me, and can only cross-train), maintaining a good relationship with food is essential. Of course, the packed weeks of Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa are days overfilled with indulgent dinners and rich desserts. Moreover, they are precious memories to be shared with family and friends.

While the Turkey Trot is a time-honored tradition as the most popular race across the country, I’ve witnessed the rhetoric around a fun holiday race become colored by diet culture language as people use it to “earn” their Thanksgiving meal and justify the calories.

To me, the Turkey Trot is an opportunity for hundreds of people to gather and run, walk, push a stroller, or dance across a finish line with their loved ones. If you’re Olympic marathoner Molly Seidel, you’ll even do it in a turkey costume. This is a race unique from all others in that it doesn’t feel like it’s ever just been for runners, nor has it been about racing; it’s yet another example of how people will come together and wake up early on their day off to get outside for 3.1 miles and feel that rush of accomplishment and pride while having fun.

It’s a complicated relationship, the one between food and runners. Food is fuel for anyone, but especially for endurance athletes. And boy, can we eat. Carbs are our greatest friend and biggest craving, providing us the energy to sustain long runs, speed workouts, and strength sessions.

Once we have finished our goal race and enter the holiday season, how we perceive our training and our fueling can change. We may fear overeating after growing accustomed to the amplified hunger felt during training — even though our bodies are smart enough to adapt our hunger and fullness cues to less exercise. We want to enjoy holiday foods, but maybe not too much, because we wouldn’t want to gain weight and lose fitness — even though there’s no correlation between weight and health. We may even overexercise out of an anxious compulsion to burn off the meals and treats we’ve enjoyed — even though that only puts us at greater risk of injury. We may tell ourselves we shouldn’t eat as many carbs since we’re not running as much — even though carbs are our bodies’ preferred source of fuel, regardless of exercise.

In fact, our brains alone need a minimum of 130 grams of carbohydrates for daily function. That’s the equivalent of two slices of whole wheat bread, a large banana, a bowl of oatmeal, and an orange. And that doesn’t even include all the other organs in our bodies that depend on carbohydrates to function, along with simply needing energy to get through work or other daily activities. 

During the holidays, those carbs give us energy to make snowmen with children, laugh with our loved ones, go shopping for presents, and feel lively enough to create meaningful memories.

The second we define exercise as a way to earn our food, we rupture the association of those meals with glowing fireplace memories, hours spent in the kitchen to create scents of rosemary, sage, cinnamon, and nutmeg that flood the house, and the joy on our cooks’ faces when they see that smile conjured the second thoughtfully made food touches our lips.

Instead, when we tell ourselves we are “good” or “bad” for exercising or indulging, that food becomes a perceived threat to our bodies and our fitness. Those labels inflict moral judgment upon us, wrecking our minds with guilt and shame from a few meals once a year. In turn, harmfully fixating on what we are putting in our physical bodies can be detrimental to our mental wellbeing.

I’ll be clear that the food around this time of year isn’t typically packed with vitamins, micronutrients, and fiber, so overindulging is never in anyone’s best interest. Runners must be in tune with our bodies and take notice of the foods that make us feel our best during training, whether that’s in the off-season or not. In the winter, that may be a cookie before a run for some quick-digesting carbs and energy.

Being around family can be healing in its own rite, but I know it can also quickly become triggering as those family members work through their own relationships with food, out loud. During a big meal, we’ve undoubtedly heard comments from friends or family about how they “shouldn’t” eat another helping of something, how they “earned” dessert because they exercised that day or claim they just “won’t eat” the next day because they overate during a holiday celebration.

Sometimes, those comments move beyond self-flagellation as people project their own unhealthy relationships with eating and their bodies onto others. They may make comments like, “Are you sure you want to eat all that?” or “I wish I could eat that much,” or the worst of them all, they’ll comment on your body.

I never want anyone to feel shamed for what or how much they eat. Most of all, I never want anyone to feel ashamed of how they look. Our bodies are different, our appetites are different, our day-to-day cravings and hunger vary person to person. Especially for runners, it is crucial to remember that our eating and hydration needs are different than someone who doesn’t run. Our lifestyles simply beget a higher caloric intake; the recommendations of a someone not trained in nutrition, especially someone who doesn’t understand your personal needs, should not get in your head.

Shame does not breed a healthy relationship with food or your body, and that is more detrimental than an extra slice of pie.

The most important thing to remember is to listen to your body and treat it well. While it’s not in our best interest as endurance athletes to be eating mashed potatoes with gravy and a slice of pie every day of the year, under fueling is an even greater threat to our performance. If you know what makes your body feel good, you know better than anyone else what and how much to eat.

Food is More than Fuel

I’ve struggled with under fueling more than I’d care to admit. As a young woman, the pressures of maintaining a certain body type, especially as a runner, can feel suffocating. We want to be strong, but fear being too muscular. Thin body ideals are arbitrary, unrealistic goals as body types rely upon genetics, and the elite runners we see on social media have different physiological and genetic makeups — just as genetics vary from person-to-person.

In actuality, those elite runners are likely eating far more than the average person to compensate for their training. But in the sea of “What I Eat in a Day” videos and athletes posting workouts, meals, and muscular bodies, it’s easy to correlate their lifestyles to the bodies we may perceive as ideal. It can be easy to shame ourselves into thinking because we live, look, and fuel differently, we are not good enough.

It took me a long time to accept that more fuel was better. It took me even longer to embrace carbs as my friend, so I could run longer, faster, and feel stronger even outside of running. I’ve seen the difference. I’ve felt my energy levels remain high throughout the day, even after running 16 miles because I chose to take an extra gel or eat a bit more before the run. I’ve also felt heightened anxiety and utter depletion creep in the rest of the day if I choose not to.

I’ll admit that this time of year is messing with me, too. I haven’t run since my marathon in October because of an overuse injury — one that I partially accredit to my poor refueling immediately following the race. Without running, my perception of fueling, carbs, and indulgence has been warped. I fear overeating, unwanted changes in my body, and a lack of control over my appetite as I became accustomed to eating much more during training — and feeling more justified in doing so because of training.

But I recognize that is not the relationship with food I want.

I don’t want myself or anyone else to feel like food is justified because of running, because that is not why we run. We love this sport for so many reasons beyond “I get to eat more carbs.” We shouldn’t run to burn off a meal we’re ashamed of, because then we’re turning this beautiful sport into a tool of punishment. This time of year, we need to remember the freedom running gives our mind and bodies, the confidence and power we feel after a workout or race, and the joy of that runner’s high that we can share with others.

I praise the runners and athletes who don’t let these external and internal expectations dictate what fueling “should” be during an off-season. My mind is eased when I see athletes like myself with a healthy, vibrant, happy relationship with food who care about their bodies in ways beyond eating conventionally “healthy” foods, but understand that cultivating a good relationship with food, no matter which season of training (or not training) they are in, means cultivating a good relationship with their minds and bodies.

Our relationships with food are not really about the food on the plate, the calories burned or consumed, or the shapes of our bodies. As a human being, not even just runners, this relationship is about showing ourselves and one another kindness. A kind person does not tell their friend they’ve eaten too much, that they’ve gained or lost weight, or pester them about calories. And a smart runner does not deplete their body of necessary energy and joy.

Regardless of the time of year, how much or how little you exercise, food is life and joy and energy and love. The people who cook for us care for us. When we cook satisfying meals for ourselves, we are showing that we care about ourselves. When we eat the meals carefully crafted by our loved ones, we are telling them we appreciate the effort, and we accept their love. When we choose not to restrict, not to punish or shame ourselves for changes in our bodies or bountiful meals and delicious desserts, we are setting ourselves up for success, in running and in how we treat our bodies.

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