Reward ≠ Food

rewardnotfood

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:

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Eating Our Emotions

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One of the reasons we eat is because our culture promotes dining in conjunction with emotionally charged events – Thanksgiving, Christmas/Hanukkah and Valentine’s Day. We eat when people are born, when people die, when we get an “A” on an exam, when we don’t get an “A” on the exam —we use food as reward and a punishment. Food is tied to our successes and failures, our joy and sadness, our excitement and anxiety.

Our emotions calm down as we anesthetize ourselves with salty, fatty or sugary foods. Our neurotransmitters increase production of serotonin, dopamine and other “feel-good” chemicals. Once we stop eating, we start the emotional descent again and eat more to temporarily feel better. After the cycle repeats a bit longer, we usually find ourselves physically full and feeling badly about our food choices.

In the cases of emotional eating, I work with my clients to be more mindful when eating and to build a reserve of what I call “soul-nourishing” activities – things that feed you but don’t come on a plate.

With the practice of mindfulness, we learn to cultivate the possibility of releasing ourselves from reactive, habitual patterns of thinking, feeling and acting. Eating mindfully teaches us to be aware of physical hunger and satiety cues to guide decisions to begin eating and to cease eating.

My goal is to assist clients in learning how to mindfully eat and improve nutrition without deprivation, guilt, fear or shame. I am happy to report Kate* is eating more mindfully and engaging in self-nurturing activities and is no longer beholden to eating her emotions.

List of 10 soul-nourishing ideas

  1. Give compliments and praise to those around you.
  2. Practice relaxation techniques.
  3. Keep a journal to write out your emotions and gratitude.
  4. Visualize what life will be like after the emotion passes.
  5. Surround yourself with friends and positive people.
  6. Exercise (choose something you enjoy or that has a mind/body component like yoga or tai chi).
  7. Learn proper self-care (get enough sleep, have a nutritious diet, & plenty of water).
  8. Get outside and into nature (try a walking meditation, spend time near the water, watch the sky change colors as it sets).
  9. Listen to music — and dance!
  10. Use your passion and creativity in a hobby or career.