Recently, there have been some efforts to rebrand “junk food” as “fun foods” and healthier foods as “nutrient dense”. However, this doesn’t really address the issues many people have with food and dieting. Call them whatever you want, but the ideas and impulse we have about eating (type or quantity) is firmly in place because of how they taste and make us feel, and how they influence body composition and performance.

Suggesting a food is “fun” is almost worse than it being “junk” because it sends the message of deprivation when we’re told to avoid them. Even healthy food can be considered junk if it’s in the wrong quantity or has a poor ratio of macronutrients.

We’re instructed to limit engineered and processed foods, opting instead for healthy, whole foods. The problem here is that the definition of healthy is often ambiguous. Clearly it must mean nutritious, however, nutrition/sports bars are specifically engineered to benefit the active lifestyle and have important nutrients for pre- and post-fueling, but they fall into the category of overly-processed. Are those bad? For someone who is concerned about food intake, the availability of something that is “fun” but also nutrient dense is a win.

Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S) is quickly becoming a well-known term to describe a previously unrecognized disorder that has hampered the performance of athletes of all levels for years. With or without intention, inadequate consumption of calories results in a body that has to decide where it should allocate its limited source to keep itself alive. Because athletes are unique in their ability to suffer, and often push the boundaries of comfort, they often underestimate and misunderstand the fatigue they are feeling due to their caloric deficit.

Although imperfect, packaged foods can actually help an active person meet their daily needs. Most of us would probably be better off increasing the volume of produce in our diets, but if an athlete were to include too much ruffage, they’d get full without the needed calories. For someone who spends so much time with their metabolism stressed, this could be considered “fluff food”.

Athletes are different than others who are solely interested in longevity and maintaining their health. We are seeking peak performance and we cannot get there without energy availability. Don’t be afraid to enjoy your food. Eating without distraction can help enhance our awareness of satiety, preventing overeating and the potential for shame. It’s okay–and likely good–to eat more than we think we should have once in a while.

Rather than banning or renaming foods, we ought to shift the focus to the timing of them. We don’t need to tell people to eat pizza or limit fun foods, or to eat more salad. Instead, let’s talk more about when the body will benefit most from eating what we like, and, most important, let’s start viewing foods as fuel.

Written by Tanya Stahler

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