December 7, 2022

MDG – 500

Trailblazing Healthy Quality

What to do when your brain chases food rewards

7 min read


Reading Time: 6 minutes

In our modern food ecosystem, most of us are blessed to have completely ready accessibility to a wide range of meals. But what’s challenging is that we are also exposed to a good deal of visual food cues, which includes:

  • Commercials
  • Open-thought kitchens
  • Coworkers bringing in cookies or doughnuts
  • Chips and candy in the vicinity of the sign up even at suppliers that never mostly offer foods

This variety of setting tends to make it far more demanding to only eat when we see we’re hungry. As an alternative, we could want to consume just mainly because we lay eyes on a foodstuff that appears to be like tasty. More than time, visible food items cues could possibly guide us to consume when we’re not hungry a lot more than we would if all those cues weren’t current. (Take note: this is fewer very likely 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 taking in expertise). We’re ingesting for the reason that we are trying to find a reward, and that reward is not (or is not only) the fulfilling of hunger.

Why does this materialize? Let us investigate.

Evolution and your brain

Some behaviors that really don’t make useful perception now (and could even bring about us distress) manufactured a lot of perception to our lengthy-ago ancestors. If you were being an early hunter-gatherer, remembering how to obtain good resources of foodstuff (which watering hole the wooly mammoths prefer, exactly where to find the berries that aren’t poisonous…and when they’re in year) would assistance make it attainable for you to survive so you could get element in perpetuating the species.

Remembering this critical food stuff information and facts needs either optimistic or negative reinforcement (or both).

  • With optimistic reinforcement, you get a reward for taking a specified motion.
  • With destructive reinforcement, you minimize a thing unfavorable by taking a specified motion.

Both kinds of reinforcement enhance the odds that you will choose that motion all over again in the potential, mainly because when our brains make the relationship among an motion (or conduct) and a reward, it results in a strong emotional memory.

Stated one more way, if you consume a delightful food items, and it would make you come to feel superior (positive reinforcement), you embed a memory that allows you afterwards remember in which you bought the food items, what you appreciated about it, the circumstance in which we ate it, and so on.

Equally, if you are stressed or sad or nervous, and you consume a thing that will help you truly feel considerably less bad (unfavorable reinforcement), you may embed a memory that consuming sure foods decreases certain awkward feelings.

I see the effects of this “brain training” for foodstuff rewards participate in out in distinctive approaches, most notably “food addiction” and dieting.

The “rewards” of dieting

Let’s say you are counting calories, carbs or body fat grams—or otherwise “watching what you eat” or “controlling portion sizes”—and you do reduce excess weight (as most persons do for the brief expression). If you get compliments about your shrinking system, that serves as beneficial reinforcement to keep accomplishing what you’re undertaking. That can support compensate for the soul-sucking nature of eating “good” foods that you don’t really like and providing up “bad” food items that you enjoy.

Chasing the rewards of compliments, praise and approval retains folks chasing bodyweight decline, which perpetuates yo-yo dieting.

(There is a further side to this coin, nevertheless. I’ve had clients who ended up in a stage of their everyday living exactly where they were extra energetic than typical and feeding on “normally,” and shed some pounds as a side influence. Then the compliments commenced coming, which made them uncomfortable—not every person needs their human body to be commented on, even in a “positive” way—which induced them to start binge eating and/or becoming significantly less lively so they could stay indoors and hide their physique. When they received body weight and the system complements stopped, this served as a negative reinforcement to continue to be on this path.)

Let us not forget about that restrained feeding on (meals restriction) typically qualified prospects to rebound feeding on. This rebound taking in may really feel like emotional eating, “out-of-control” eating, or binging. In some conditions, it might essentially fulfill the clinical definition of a binge, and of binge consuming disorder (Bed).

The perpetuation of this rebound eating in reaction to genuine or even perceived restriction (shortage), is driven by foods tasting so a lot far more worthwhile following we have been deprived of it. On that note…

Fueling “food addiction”

On the “food addiction” front, I’ve experienced consumers who experienced incredibly powerful emotional ingesting tendencies. Sometimes this began in childhood (when they were way too youthful to have made other signifies of coping). From time to time this started off in adulthood (for the duration of very nerve-racking, pretty fast paced occasions of lifetime when getting time for meaningful self-care was a pipe dream).

Do you feel that utilizing food items to experience loved and cared for (positive reinforcement) or to numb out (adverse reinforcement) results in highly effective emotional recollections? Indeed it does.

It’s this reinforcement, and these psychological memories, that preserve neglected children locked in an psychological having cycle many years afterwards even if they now have a loving husband or wife, excellent close friends and a satisfying everyday living. It is what can make a health care or mental wellbeing specialist (who you may possibly assume would “know better”) recognize that they have no coping applications other than food stuff mainly because food items normally labored so well for them that they never ever bothered to diversify their coping toolbox.

There is some proof that so-identified as “highly palatable” food items (processed meals superior in included sugar, salt and unwanted fat) can have an even much more fulfilling impact. It can get to the level where by we so strongly foresee that reward when we try to eat individuals foods that it is really difficult to resist visible cues related with those people food items. For example, a photograph of anyone ingesting ice cream, a pizza advert on Tv, donuts (even stale donuts) in the crack place.

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

Retraining the brain

Irrespective of what you phone it, having that feels psychological or out of command in some way may possibly feel excellent in the minute, but then not so very good later.

  • You could sense guilt or disgrace (which you truthfully really do not are worthy of)
  • You could possibly have eaten to the position of actual physical irritation
  • You could possibly dread body weight gain (even even though your eating could possibly not essentially be causing bodyweight acquire and stopping psychological/binge having might not guide to pounds reduction)

Which of these resources is very best for retraining your brain about food benefits?

  1. Willpower
  2. Mindfulness
  3. A lobotomy

Oh, I hope you said B! Willpower is real, but it is not an infinite useful resource, and we use it up as we make choices and offer with stressors throughout the working day. (When you want to say a little something snarky to a co-employee or honk at a rude driver, and you do not, you just made use of up some willpower.) And I’m not even likely to comment on the notion of a lobotomy.

Using mindfulness in this context includes:

  • Getting conscious of our behaviors and what triggers them
  • Checking out and recognizing the true benefits (bodily sensations and emotional results) we get from the behavior—without judgement (!)
  • Using that data to make a compassionate choice that supports self-treatment

While obtaining a common mindfulness meditation apply can aid with this, a shorter, casual, in-the-moment follow, this kind of as this edition of the RAIN meditation, might be extra handy:

  • Recognize the craving/having impulse
  • Allow the practical experience to exist, just as it is
  • Investigate with interest and care what it feels like in the overall body
  • Note the relevant bodily sensations from moment to minute, with self-compassion

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

The bottom line

It is effortless to get stuck in recurring conduct patterns that we didn’t consciously pick and may possibly also be repeating endlessly with out making a conscious preference to do so. These designs aren’t confined to food…we may perhaps discover ourselves repeating specified designs in our associations, our shopping patterns, and other elements of life.

When we can glow a self-compassionate light on what we’re executing and why we’re accomplishing it, it opens the doorway to generating a aware choice, whether that selection is in alignment with our recognized pattern, or a thing entirely unique. The truth that we now have a selection (no much more autopilot) is a earn.


Carrie Dennett is a Pacific Northwest-based registered dietitian nutritionist, freelance writer, intuitive taking in counselor, writer, and speaker. Her superpowers contain busting nourishment myths and empowering females to experience greater in their bodies and make meals options that assist satisfaction, diet and overall health.

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