What to do when your brain chases food rewards


Studying Time: 6 minutes

In our contemporary food ecosystem, most of us are blessed to have all set entry to a variety of foodstuff. But what is challenging is that we are also uncovered to a great deal of visible food stuff cues, which include:

  • Advertisements
  • Open-principle kitchens
  • Coworkers bringing in cookies or doughnuts
  • Chips and candy in the vicinity of the sign up even at suppliers that do not mainly sell foods

This type of natural environment will make it much more demanding to merely eat when we recognize we’re hungry. As an alternative, we may possibly want to take in just because we lay eyes on a food items that seems tasty. Above time, visual food items cues could possibly lead us to eat when we’re not hungry extra than we would if individuals cues weren’t present. (Notice: this is much less very likely to materialize for individuals who never ever had their internal intuitive eater knocked out of them, or who have reclaimed and practiced intuitive having capabilities). We’re consuming due to the fact we are looking for a reward, and that reward is not (or is not only) the enjoyable of starvation.

Why does this transpire? Let us investigate.

Evolution and your mind

Some behaviors that really do not make sensible perception today (and may well even trigger us distress) built a whole lot of perception to our very long-back ancestors. If you ended up an early hunter-gatherer, remembering how to accessibility very good resources of meals (which watering hole the wooly mammoths like, where by to discover the berries that aren’t poisonous…and when they’re in time) would assist make it doable for you to endure so you could choose element in perpetuating the species.

Remembering this important food items info requires either positive or negative reinforcement (or both equally).

  • With constructive reinforcement, you acquire a reward for having a particular action.
  • With unfavorable reinforcement, you cut down a little something destructive by getting a particular action.

Both equally styles of reinforcement enhance the odds that you will consider that motion once again in the future, due to the fact when our brains make the relationship among an motion (or conduct) and a reward, it creates a highly effective emotional memory.

Reported a different way, if you try to eat a delectable food, and it would make you experience superior (beneficial reinforcement), you embed a memory that will help you later on remember exactly where you received the food, what you appreciated about it, the circumstance in which we ate it, and many others.

Likewise, if you are stressed or sad or nervous, and you try to eat some thing that aids you sense much less negative (negative reinforcement), you may well embed a memory that having selected meals lowers particular unpleasant thoughts.

I see the consequences of this “brain training” for food items benefits participate in out in diverse strategies, most notably “food addiction” and dieting.

The “rewards” of dieting

Let us say you are counting energy, carbs or fats grams—or usually “watching what you eat” or “controlling part sizes”—and you do get rid of pounds (as most individuals do for the short time period). If you get compliments about your shrinking overall body, that serves as optimistic reinforcement to keep performing what you are carrying out. That can assistance compensate for the soul-sucking nature of feeding on “good” foodstuff that you really do not actually like and offering up “bad” food items that you adore.

Chasing the benefits of compliments, praise and approval keeps folks chasing bodyweight loss, which perpetuates yo-yo dieting.

(There is another aspect to this coin, however. I have experienced purchasers who ended up in a period of their life where by they have been additional energetic than usual and having “normally,” and lost some pounds as a side outcome. Then the compliments started off coming, which manufactured them uncomfortable—not everybody wants their physique to be commented on, even in a “positive” way—which induced them to start binge eating and/or currently being considerably less energetic so they could keep indoors and conceal their entire body. When they attained weight and the entire body complements stopped, this served as a negative reinforcement to keep on this path.)

Let’s not forget that restrained taking in (meals restriction) frequently sales opportunities to rebound feeding on. This rebound taking in may experience like psychological taking in, “out-of-control” consuming, or binging. In some circumstances, it may possibly basically fulfill the scientific definition of a binge, and of binge having ailment (Bed).

The perpetuation of this rebound having in response to actual or even perceived restriction (shortage), is pushed by food stuff tasting so significantly far more worthwhile just after we have been deprived of it. On that note…

Fueling “food addiction”

On the “food addiction” front, I have experienced customers who experienced pretty powerful emotional feeding on tendencies. From time to time this started out in childhood (when they ended up as well younger to have developed other signifies of coping). Sometimes this commenced in adulthood (through quite nerve-racking, very chaotic periods of existence when using time for meaningful self-treatment was a pipe desire).

Do you think that using food items to come to feel beloved and cared for (positive reinforcement) or to numb out (unfavorable reinforcement) makes highly effective emotional reminiscences? Certainly it does.

It is this reinforcement, and these psychological memories, that keep neglected kids locked in an emotional consuming cycle decades later even if they now have a loving lover, very good buddies and a satisfying lifetime. It’s what can make a professional medical or psychological overall health specialist (who you may believe would “know better”) know that they have no coping applications other than food since food stuff normally worked so very well for them that they never bothered to diversify their coping toolbox.

There is some evidence that so-called “highly palatable” meals (processed foods large in included sugar, salt and body fat) can have an even much more satisfying effect. It can get to the level where by we so strongly foresee that reward when we eat all those foods that it is really really hard to resist visible cues involved with those people food items. For example, a photograph of an individual having ice product, a pizza ad on Tv set, donuts (even stale donuts) in the crack area.

So is this foodstuff dependancy, or is it mind teaching?

Retraining the mind

Irrespective of what you phone it, eating that feels psychological or out of manage in some way could sense very good in the instant, but then not so good later on.

  • You could really feel guilt or disgrace (which you honestly never are worthy of)
  • You may have eaten to the issue of physical irritation
  • You may well concern bodyweight acquire (even though your ingesting could not in fact be triggering bodyweight attain and halting psychological/binge feeding on might not direct to weight loss)

Which of these applications is finest for retraining your brain regarding meals rewards?

  1. Willpower
  2. Mindfulness
  3. A lobotomy

Oh, I hope you reported B! Willpower is genuine, but it’s not an infinite useful resource, and we use it up as we make selections and deal with stressors in the course of the working day. (When you want to say something snarky to a co-employee or honk at a rude driver, and you do not, you just utilized up some willpower.) And I’m not even likely to remark on the concept of a lobotomy.

Applying mindfulness in this context consists of:

  • Starting to be mindful of our behaviors and what triggers them
  • Checking out and recognizing the actual benefits (physical sensations and emotional consequences) we get from the behavior—without judgement (!)
  • Utilizing that facts to make a compassionate alternative that supports self-care

Whilst owning a basic mindfulness meditation follow can assistance with this, a small, informal, in-the-minute exercise, this sort of as this model of the RAIN meditation, may be far more beneficial:

  • Recognize the craving/taking in impulse
  • Allow the expertise to exist, just as it is
  • Investigate with fascination and treatment what it feels like in the overall body
  • Note the linked bodily sensations from instant to moment, with self-compassion

If you would like to discover much more about RAIN, Tara Brach discusses it nicely on her site.

The base line

It is easy to get trapped in recurring conduct styles that we didn’t consciously decide on and may well also be repeating endlessly with out earning a conscious choice to do so. These designs aren’t limited to food…we could discover ourselves repeating certain designs in our associations, our shopping behaviors, and other aspects of daily life.

When we can shine a self-compassionate light-weight on what we’re performing and why we’re accomplishing it, it opens the doorway to making a conscious option, no matter whether that option is in alignment with our proven routine, or something totally distinctive. The truth that we now have a choice (no more autopilot) is a acquire.


Carrie Dennett is a Pacific Northwest-based mostly registered dietitian nutritionist, freelance author, intuitive ingesting counselor, author, and speaker. Her superpowers consist of busting nourishment myths and empowering gals to feel improved in their bodies and make food possibilities that assistance satisfaction, nourishment and overall health.

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