What to do when your brain chases food rewards


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In our modern day foods natural environment, most of us are blessed to have ready access to a assortment of meals. But what’s tough is that we are also uncovered to a large amount of visible food items cues, which includes:

  • Adverts
  • Open up-notion kitchens
  • Coworkers bringing in cookies or doughnuts
  • Chips and sweet close to the sign up even at suppliers that really don’t largely market foodstuff

This kind of ecosystem tends to make it extra difficult to basically consume when we recognize we’re hungry. In its place, we may want to try to eat just mainly because we lay eyes on a food items that appears tasty. More than time, visible foodstuff cues could lead us to take in when we’re not hungry more than we would if those people cues weren’t current. (Take note: this is fewer likely to come about for folks who under no circumstances had their interior intuitive eater knocked out of them, or who have reclaimed and practiced intuitive eating expertise). We’re ingesting due to the fact we are looking for a reward, and that reward is not (or isn’t only) the enjoyable of starvation.

Why does this occur? Let’s look into.

Evolution and your mind

Some behaviors that do not make sensible sense right now (and may well even induce us distress) made a good deal of sense to our prolonged-in the past ancestors. If you ended up an early hunter-gatherer, remembering how to accessibility very good sources of food stuff (which watering hole the wooly mammoths favor, the place to find the berries that aren’t poisonous…and when they are in year) would help make it feasible for you to endure so you could get component in perpetuating the species.

Remembering this important food items information needs both positive or negative reinforcement (or equally).

  • With positive reinforcement, you acquire a reward for getting a certain action.
  • With detrimental reinforcement, you decrease one thing adverse by taking a selected motion.

Both equally varieties of reinforcement increase the odds that you will take that motion again in the long run, simply because when our brains make the relationship amongst an action (or actions) and a reward, it produces a powerful psychological memory.

Reported a different way, if you try to eat a delightful food stuff, and it helps make you truly feel superior (positive reinforcement), you embed a memory that allows you later remember wherever you obtained the foodstuff, what you preferred about it, the circumstance in which we ate it, and so forth.

Similarly, if you are pressured or unfortunate or anxious, and you try to eat some thing that helps you feel less bad (destructive reinforcement), you may well embed a memory that consuming certain foodstuff decreases certain awkward thoughts.

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

The “rewards” of dieting

Let us say you are counting calories, carbs or body fat grams—or normally “watching what you eat” or “controlling portion sizes”—and you do shed weight (as most individuals do for the quick term). If you get compliments about your shrinking body, that serves as positive reinforcement to hold undertaking what you are undertaking. That can assist compensate for the soul-sucking character of having “good” foodstuff that you don’t definitely like and offering up “bad” foodstuff that you love.

Chasing the benefits of compliments, praise and acceptance retains people chasing pounds decline, which perpetuates yo-yo dieting.

(There is one more facet to this coin, however. I have had customers who ended up in a stage of their life the place they were a lot more lively than typical and feeding on “normally,” and misplaced some pounds as a side influence. Then the compliments begun coming, which created them uncomfortable—not everyone wants their human body to be commented on, even in a “positive” way—which induced them to start off binge taking in and/or remaining fewer active so they could keep indoors and cover their overall body. When they attained weight and the overall body enhances stopped, this served as a unfavorable reinforcement to remain on this path.)

Let’s not overlook that restrained having (food stuff restriction) normally prospects to rebound taking in. This rebound consuming could feel like emotional consuming, “out-of-control” eating, or binging. In some situations, it may truly satisfy the medical definition of a binge, and of binge consuming ailment (Bed).

The perpetuation of this rebound consuming in response to actual or even perceived restriction (scarcity), is driven by food tasting so significantly extra rewarding right after we’ve been deprived of it. On that note…

Fueling “food addiction”

On the “food addiction” front, I’ve experienced shoppers who experienced pretty sturdy emotional eating tendencies. Sometimes this began in childhood (when they were being too younger to have developed other indicates of coping). From time to time this started off in adulthood (during pretty annoying, really busy times of daily life when using time for meaningful self-treatment was a pipe aspiration).

Do you imagine that utilizing foodstuff to come to feel cherished and cared for (constructive reinforcement) or to numb out (detrimental reinforcement) generates potent emotional reminiscences? Sure it does.

It’s this reinforcement, and these emotional memories, that preserve neglected young children locked in an emotional ingesting cycle a long time later on even if they now have a loving husband or wife, excellent buddies and a fulfilling daily life. It is what tends to make a clinical or psychological overall health expert (who you could feel would “know better”) notice that they have no coping equipment other than food because food generally worked so effectively for them that they hardly ever bothered to diversify their coping toolbox.

There is some proof that so-called “highly palatable” foods (processed food items significant in extra sugar, salt and extra fat) can have an even more fulfilling result. It can get to the point in which we so strongly foresee that reward when we consume those food items that it is incredibly really hard to resist visual cues affiliated with all those meals. For illustration, a photo of somebody feeding on ice cream, a pizza advertisement on Television, donuts (even stale donuts) in the break space.

So is this foods addiction, or is it mind instruction?

Retraining the mind

Irrespective of what you connect with it, eating that feels psychological or out of handle in some way could possibly experience excellent in the minute, but then not so very good afterwards.

  • You may well come to feel guilt or shame (which you truthfully never have earned)
  • You may possibly have eaten to the point of physical pain
  • You could concern pounds gain (even though your consuming could possibly not really be causing excess weight acquire and stopping psychological/binge having may possibly not direct to bodyweight reduction)

Which of these tools is most effective for retraining your mind concerning meals benefits?

  1. Willpower
  2. Mindfulness
  3. A lobotomy

Oh, I hope you mentioned B! Willpower is real, but it is not an infinite source, and we use it up as we make selections and deal with stressors through the working day. (When you want to say anything snarky to a co-employee or honk at a rude driver, and you really don’t, you just utilized up some willpower.) And I’m not even going to comment on the notion of a lobotomy.

Making use of mindfulness in this context involves:

  • Starting to be conscious of our behaviors and what triggers them
  • Discovering and recognizing the genuine benefits (actual physical sensations and psychological results) we get from the behavior—without judgement (!)
  • Using that details to make a compassionate choice that supports self-treatment

When possessing a common mindfulness meditation observe can aid with this, a shorter, informal, in-the-instant follow, these kinds of as this edition of the RAIN meditation, may possibly be far more useful:

  • Recognize the craving/feeding on impulse
  • Allow the experience to exist, just as it is
  • Investigate with fascination and care what it feels like in the overall body
  • Note the linked physical sensations from second to second, with self-compassion

If you would like to learn more about RAIN, Tara Brach discusses it properly on her internet site.

The base line

It’s effortless to get trapped in habitual habits styles that we did not consciously select and could also be repeating endlessly with out building a acutely aware option to do so. These designs aren’t confined to food…we could uncover ourselves repeating particular styles in our associations, our purchasing patterns, and other features of daily life.

When we can glow a self-compassionate light-weight on what we’re carrying out and why we’re carrying out it, it opens the door to generating a acutely aware selection, irrespective of whether that decision is in alignment with our recognized pattern, or a thing fully different. The fact that we now have a alternative (no extra autopilot) is a get.


Carrie Dennett is a Pacific Northwest-based registered dietitian nutritionist, freelance writer, intuitive consuming counselor, writer, and speaker. Her superpowers include busting nutrition myths and empowering girls to truly feel better in their bodies and make food alternatives that assist satisfaction, diet and overall health.

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