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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Emotional Ice Cream

sad-strawberry-ice-cream

It starts at a young age with associations we can’t remember making. But by this point in our short lives, we have engineered quite a few if-then connections.

If I throw my food on the floor, then mommy will be upset.

If I behave while at preschool today, the teacher will give me a sticker.

Perhaps there was a time where you fell, scraped your knee and began to cry because of the pain and shock. Maybe an adult offered you a lollipop to help cheer you up. Bam! Neural pathway made: “okay, so when I feel hurt, eating sweets is an acceptable solution”

Fast-forward decades years later and it’s still going on. A difficult conversation with your boss or spouse become an excuse, albeit mostly unconscious, to indulge in some ice cream. A night out drinking with friends is a ‘reward’ for a hellish, stressful week. And it’s OKAY to treat ourselves, but there’s a distinct mindlessness involved in emotional eating. Very few people think to themselves, “boy do these feelings hurt, perhaps I’ll eat enough chocolate chip cookies to squash them down.” And yet that unconscious belief can be at play, creating patterns that are deeply ingrained.

What to do?

The first step is awareness.

Perhaps the next time you find yourself reaching in the freezer for ice cream, ask yourself why you think you’re doing it. Perhaps you’ll reflect upon your day and remember that your boss assigned a short deadline for your next project, you’re completely overwhelmed by responsibilities, or that your mother-in-law criticized your parenting. Ice cream can seem like a balm for these ‘ouch’ moments, but there is more shame than comfort at the bottom of a pint of rocky road. Even if you find the answer to your question, you may not be able to change the behavior just yet. That’s okay. It’s something we can work on together; schedule your complimentary 20-minutes Discovery Call to get started.