How to Train Yourself to See Food as Fuel

Source: Daria Shevtsova | Pexels
Source: Daria Shevtsova | Pexels

For about as long as I can remember, I’ve had a complicated relationship with food. My grandparents, all children of the Depression era, taught my siblings and I to never waste food — if it was on the table, it was to be eaten. (My grandpa spent years of his childhood unsure of when his next meal would be — he was raised to eat accordingly, and it was a practice he somewhat-unintentionally passed along to his grandchildren).

While I was raised to be a member of the Clean Your Plate Club, it definitely wasn’t a struggle for me — I loooove food. For my entire life, great meals have been a means of celebration, an expression of love, and a facet of life around which to gather. I’m very lucky — I’ve never gone hungry, and I’ve tried and enjoyed a lot of amazing food — I do not take that for granted.

All that being said, though, I’ve also had my fair share of body image issues, and there has been many a time in which I’ve wished I didn’t enjoy food and eating so much. I’ve been known to eat emotionally, to eat too much in celebration or in sadness. I succumb to my period cravings, and I’ve genuinely never met a bowl of queso I didn’t love. I work out 5-6 days a week, but I’ve always wanted to have a healthy enough relationship with food to not overindulge just because I exercise. Like I said — complicated.

These conflicting feelings beg a few questions: Is it possible to love food AND love your body? What SHOULD I be eating that tastes good but that also feeds my body? How can I help myself to create a healthier relationship with food — something every human being literally needs to stay alive?

I talked to Ellie Rome, a certified health and wellness coach, to learn more about how to train yourself to view food as what it truly is — fuel for our body and its many incredible functions.


First off, we want to switch our mindset to seeing food as fuel. What practices or changes should we adopt?


The first step is to simply bring awareness to WHY you are reaching for food. “Am I actually hungry?” “Why am I reaching for food?”  Are two of the most powerful questions when it comes to changing your relationship with food.

The food you fuel yourself with is EVERYTHING. From your energy, your mood, your skin, to your personality, all of it starts with what is on the end of your fork. You get to choose how good you feel, and learning which foods work for your unique body is essential for optimal performance in every area of life. Honor where you are, and start to tune in. The best fuel for you may not be the same as your best friend’s or your mom. What I help my clients figure out as quickly as possible is what is right for their unique bodies.

There are so many foods commonly deemed as “healthy” that can actually drain your energy, make you hold onto weight, and bring your body down. Many foods also have addictive properties like sugar and carbs that can bring about self-destructive eating habits. One of the best ways to break free from these foods is through mindfulness practice, elimination, and reintroduction protocols. This is what I work on with my clients one-on-one, and it leads to massive transformations in their health and relationships with food.


There are so many foods commonly deemed as “healthy” that can actually drain your energy, make you hold onto weight, and bring your body down.



What nutrients should I be sure to get every single day?


Focus on balancing your plate with fiber, healthy fat, and protein. You can get your fiber from lots of vegetables; protein from sources like sustainably raised meats, organic eggs, nuts, and seeds; and healthy fats from sources like avocado oil, olives, and coconut oil.

Greens, greens, greens! If you have difficulty getting your veggies in throughout the day with a busy schedule or without time for meal prep, you can get a powdered organic green supplement to add to a protein shake or water in the mornings.


Source: @swellbottle


How much water do I really need to drink every day?


Your minimum target should be half of your body weight in ounces a day, but shoot for your full body weight in ounces.  So if you weigh 140 lbs, your minimum target should be 70 ounces, and aim for 140 ounces.


Does the amount of water I need change depending on my workout?


Yes! If you are doing vigorous exercise and sweating a lot like with hot yoga, outdoor running, boot camps, etc., you definitely need to add additional water. These are the days you should meet your target of full body weight in ounces.


Do I need extra calories on days I exercise?


It depends on you and the intensity of the exercise. I recommend tuning in to your own hunger signals and energy levels.

Ideally on days without exercise for a general protocol, shoot for three balanced meals a day and minimize snacking. Allow 4-6 hours between meals, so your body can tap into your fat stores for energy. If you are getting hungry in between, it is a good sign to add more healthy fat, fiber, and protein at your meals. Depending on how you feel, you may need a pre or post-workout meal which wouldn’t count into the three meals per day.   


Do I need extra protein on days I exercise?


This depends on what type of exercise and the intensity of exercise, as well as your personal health goals. If you are doing vigorous exercise or have body-building goals, increasing your protein intake may be necessary. I work with my clients to customize their personalized targets based on their goals and specific goals for health, mind, and body.


Can I really eat extra carbs after cardio?


I love this question as it allows us to open up to a re-frame! Changing the mentality of “earning carbs or earning extra calories” by working out. Release the old mentality of trying to exercise our way out of an unhealthy diet. It does not work, as it is so much more than calories in=calories out. The quality of your food, as mentioned earlier, is EVERYTHING. Fueling yourself with the right foods is going to give you the energy and fuel to WANT to move your body.

As we change our relationship with food, it is a beautiful release when you can allow yourself to have whatever you desire, but the key is tuning in to what those true desires are. What you ACTUALLY want for your best self. So instead of the “Can I really eat X, Y, Z?” or “Did I earn a cookie, because I just ran five miles?” Let’s reframe the question to, “Is it optimal for my body and energy to choose healthy, higher-carb options after cardio?” or “What does my body need post-cardio workout?”

For this re-framed question, it again depends on the intensity and quality of the exercise and listening to your body. You may not need a post-workout meal or snack if you are getting enough nutrients at your meals and/or your workout wasn’t too intense to require the extra carbohydrates. Pay attention to how you feel. You may have to experiment and notice if you feel any fogginess, fatigue, or slow recovery time. These are all signs you may need to add additional carbs after your cardio workouts.  In general, if you are going to eat higher carb meals or snacks, after cardio is a more optimal time because following intense exercise, your muscles are able to use those carbs, but choose nutrient-dense carb sources (like sweet potato, butternut squash, apples, or coconut flour) and pair them with protein (like adding nuts, healthy jerky, almond butter, etc.).


Source: Pinch of Yum


On days I don’t work out, what foods should I avoid?


Regardless of working out or not, you should avoid highly-refined carbs and liquid sugars. (That would include muffins, breakfast cereal, bread, fruit juices, fruit smoothies, sodas, etc.).

On days you don’t work out, be more mindful of carb intake and be mindful to pair carbs with additional fiber from vegetables and protein to help keep blood sugar balanced.

Another tip is to honor your true hunger. On days you don’t work out, you probably don’t need to eat as much because you aren’t burning as much energy. So listen to your body and tune into your true hunger signals vs. emotional eating or head hunger.

Sometimes on days we don’t work out, we may feel more lethargic or stressed, which can both be triggers for wanting to reach for food. Notice these tendencies and ask “Am I actually hungry?” Drink plenty of water and fuel yourself with more delicious fibrous vegetables, clean protein sources, and healthy fats. If you can, get movement in throughout the day even if you don’t have a dedicated “workout.”


What should I eat directly before a workout?


This is totally person-dependent as well, and also has to do with intensity of exercise. Typically if you are going to eat a pre-workout meal, include a small portion of protein and healthy fat. Avoid carb dense pre-workout snacks, (you could do a protein shake). I recommend organic, grain, dairy, and soy free varieties with a little healthy fat like coconut milk or half of an avocado.


What should I eat directly after a workout?


Post-workout meals are again dependent on your personal energy levels and exercise intensity. You may not need a post workout meal — listen to your body. If you do need something to eat, I recommend a meal-sized portion of digestible protein, and a serving of carb-dense vegetables like sweet potato, butternut squash, pumpkin, beets, etc. Avoid fruit and minimal fat for post-workout meal.

Source: Los Muertos Crew | Pexels

How does caffeine play into my energy levels? Does caffeine help or hurt a workout?


This is totally dependent on the person. Moderate amounts of caffeine can be great for some people and healthy in the right amounts. However, using caffeine to force yourself to work out when you are exhausted or drained is counterintuitive and leads to high levels of cortisol (our stress hormone), which puts lots of stress on the body, promotes adrenal fatigue, and can lead to lower energy, hormone imbalance, weight gain, and slow recovery times.

Sleep and rest are number one. Moving your body is important, but honor your sleep and tune into what your body is calling for.


What’s your best snack solution for that 3pm slump?


My best solution for 3pm slump snack is to avoid it all together! How to do this?



Eat nutrient-dense breakfast and lunch that won’t put you on the blood sugar roller coaster. Include healthy fat, fiber, and protein and minimize carbs and sugar.



Make sure you are drinking enough water throughout your day. This is CRUCIAL for energy, weight loss, and avoiding food cravings. Shoot for half your body weight in ounces per day. So if you are 140 lbs, at minimum should be getting 70 ounces of water per day.  



Moving throughout our day is an amazing way to beat that 3pm slump. Even just getting up and taking 250 steps each hour, as tracked in most Fitbits, is so beneficial to your energy, immune system, and overall well-being, (especially if you can get those steps in the sun!). Embrace movement to keep things flowing and flushed out.

Release perfectionism or the all-or-none mentality. Even five minutes of movement are better than none. IF you can’t fit in an hour work out, try to fit in little bursts throughout your day! You can plan a walk after lunch as well to help digestion and to get your energy back up.


But if you are still experiencing that 3pm slump and looking for energy or a snack:


Choose a healthy, balanced snack that isn’t going to give you a quick hit of energy followed by an even worse crash, (like a sugary Coke, candy bar, pretzels, or bag of chips). Find something with protein, healthy fat, and fiber, like apples with almond butter, or some nuts with dairy-free dark chocolate (70% or greater cacao content).

Other great options are grainless, dairy-free protein bars that aren’t loaded with sugar (Ideally <15 g) and have a good amount of fiber (Ideally >3g), like an RX bar, or some grainless crackers (like Flackers with Kite Hill Dairy Free Cream cheese!).


For more from Ellie, check out her website and Instagram! Tell us: Do YOU struggle to treat food as fuel?