What to do when your brain chases food rewards

ByLois C

Jun 24, 2022 , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Reading through Time: 6 minutes

In our modern day food items surroundings, most of us are blessed to have prepared obtain to a wide range of meals. But what’s tough is that we are also exposed to a large amount of visible food cues, such as:

  • Ads
  • Open-notion kitchens
  • Coworkers bringing in cookies or doughnuts
  • Chips and sweet close to the register even at outlets that really do not mostly market meals

This form of natural environment would make it extra complicated to merely consume when we discover we’re hungry. As a substitute, we may well want to eat just because we lay eyes on a food that appears tasty. Over time, visual foods cues could possibly guide us to consume when we’re not hungry additional than we would if those people cues weren’t current. (Notice: this is fewer probable to happen for men and women who hardly ever had their interior intuitive eater knocked out of them, or who have reclaimed and practiced intuitive eating techniques). We’re consuming mainly because we are trying to find a reward, and that reward isn’t (or is not only) the enjoyable of starvation.

Why does this take place? Let us investigate.

Evolution and your mind

Some behaviors that do not make practical feeling now (and may well even induce us distress) manufactured a whole lot of perception to our lengthy-back ancestors. If you ended up an early hunter-gatherer, remembering how to entry great sources of foodstuff (which watering gap the wooly mammoths desire, where by to find the berries that aren’t poisonous…and when they’re in period) would assist make it feasible for you to endure so you could choose component in perpetuating the species.

Remembering this critical foods data calls for possibly positive or detrimental reinforcement (or equally).

  • With good reinforcement, you obtain a reward for getting a particular motion.
  • With negative reinforcement, you cut down some thing damaging by having a certain action.

The two forms of reinforcement raise the odds that you will acquire that motion all over again in the upcoming, due to the fact when our brains make the link in between an motion (or behavior) and a reward, it generates a strong psychological memory.

Reported yet another way, if you try to eat a tasty food items, and it makes you truly feel fantastic (constructive reinforcement), you embed a memory that can help you afterwards recall the place you received the meals, what you preferred about it, the circumstance in which we ate it, etc.

Equally, if you are stressed or sad or anxious, and you take in something that can help you really feel a lot less poor (damaging reinforcement), you could embed a memory that feeding on specified food items lowers selected unpleasant emotions.

I see the consequences of this “brain training” for food items rewards perform out in unique methods, most notably “food addiction” and dieting.

The “rewards” of dieting

Let’s say you are counting calories, carbs or fat grams—or normally “watching what you eat” or “controlling part sizes”—and you do drop bodyweight (as most people today do for the limited time period). If you get compliments about your shrinking overall body, that serves as favourable reinforcement to keep performing what you are undertaking. That can assistance compensate for the soul-sucking character of taking in “good” food items that you really do not genuinely like and supplying up “bad” food items that you enjoy.

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

(There is a different side to this coin, having said that. I have had clients who had been in a phase of their everyday living the place they have been far more lively than normal and ingesting “normally,” and misplaced some fat as a aspect effect. Then the compliments commenced coming, which built them uncomfortable—not everybody needs their physique to be commented on, even in a “positive” way—which brought on them to start out binge eating and/or becoming considerably less lively so they could stay indoors and hide their entire body. When they attained body weight and the system complements stopped, this served as a adverse reinforcement to remain on this route.)

Let’s not forget about that restrained consuming (foodstuff restriction) often prospects to rebound having. This rebound eating might experience like emotional consuming, “out-of-control” consuming, or binging. In some circumstances, it may in fact meet the scientific definition of a binge, and of binge eating condition (Mattress).

The perpetuation of this rebound consuming in reaction to precise or even perceived restriction (shortage), is pushed by meals tasting so considerably more gratifying right after we’ve been deprived of it. On that note…

Fueling “food addiction”

On the “food addiction” front, I have had consumers who experienced incredibly strong emotional feeding on tendencies. Occasionally this started out in childhood (when they have been far too young to have formulated other implies of coping). Often this started off in adulthood (in the course of pretty annoying, pretty active instances of lifestyle when having time for meaningful self-treatment was a pipe desire).

Do you feel that working with foodstuff to feel loved and cared for (constructive reinforcement) or to numb out (detrimental reinforcement) results in effective emotional reminiscences? Indeed it does.

It’s this reinforcement, and these emotional memories, that continue to keep neglected kids locked in an psychological eating cycle a long time later on even if they now have a loving lover, superior mates and a satisfying life. It’s what makes a medical or psychological wellness experienced (who you could think would “know better”) realize that they have no coping instruments other than foods for the reason that food items constantly worked so properly for them that they under no circumstances bothered to diversify their coping toolbox.

There is some proof that so-called “highly palatable” foodstuff (processed foodstuff significant in extra sugar, salt and body fat) can have an even much more satisfying effect. It can get to the position in which we so strongly foresee that reward when we try to eat people foods that it’s pretty hard to resist visual cues related with those food items. For case in point, a picture of somebody taking in ice cream, a pizza advert on Tv set, donuts (even stale donuts) in the split area.

So is this food items habit, or is it brain training?

Retraining the brain

Irrespective of what you contact it, consuming that feels emotional or out of manage in some way may experience superior in the minute, but then not so good afterwards.

  • You could come to feel guilt or disgrace (which you actually don’t deserve)
  • You may possibly have eaten to the stage of actual physical distress
  • You could anxiety excess weight obtain (even nevertheless your ingesting may not truly be causing bodyweight get and halting emotional/binge taking in may possibly not guide to bodyweight reduction)

Which of these equipment is most effective for retraining your mind pertaining to foods rewards?

  1. Willpower
  2. Mindfulness
  3. A lobotomy

Oh, I hope you stated B! Willpower is genuine, but it’s not an infinite source, and we use it up as we make decisions and deal with stressors through the working day. (When you want to say something snarky to a co-employee or honk at a rude driver, and you really do not, you just used up some willpower.) And I’m not even likely to comment on the idea of a lobotomy.

Using mindfulness in this context includes:

  • Becoming aware of our behaviors and what triggers them
  • Checking out and recognizing the real rewards (bodily sensations and psychological outcomes) we get from the behavior—without judgement (!)
  • Working with that information and facts to make a compassionate preference that supports self-care

When obtaining a general mindfulness meditation observe can aid with this, a small, casual, in-the-second exercise, these kinds of as this model of the RAIN meditation, may be more valuable:

  • Recognize the craving/ingesting impulse
  • Allow the practical experience to exist, just as it is
  • Investigate with interest and care what it feels like in the body
  • Note the relevant actual physical sensations from second to instant, with self-compassion

If you would like to find out more about RAIN, Tara Brach discusses it nicely on her web site.

The bottom line

It is simple to get stuck in recurring habits patterns that we didn’t consciously pick out and may also be repeating endlessly with no producing a conscious decision to do so. These designs are not limited to food…we may possibly locate ourselves repeating specified patterns in our associations, our procuring behaviors, and other factors of lifestyle.

When we can shine a self-compassionate gentle on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, it opens the door to generating a mindful choice, whether that option is in alignment with our recognized practice, or something fully unique. The simple fact that we now have a choice (no much more autopilot) is a acquire.


Carrie Dennett is a Pacific Northwest-dependent registered dietitian nutritionist, freelance writer, intuitive feeding on counselor, creator, and speaker. Her superpowers include busting diet myths and empowering women to sense superior in their bodies and make food decisions that help satisfaction, diet and wellbeing.

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By Lois C