Educating ourselves that food is fuel

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Cherry tomatoes are a nutritious, colorful snack.

Several years ago, and for my entire life before that, I thought of food as something to satisfy hunger. Sometimes I thought of it as entertainment; think: a meal on an airplane, popcorn at the movie theater. One day, after listening to a health podcast, it occurred to me, food is fuel for our bodies. All of a sudden I looked at everything with a new eye. What nutrients did those Wheat Thins have to offer? What ingredients were in my ice cream? You thought it was just cream and sugar, right? Take a look next time. I began looking at foods like kale and liver with new interest.

We’ve been given directives from the government and our doctors over the last 30 or 40 years that are just not keeping up with changes in our food system as it gets bigger and bigger and bigger. “Eat more chicken,” they say. It will lower chances for heart disease. “Eat fewer eggs and you’ll lower your cholesterol.” But, over time, the quality of these foods has degraded. Cows and chickens started eating more and more grain and less and less forage (as is natural for them) and the Omega-6 fatty acids, the not-so-good-ones, climbed in comparison to Omega-3s, those are the good ones. Even the quality of soil for conventionally-raised fruits and veggies has degraded over the past 30 years. Now, more than ever, it is important to figure out how your food was raised. In fact, the meat from our grass-fed cows might be as low in fat and higher in Omega-3 fatty acids than that conventionally raised chicken at the grocery store. So quality definitely matters when you are doing your food shopping.

But thinking about nutrients doesn’t stop at conventional vs. organic—we also need to think about why we are eating. Our kids are learning how to eat with every meal, every morsel they put in their mouths. They’re learning emotional relationships about food, and they’re learning habits that will stick with them for a lifetime, or they’ll likely spend a lifetime trying to change those habits. In the age of high fructose corn syrup, low quality ingredients are everywhere—and nowhere more than in pre-packaged snacks. The packaged goods handed out after soccer games, during snack time at school, and as a means to keep kids quiet rarely offer much in the way of quality fuel for our young eaters and encourage mindless eating.

Luckily, we just have to retrain our eyes because high-quality ingredient snack food also abounds. How about a banana? Cherry tomatoes? A handful of nuts or my kids’ favorite: a mix of nuts, dried fruit and dark chocolate. Let’s use that snack to teach our kids about how to refuel their bodies after a workout or in between meals. Let’s teach them to be present and mindful while they are eating. And maybe we’ll teach ourselves as well.