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What to do when your mind chases meals rewards


Studying Time: 6 minutes

In our fashionable meals atmosphere, most of us are blessed to have prepared entry to quite a lot of meals. However what’s tough is that we’re additionally uncovered to a number of visible meals cues, together with:

  • Ads
  • Open-concept kitchens
  • Coworkers bringing in cookies or doughnuts
  • Chips and sweet close to the register even at shops that don’t primarily promote meals

This sort of atmosphere makes it more difficult to easily eat once we discover we’re hungry. As an alternative, we could need to eat simply because we lay eyes on a meals that appears tasty. Over time, visible meals cues would possibly lead us to eat once we’re not hungry greater than we might if these cues weren’t current. (Notice: that is much less prone to occur for individuals who by no means had their interior intuitive eater knocked out of them, or who’ve reclaimed and practiced intuitive consuming abilities). We’re consuming as a result of we’re looking for a reward, and that reward isn’t (or isn’t solely) the satisfying of starvation.

Why does this occur? Let’s examine.

Evolution and your mind

Some behaviors that don’t make sensible sense in the present day (and would possibly even trigger us misery) made a number of sense to our long-ago ancestors. If you happen to have been an early hunter-gatherer, remembering methods to entry good sources of meals (which watering gap the wooly mammoths choose, the place to seek out the berries that aren’t toxic…and once they’re in season) would assist make it attainable so that you can survive so you could possibly participate in perpetuating the species.

Remembering this necessary meals info requires both optimistic or destructive reinforcement (or each).

  • With optimistic reinforcement, you obtain a reward for taking a sure motion.
  • With destructive reinforcement, you scale back one thing destructive by taking a sure motion.

Each sorts of reinforcement enhance the percentages that you’ll take that motion once more sooner or later, as a result of when our brains make the connection between an motion (or conduct) and a reward, it creates a robust emotional reminiscence.

Mentioned one other method, if you happen to eat a scrumptious meals, and it makes you really feel good (optimistic reinforcement), you embed a reminiscence that helps you later recall the place you bought the meals, what you preferred about it, the circumstance by which we ate it, and so forth.

Equally, in case you are confused or unhappy or anxious, and also you eat one thing that helps you really feel much less unhealthy (destructive reinforcement), you would possibly embed a reminiscence that consuming sure meals reduces sure uncomfortable feelings.

I see the results of this “mind coaching” for meals rewards play out in numerous methods, most notably “meals dependancy” and weight-reduction plan.

The “rewards” of weight-reduction plan

Let’s say you might be counting energy, carbs or fats grams—or in any other case “watching what you eat” or “controlling portion sizes”—and also you do drop some weight (as most individuals do for the quick time period). If you happen to get compliments about your shrinking physique, that serves as optimistic reinforcement to maintain doing what you’re doing. That may assist compensate for the soul-sucking nature of consuming “good” meals that you just don’t actually like and giving up “unhealthy” meals that you just love.

Chasing the rewards of compliments, reward and approval retains folks chasing weight reduction, which perpetuates yo-yo weight-reduction plan.

(There’s one other aspect to this coin, nonetheless. I’ve had purchasers who have been in a part of their life the place they have been extra energetic than standard and consuming “usually,” and misplaced some weight as a aspect impact. Then the compliments began coming, which made them uncomfortable—not all people desires their physique to be commented on, even in a “optimistic” method—which triggered them to start out binge consuming and/or being much less energetic so they might keep indoors and conceal their physique. After they gained weight and the physique enhances stopped, this served as a destructive reinforcement to remain on this path.)

Let’s not neglect that restrained consuming (meals restriction) usually results in rebound consuming. This rebound consuming could really feel like emotional consuming, “out-of-control” consuming, or binging. In some circumstances, it might really meet the medical definition of a binge, and of binge consuming dysfunction (BED).

The perpetuation of this rebound consuming in response to precise and even perceived restriction (shortage), is pushed by meals tasting a lot extra rewarding after we’ve been disadvantaged of it. On that word…

Fueling “meals dependancy”

On the “meals dependancy” entrance, I’ve had purchasers who had very robust emotional consuming tendencies. Generally this began in childhood (once they have been too younger to have developed different technique of coping). Generally this began in maturity (throughout very nerve-racking, very busy instances of life when taking time for significant self-care was a pipe dream).

Do you assume that utilizing meals to really feel cherished and cared for (optimistic reinforcement) or to numb out (destructive reinforcement) creates highly effective emotional recollections? Sure it does.

It’s this reinforcement, and these emotional recollections, that preserve uncared for kids locked in an emotional consuming cycle a long time later even when they now have a loving accomplice, good mates and a satisfying life. It’s what makes a medical or psychological well being skilled (who you would possibly assume would “know higher”) understand that they haven’t any coping instruments apart from meals as a result of meals all the time labored so effectively for them that they by no means bothered to diversify their coping toolbox.

There’s some proof that so-called “extremely palatable” meals (processed meals excessive in added sugar, salt and fats) can have an much more rewarding impact. It may possibly get to the purpose the place we so strongly anticipate that reward once we eat these meals that it’s very arduous to withstand visible cues related to these meals. For instance, an image of somebody consuming ice cream, a pizza advert on TV, donuts (even stale donuts) within the break room.

So is that this meals dependancy, or is it mind coaching?

Retraining the mind

No matter what you name it, consuming that feels emotional or uncontrolled indirectly would possibly really feel good within the second, however then not so good later.

  • You would possibly really feel guilt or disgrace (which you truthfully don’t deserve)
  • You may need eaten to the purpose of bodily discomfort
  • You would possibly worry weight acquire (though your consuming won’t really be inflicting weight acquire and stopping emotional/binge consuming won’t result in weight reduction)

Which of those instruments is finest for retraining your mind relating to meals rewards?

  1. Willpower
  2. Mindfulness
  3. A lobotomy

Oh, I hope you stated B! Willpower is actual, nevertheless it’s not an infinite useful resource, and we use it up as we make choices and take care of stressors all through the day. (Once you need to say one thing snarky to a co-worker or honk at a impolite driver, and also you don’t, you simply used up some willpower.) And I’m not even going to touch upon the concept of a lobotomy.

Utilizing mindfulness on this context entails:

  • Turning into conscious of our behaviors and what triggers them
  • Exploring and recognizing the precise rewards (bodily sensations and emotional results) we get from the conduct—with out judgement (!)
  • Utilizing that info to make a compassionate selection that helps self-care

Whereas having a normal mindfulness meditation practice may help with this, a brief, casual, in-the-moment observe, equivalent to this model of the RAIN meditation, could also be extra useful:

  • Recognize the craving/consuming impulse
  • Allow the expertise to exist, simply as it’s
  • Investigate with curiosity and care what it seems like within the physique
  • Note the associated bodily sensations from second to second, with self-compassion

If you want to study extra about RAIN, Tara Brach discusses it properly on her web site.

The underside line

It’s straightforward to get caught in routine conduct patterns that we didn’t consciously select and might also be repeating endlessly with out making a acutely aware selection to take action. These patterns aren’t restricted to meals…we could discover ourselves repeating sure patterns in {our relationships}, our buying habits, and different elements of life.

After we can shine a self-compassionate gentle on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, it opens the door to creating a acutely aware selection, whether or not that selection is in alignment with our established behavior, or one thing completely totally different. The truth that we now have a selection (no extra autopilot) is a win.


Carrie Dennett is a Pacific Northwest-based registered dietitian nutritionist, freelance author, intuitive consuming counselor, writer, and speaker. Her superpowers embrace busting diet myths and empowering girls to really feel higher of their our bodies and make meals decisions that assist pleasure, diet and well being.

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