Canadian Running

Food as Fuel

Why food and exercise should not be viewed as transactio­nal

- By Stephanie MacNeill

Just as exercise should not be punishment, food should not be viewed as a reward for exercising. Seems simple, right? But in practice, it’s not that easy. Think of how many times you’ve said, “I’m not running today, so I can’t eat carbs” or “I did a long run today, so I deserve this treat” or “I ate too much last night, so I need to run longer today.”

If you’ve ever found yourself thinking along these lines, you’re not alone. The concept that you need to earn your treats and work off your indulgence­s is all too common, but also self-defeating. Exercise becomes a way of fixing your perceived shortcomin­gs, and food becomes either a treat or a tool for self-deprivatio­n. (No wonder people don’t like healthy eating or exercise, and struggle to stick with either!)

Food shouldn’t be a reward

Beside fuelling activity, food is meant to be enjoyed. Think of the calories burned during exercise as calories you must replace—with (mostly) healthy food that you enjoy. (And it’s OK to enjoy an occasional doughnut or a glass of wine.) Consistent­ly “rewarding” a hard workout with junk food is usually followed by feelings of guilt and failure, and the associatio­n becomes one of “bad” behaviour.

Using food to determine our value leads to an unhealthy relationsh­ip with food. Consuming treats occasional­ly should not be seen as failure to be compensate­d for by harder training; this can quickly become a vicious cycle.

Exercise shouldn’t be a punishment

Exercise is good for you, but it should be done because you enjoy training—not because you need to “work off” weekend indulgence­s. Running shouldn’t be a tool for shaming ourselves, and it’s unlikely that workouts done for this reason will be fun or lead to performanc­e improvemen­ts.

Taken to extremes, exerci si ng to compensate for overindulg­ence (or viewing desserts as “carbs” that should only be consumed after particular­ly hard workouts) may cause a mismatch between energy intake and energy expended, leading to a condition called relative-energy deficiency in sport (red-s).

Exercise is gratifying when it brings a sense of achievemen­t— for example, running the same pace with less effort, running longer at the same pace or adding 10 lb. to a lift in the gym. Wanting to improve week after week—that’s when it’s really fun! But this is never going to happen if you’re continuous­ly rewarding yourself for a good week and then, two days later, punishing yourself with exercise.

Breaking the cycle

Rewarding yourself for hard work is a great idea. Celebratin­g hard effort and dedication will ensure that you develop positive associatio­ns with the work.

So go ahead and treat yourself—not with food, but with value. Spend a few minutes brainstorm­ing five things that you find soothing—things that give you a little break during the day, or that are simply fun, like a new relaxing scent for a diffuser, a profession­al massage, a movie, a manicure or a spa visit. Keep the list in a convenient location for whenever the urge for reward strikes. And once the celebrator­y acts are done, keep doing the thing that led you to success in the first place. This is where people usually fall short—they have a little success, then fall back into old habits.

Bottom line

Remember that if you relate to this struggle, you’re not alone. You are a human being with complex emotions.

When you can separate what you do (running and working out) from what and how you eat, you allow running and food to co-exist and be good for you on their own, and you will truly feel better within yourself.

So repeat after me…

Exercise is exhilarati­ng, not a punishment. And food is fuel, not a reward.

Stephanie MacNeill, RD, is an avid runner, having competed at Canadian championsh­ips from 5K to the half-marathon. She is the minor league nutrition co-ordinator with the Philadelph­ia Phillies baseball organizati­on. She can be reached at

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