Food as Fuel: What You Need to Know

You’ve probably heard the term, “food is fuel” at some point and to some degree, it’s correct. If you think about any different diets you’ve tried or spoken to any nutritionists or dietitians, they’ve probably agreed that you eat food as fuel to go about your day.

Food Can Be Fuel

I often compare eating throughout the day to the gas gauge on our car. Just like we need to fill our engines with gas to drive more efficiently, our bodies need fuel to operate most efficiently. In our case, that’s protein, fats and carbohydrates. These macronutrients break down into calories (aka energy), vitamins and minerals, that help us thrive and go about our day. We need energy to drive to work, to function at work (our brain runs on glucose), and to get through our workout. In these scenarios, food is certainly fuel.

Similarly, when talking about sports nutrition, we can certainly view food as fuel. There are things to eat before a workout that can help enhance performance, as well as ideal things to eat after a workout to recover quicker and more efficiently. If we’re exercising for hours at a time, we’re likely going to need food and supplements to “fuel” that exercise.

Fueling Exercise Facts Vs. Fiction

There is a great deal of confusion about what’s best in terms of food pre- and post-workout. Let’s break down some common exercise and fueling questions:

What Should You Eat After a Workout? Most people think protein and protein only. But, protein is only part of the equation. You want to pair protein with carbohydrate. Together, carbohydrates and protein work efficiently to replenish and rebuild muscle stores. Carbohydrates also stimulate insulin, an anabolic hormone that helps with muscle building and bringing carbohydrates into the muscles. So, whether you’re engaging in endurance exercise or strength training, both macronutrients are equally important for refueling and replenishment.

How Much Should You Eat After a Workout? While exact quantities vary based on the individual makeup of a person, a person’s specific nutrition/exercise goals, aesthetic goals, and the type of activity completed, the general recommendation is a 3:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein. Some great options would be chocolate milk (yes, it really is great for refueling!), greek yogurt with fruit/cereal, oatmeal with fruit, a turkey sandwich, or a stuffed sweet potato. Our bodies can only absorb a certain amount of protein at a time. Therefore, it’s more efficient to evenly spread protein intake throughout the day rather than loading your smoothie with 50 grams of protein at one meal and then skimping on protein the rest of the day.

What Workouts Require Refueling?

If you’re training for a 5k and just going out for your 3-mile training run, you probably don’t need an additional post-workout snack. If you’re exercising for longer than an hour and/or training for an event, it’s worth refueling your muscles so they can be ready the following day.

How Soon Should You Eat After a Workout?

As far as the time period for refueling, we used to tell people within a 30-60 minute window. We now know that window of opportunity may be longer, as muscles will continue to take up fuel for the next 24 hours. However, the sooner you eat something, the sooner your muscles can start the repair and rebuild process.

Food also contains specific antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties to help the repairing and rebuilding processes as well. Yes, food can certainly be medicinal and “fuel” us.

What About Outside of Exercise?

Remember, our bodies aren’t machines. We don’t operate the same way everyday. Just as we don’t eat the same amount of calories daily, we also don’t burn the same amount of calories day in and day out. While some of us may have a routine in place, we often don’t eat the same three meals every day, or do the same form or amount of exercise. We likely won’t even eat the same pre- or post-workout snack every time we exercise. We’re humans – we crave fluidity and variety.

Food also has a role outside of fueling us. Only looking at food as fuel for exercise takes away the notion that sometimes we eat out of enjoyment. Sometimes we eat foods for reasons exclusive to exercise or outside of nutrition – we want pleasure or comfort, or we want to satisfy a craving. Food is emotional. It’s nostalgic, and it’s what we create new memories around. We celebrate birthdays, housewarmings and going away parties with food and drink. It’s supposed to be enjoyable and have emotion attached to it.

So, while food is certainly fuel, it can also be so much more.



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Sarah is a Registered Dietitian, writer, blogger, runner and recipe developer in the Lake Norman area. She’s also a new mom to a baby girl, and is still transitioning to the steep learning curve of first time motherhood. She writes about nutrition, running and healthy recipes on her blog, Bucket List Tummy. To see what she’s up to or find her checking things off her bucket list, follow her on instagram – @bucketlisttummy_rd.


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This article was written by one of the many QC women who contribute to our website. They are out and about and around Charlotte digging up the latest & best scoop 🙂