February 2, 2023

My Henessy

Masters of Health

What to do when your brain chases food rewards

7 min read
Studying Time: 6 minutes

In our modern food stuff setting, most of us are blessed to have completely ready obtain to a wide variety of foods. But what is tricky is that we are also uncovered to a lot of visual food cues, together with:

  • Adverts
  • Open up-concept kitchens
  • Coworkers bringing in cookies or doughnuts
  • Chips and candy close to the sign up even at suppliers that don’t mostly provide meals

This kind of atmosphere can make it far more demanding to basically try to eat when we notice we’re hungry. As an alternative, we may well want to try to eat just simply because we lay eyes on a foods that seems delicious. Around time, visible foodstuff cues could possibly direct us to eat when we’re not hungry far more than we would if people cues weren’t current. (Notice: this is much less very likely to take place for individuals who never ever had their interior intuitive eater knocked out of them, or who have reclaimed and practiced intuitive taking in competencies). We’re feeding on due to the fact we are seeking a reward, and that reward is not (or is not only) the satisfying of starvation.

Why does this take place? Let us examine.

Evolution and your mind

Some behaviors that do not make practical feeling right now (and could possibly even bring about us distress) designed a ton of perception to our extended-in the past ancestors. If you had been an early hunter-gatherer, remembering how to accessibility very good sources of foodstuff (which watering hole the wooly mammoths like, in which to locate the berries that are not poisonous…and when they’re in year) would assist make it doable for you to endure so you could choose part in perpetuating the species.

Remembering this essential food stuff information needs both positive or destructive reinforcement (or each).

  • With positive reinforcement, you get a reward for taking a certain motion.
  • With unfavorable reinforcement, you lessen anything unfavorable by using a specific action.

Both of those types of reinforcement maximize the odds that you will choose that motion once again in the upcoming, simply because when our brains make the link in between an action (or habits) and a reward, it creates a highly effective psychological memory.

Said another way, if you eat a scrumptious meals, and it helps make you feel excellent (positive reinforcement), you embed a memory that assists you later on remember in which you got the meals, what you preferred about it, the circumstance in which we ate it, and so forth.

Equally, if you are pressured or unhappy or anxious, and you take in some thing that assists you really feel less poor (destructive reinforcement), you may possibly embed a memory that eating particular foods decreases sure uncomfortable emotions.

I see the results of this “brain training” for food stuff benefits engage in out in distinctive approaches, most notably “food addiction” and dieting.

The “rewards” of dieting

Let us say you are counting calories, carbs or fats grams—or normally “watching what you eat” or “controlling part sizes”—and you do reduce bodyweight (as most men and women do for the short phrase). If you get compliments about your shrinking overall body, that serves as favourable reinforcement to retain undertaking what you are performing. That can enable compensate for the soul-sucking character of consuming “good” food items that you don’t genuinely like and supplying up “bad” food items that you enjoy.

Chasing the rewards of compliments, praise and approval keeps persons chasing weight reduction, which perpetuates yo-yo dieting.

(There is a further facet to this coin, nevertheless. I have experienced consumers who were in a section of their existence exactly where they ended up additional lively than common and eating “normally,” and misplaced some weight as a side outcome. Then the compliments started out coming, which designed them uncomfortable—not everyone desires their body to be commented on, even in a “positive” way—which brought on them to get started binge consuming and/or being a lot less energetic so they could continue to be indoors and conceal their physique. When they obtained bodyweight and the system enhances stopped, this served as a detrimental reinforcement to continue to be on this path.)

Let’s not forget about that restrained eating (food stuff restriction) normally qualified prospects to rebound consuming. This rebound feeding on may perhaps experience like emotional ingesting, “out-of-control” taking in, or binging. In some circumstances, it may perhaps in fact fulfill the medical definition of a binge, and of binge ingesting disorder (Mattress).

The perpetuation of this rebound consuming in response to precise or even perceived restriction (scarcity), is driven by food items tasting so substantially far more worthwhile just after we have been deprived of it. On that note…

Fueling “food addiction”

On the “food addiction” front, I have had consumers who had really powerful emotional consuming tendencies. At times this began in childhood (when they were too young to have developed other means of coping). Occasionally this began in adulthood (throughout quite stressful, quite fast paced periods of lifestyle when using time for meaningful self-treatment was a pipe desire).

Do you feel that employing food stuff to feel cherished and cared for (good reinforcement) or to numb out (damaging reinforcement) results in highly effective psychological memories? Yes it does.

It is this reinforcement, and these emotional memories, that maintain neglected small children locked in an emotional consuming cycle a long time later even if they now have a loving partner, great close friends and a satisfying existence. It’s what helps make a clinical or mental wellness professional (who you could consider would “know better”) recognize that they have no coping tools other than food stuff simply because food stuff normally labored so very well for them that they by no means bothered to diversify their coping toolbox.

There is some evidence that so-referred to as “highly palatable” foods (processed food items significant in added sugar, salt and extra fat) can have an even additional fulfilling influence. It can get to the stage the place we so strongly anticipate that reward when we consume these foodstuff that it’s incredibly really hard to resist visible cues affiliated with all those foodstuff. For example, a photo of an individual feeding on ice product, a pizza advertisement on Television, donuts (even stale donuts) in the crack place.

So is this meals dependancy, or is it brain training?

Retraining the mind

Regardless of what you get in touch with it, feeding on that feels psychological or out of control in some way might come to feel very good in the second, but then not so excellent later.

  • You may really feel guilt or shame (which you truthfully really do not should have)
  • You may possibly have eaten to the place of physical soreness
  • You could concern bodyweight achieve (even although your taking in might not basically be triggering fat acquire and stopping emotional/binge ingesting could not guide to bodyweight decline)

Which of these applications is very best for retraining your mind relating to food benefits?

  1. Willpower
  2. Mindfulness
  3. A lobotomy

Oh, I hope you stated B! Willpower is actual, but it is not an infinite resource, and we use it up as we make selections and offer with stressors during the working day. (When you want to say some thing snarky to a co-employee or honk at a rude driver, and you really do not, you just utilized up some willpower.) And I’m not even going to comment on the thought of a lobotomy.

Working with mindfulness in this context involves:

  • Becoming mindful of our behaviors and what triggers them
  • Checking out and recognizing the precise benefits (bodily sensations and emotional effects) we get from the behavior—without judgement (!)
  • Working with that information and facts to make a compassionate option that supports self-care

Whilst having a typical mindfulness meditation follow can enable with this, a quick, casual, in-the-instant observe, these types of as this version of the RAIN meditation, may well be extra helpful:

  • Recognize the craving/eating impulse
  • Allow the working experience to exist, just as it is
  • Investigate with curiosity and treatment what it feels like in the entire body
  • Note the similar physical sensations from minute to instant, with self-compassion

If you would like to master more about RAIN, Tara Brach discusses it nicely on her website.

The base line

It is straightforward to get stuck in recurring actions styles that we did not consciously pick out and may perhaps also be repeating endlessly without the need of making a conscious alternative to do so. These designs are not restricted to food…we may perhaps come across ourselves repeating selected patterns in our relationships, our procuring routines, and other features of lifestyle.

When we can glow a self-compassionate light-weight on what we’re accomplishing and why we’re undertaking it, it opens the door to building a aware selection, regardless of whether that option is in alignment with our founded practice, or something totally various. The fact that we now have a alternative (no additional autopilot) is a gain.


Carrie Dennett is a Pacific Northwest-primarily based registered dietitian nutritionist, freelance author, intuitive feeding on counselor, creator, and speaker. Her superpowers include things like busting diet myths and empowering girls to feel better in their bodies and make foodstuff alternatives that help enjoyment, nourishment and overall health.

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