Reward ≠ Food


Patient and client conversations can be a rich source of writing inspiration to address common concerns. As we discuss new changes, cravings, accomplishments and challenges, ideas start to percolate as we work together to find the best solution for the individual. If the same issue is mentioned by different individuals more than three times in relatively short succession, we can almost *feel* the universe tapping on our shoulder.

The latest recurrent theme among us all seems to be regarding emotional eating, over-eating, and reward-eating.

Let’s break this last one down. Why would we associate certain foods with a reward?

    • With thousands of years of evolution working for (or against) us, humans naturally crave sweet flavor. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors would get a little *ping* of dopamine by eating berries and other naturally sweet substances. The brain would reward eating this food, which some argue helped our ancestors survive by promoting fat storage to see them through the leaner times. This survival mechanism is all but unnecessary during the times in which we live, with plentiful food stores and sedentary lifestyles (when was the last time we burnt 2000+ calories a day hunting down buffalo?).
    • An ostensible lack of other options or ideas for rewarding ourselves. We’ve leaned on food to give ourselves a pat on the back after a hard day in the office, for finishing a big project, or to relax after a full day with the kids finally in bed. After many years of this, we may have forgotten how to celebrate our accomplishments without cake, doughnuts, french fries, or chips.

After the sleeve of cookies is finished, there can be a poignant anxiety that settles in. Guilt and shame follow soon after and we feel terrible about ourselves. Then we say “what the Hades, I’m probably never going to lose the weight anyway” and keep going or we decide with firmness and determination, “starting tomorrow, no cookies ever again!” However, we all know how this plays out; the deprivation leads to cravings and the whole cycle begins anew.

When you eat, try eating to nourish your body and experience pleasure. Tying food to your reward-system will unravel advances in your health goals and, here’s the kicker, it doesn’t even work. By the time we are done with the chocolate chip cookie party, we only temporarily feel sated before we either look for more sugar (during the ‘down’ of our blood sugar rollercoaster) or we feel guilty…..which drowns out what ephemeral feeling of pleasure we got from the food in the first place.

By having some non-food rewards instead, or at least sprinkling them into your current routine, you can start to challenge the ‘need’ for something sweet and, instead, ‘treat’ yourself ‘sweetly’ (double puns, couldn’t resist :D). Here are a few ideas to get your started on non-food rewards:

1. DIY spa night. A luxurious bath, giving yourself a manicure, indulging in a face mask, and a rosewater body moisturizer can make you feel renewed inside and out.

2. Creativity. Grab a coloring book, put a puzzle together, write beautiful calligraphy script, paste together a vision board/collage, write a short story, get your hands in the garden, cross-stitch a funny, irreverent phrase and frame it, try a new plant-based recipe or, apropos to these times, sew a mask.

3. Make music! Dust off your clarinet, guitar, piano, drumset or plastic recorder and go to town, even if the only song you remember is Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. All the greats start from somewhere and you may very well be regarded as the “Guitar Hero” of your own abode.

4. Listen to music and have your very own 90’s dance party. Move your body in a way that feels good to you; rock out and have fun!

5. Read a book, just for fun. Choose literature that feeds your sense of adventure and intrigue. Create a cozy nook and have some herbal tea by your side.

6. Pet playtime. It can be a nice hit of dopamine when you run and play with your dog at the park, to create a new cat toy for your kitty to stalk and attack, or, as in our case, play hiding games and create new structures for bunnies to explore. Let the joy of the animals become our own too. Perhaps we forget, even for a moment, that we aren’t and don’t need to be, serious adults 100% of the time.

7. Children and your inner child. Beyond helping them brush their teeth, cleaning up their messes, and worrying about their futures, we can do so much with and for them! These little humans have such insights and light perspectives of life that educe our own inner child to come out. Play and create zany stories with doll characters, build furniture forts, topple block ‘cities’, play tag and try different yoga moves outside in the backyard. You’ll likely be physically exhausted but happy after spending time with kids. No added sugar necessary!

8. Stickers and tracking your progress. The reward is built-in! Whether on a calender, in your planner, or on a spreadsheet, track a meaningful goal and either put a sticker on to mark the achievement or highlight it in your planner or spreadsheet. Seeing the progress you’re making can be incredibly gratifying in and of itself (depending on what motivates you).

9. Purchase new ______ (fill in the blank). A word of caution here: for some, shopping can be addictive and a way of dealing with negative emotions. We are not suggesting that you completely indulge in binge-buying. Take a look at your online wish-list or cart and then pick *one* item that you will reward yourself with after you’ve achieved your goal of walking x-number of miles, days of eating extra vegetables, or any other goal. Perhaps you choose a new pair of tennis shoes, your favorite essential oil blend or new nail polish color, a subscription to a magazine or program….the only *rule* is that it is not a food item.

10. Plan an event. Since we’re all mostly inside these days (this is the quarantine of 2020 for those of you visiting from 2040), this takes a leeeetle bit of creativity. Try an (online) girls/guys night in, a ‘pizza party’ with homemade pizza and checking in with friends or family, even having a drink and catching up with friend over videochat while you both knit or crochet. Oftentimes, the ‘high’ we get from hanging out and laughing or deeply sharing with loved ones beats that from eating a pint of rocky road ice cream.

Keep your eye on the prize. What is a TRUE and LASTING reward for you? If it’s a six-pack of abdominal muscles, having more energy, glowy skin, being there for your grandkids’ high school graduations, and feeling more at peace….then choose the appropriate non-food reward with a smile.

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