You’re not a dog, so why act like one? Food as a reward?

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Food as a reward

You’re not a dog, so why act like one? Well sort of. You might not be a dog but that does not mean you have not been trained like one. I’m pretty sure most of us are familiar with Pavlov’s classical conditioning study in which he discovered that dogs associated lab coats with being fed. Every time his dogs were fed it was by a scientist wearing a lab coat. Thus, every time they saw a lab coat, they thought it was time to grub and began drooling.

“Pavlov became interested in studying reflexes when he saw that the dogs drooled without the proper stimulus. Although no food was in sight, their saliva still dribbled. It turned out that the dogs were reacting to lab coats. Every time the dogs were served food, the person who served the food was wearing a lab coat. Therefore, the dogs reacted as if food was on its way whenever they saw a lab coat.”

In a series of experiments, Pavlov then tried to figure out how these phenomena were linked. For example, he struck a bell when the dogs were fed. If the bell was sounded in close association with their meal, the dogs learnt to associate the sound of the bell with food. After a while, at the mere sound of the bell, they responded by drooling.” read more on Pavlov’s experiments by clicking here.

So lets get off our high hoarse for a minute. It’s nice to think that we have free will and choose what we do when we do it but that is not always the case. In a sense our eating habits have been conditioned in us at a young age and are strengthened day by day as we get older. The longer we wait to begin eating real food and living a healthier lifestyle the deeper in-grained (no pun intended there) these conditions will be.

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Oh baby baby, oh baby baby

A lot of what we eat today was influenced by what we ate back in the day. Or at least how we were rewarded. I use to work at a recreational facility. There were tons of kids, parents, and vending machines. All to often I would here a little one ask for something out of the vending machines, more often then not something processed, loaded with sugar, high fructose corn syrup, or industrial seed oils. Below is a little math problem about how the next 30 seconds would go between a child and their parent.

Kid asks for Junk from the vending machine + parent says no = kid pitching a fit and parent saying “If you behave I’ll get you that out of the vending machine.”

Gut check time. I’m totally guilty as charged fro doing this with a few kids or my nephews. Lets see a show of hands if you are too.

Believe it or not ight then and there the wheels have been set in motion to a child that if I pitch fit and/or behave I will get junk food (I will be either referring to processed food as junk or Sh*t from now on because that is what it is) out of the vending machine. This reward for good behavior extends much further than  this isolated case.

  • If I am good when we go grocery shopping maybe I can ask for a treat and get it.
  • If I behave in the car ride to grandma’s maybe I can get some cookies for being a good boy/girl.
  • If I throw a tantrum in the mall and then behave well I’ll probably get some ice cream

This food as a reward system isn’t just for good behavior. Think back to when you were a kid. If you got hurt falling off your bike did you get a treat? How about if you had a good game, you went 3 for 4 in you baseball game, or hit a couple big shots in your basketball game, maybe the team won and everyone was rewarded with pizza and ice cream. If you had a rough day at school how did you go cheer up?

PS: I just read your mind right now. You totally said, “Wholly shit, that’s so true.”

Get your brain working a bit here. How are some other ways you were rewarded with food? How are you rewarding yourself or others with food right now?

Food as a reward does nothing more than contribute to obesity, diabetes, hypertension, eating disorders, and multiple other health concerns. It interferes with the learning response to food like satiety cues (feeling full) and teaches you to eat when not hungry.

And as we age….gracefully of course

As we age this cycle of food as reward continues. It really is a double edge sword. Rewarding ourselves with food gets us motivated to do some really positive things but often then than not the reward is such a negative influence that it essentially negates the goodness we just created. For example:

  • You just had a great workout, pushed really hard, so you reward your self with a treat.
  • You had a solid week of eating REAL FOOD so you decide it’s time to reward yourself with some pasta….and a soda….and some cheesecake
  • The office just finished a big project so the rewarded is margarita’s, junk food, and desserts (which is stressed spelled backwards by the way)

But we also do this when we are in a bad good, had a rough day, are feeling down and out, get our feelings hurt. Your friends probably contribute as well. Taking you out for drinks, desserts, crap food. Instead of feeding ourselves we are feeding our emotions. The shitty thing is our emotions don’t get fat… we do.

Take a look back at that kid section. Sounds familiar doesn’t it?

So essentially you have decided that for doing something good, having a bad day, or feel in hurt you will reward yourself with something bad. Now you might be saying that you enjoy these things and this website as a theme about “doing more of what you love and less of what you don’t.” I would say, “touché and well played.” But my argument would be that I am sure there are PLENTY of other things you enjoy that are much more productive, healthier, and fun.
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Food made as a reward

The idea of a reward is to seek pleasure and to keep consuming that pleasure as often as possible. The problem with food as a reward is that easily accessible, cheap foods that are designed to meet these needs are absolute shit. I want to repeat this because it is very important. These cheap processed foods are DESIGNED to meet this reward system and pleasure principle so that we buy more – consume more.

The top six calories sources consumed in the United States are grain based desserts, yeast breads, chicken dishes, sweetened beverages (lets just call the kettle black and say they are loaded with sugar), pizza and alcohol (1) (2). Three of these are grained based foods which that include addictive properties  called opiods that stimulate the same pleasure receptors as morphine and heroin (2).

Now I’m not saying we can be addicted to food but there arguments that can be made for and against that theory. What I am trying to get at is that food has a very powerful psychological effect on us. We often are not consuming it for its designed purpose which is to stay alive and act as fuel. We are often consuming it to increase pleasure, wether we know it or not. Stephan Guyenet put it very eloquently in a recent post he had over at his blog Whole Health Source.

“Why do some people drink sweetened sodas between meals, rather than plain water? Is it because sodas quench thirst better than water? Is it because people are hungry and need the extra calories? If so, why not just eat a plain potato or a handful of unsalted nuts? The main reason people drink soda is that they enjoy it, plain and simple. They like the sweetness, they like the flavor, they like the feeling of carbonation on the tongue and the mild stimulation the caffeine provides. It’s the same reason people eat a thick slice of double chocolate cake even though they’re stuffed after a large meal. The reward system motivates you to seek the soda and cake, and the hedonic (pleasure) system encourages you to keep consuming it once you’ve begun.”

I like to call this the “Thanksgiving Day Effect.” Or the TDE. You may not eat anything for a full 24 hours due to the impending doom that is lurking around the corner. Even after completely stuffed, belt buckle down a few notches, might even have had to go to sweat pants to reduce the pressure on your food baby, you are still able to fit in some pumpkin pie. Wait…. oh shit! There’s apple too?

Think of it like this. After you eat that thanksgiving meal you are totally more than willing to put away 300 more calories of pumpkin pie and whipped cream but not so much when it comes to gobbling up 300 more calories of veggies. Why is this? Because eating those veggies contain no reward. There’s no pleasure in it.

This is why we will go out of our way to pick up some ice cream if we run out but skip the cucumbers if we don’t have them for a recipe.

It’s more that just a reward. There are cues

Just like Pavlov and his dog experiment, food as a reward is not just “the reward” in and of itself that stimulates us. There are triggers and cues that need to be factored in to us seeking out food for pleasure. The smell of a warm cinnamon bun as you cruise through the mall, the site of a fully loaded meat lovers pizza, or even the thought of how delicious cheesecake taste. If you’re smacking your lips a little and maybe salivating, BOOM! Those cues are kicking in and stimulating the reward aspect of having those foods.

The time of day acts as an external stimulus. You might associate 8am with breakfast, noon with lunch, 6pm with dinner time. This is when you are “suppose” to eat. Hell, we have lunch breaks at work built around this for the most part.

As mentioned earlier emotional stimuls can also trigger food as a reward. Maybe you have been eating spot on for the week, slip up a bit on saturday and eat a slice of birthday cake, and then proceed to say “the hell with it!” I blew it anyway I might as well keep it up and enjoy myself. And then those fourdirty words come out….. “I’ll just start monday.”

Lastly biological triggers can kick in and not help your cause. Up and down blood sugar, dehydration, adrenal fatigue, and elevated cortisol can all lead to the cravings for sugars, starches, chocolate, and candy.

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Change your rewards

Often your reward is something you know you shouldn’t have. Something bad for you. A sin if you will. In order to break the habit of using food as reward I suggest a few things.

Step 1:

Sleep: Lack of sleep contributes to higher stress, cortisol, blood sugar issues, irritability/mood disorders, and fatigue. Your body will be searching for a quick fix. Something pleasurable and palatable. High carbohydrates foods like simple sugars, starches, baked goods, and candy that include high fat “BAD” fat content (trans, industrial oils, etc..) will be sought out.

Step 2:

Eat real food: This might suck at first but focus on real food and try to eat it as bland as possible. Some herbs and spices won’t kill you here but try avoid adding any artificial sweeteners, sugar, salt, or various “flavors” to meals in an attempt to make them more palatable or pleasurable. I know food is suppose to taste good. Trust me, it tastes just fine like this. Get back to what food is suppose to be for, that being survival and energy. Although not Paleo the Flavor Point Diet is an excellent read.

Step 3: 

Drink more water: I’m not going to dive into the importance of this. Dehydration leads to all sorts of complications. If you don’t have a water bottle with you right now you should.

Step 4:

Simplify your nutrition: There is a reason why the Paleo diet, Vegan diets, Atkins, and a whole source of “diets” (god I hate that word) work. They all have certain food restrictions and thus eliminate a large group of calories from your diet. More importantly though, they all take away the high fat + high carb foods that trigger the pleasure receptors in our brains. I personally am biased to the Paleo approach because although it eliminates grains it toss an excellent job making sure that adequate nutrients are consumed form a wide range of food sources. So while simplifying your nutrition by eating real food you are not restricting yourself to much.

Step 5:

Improve our insulin sensitivity: Spikes in our insulin levels cause immediate hunger. If we are able to keep our insulin levels steady we can essentially control our appetites. A lower carbohydrate (not zero) but lower carbohydrate intake works best here. One that focuses on lots and lots of veggies. Consume with every meal and aim for at least two cups. Low glycemic fruit mostly from berries are ok but still try and limit them to 1-2 servings per day. Monitor your progress and as long as you are getting closer to your goals keep on truck’n. If trying to put on a little muscle try adding in a sweet potato post exercise only.

Make sure that healthy fats are consumed at every meals. Plenty of coconut oil, avocado, and grass-fed beef (see food chart in the shop). These fats will help with satiety and balancing blood sugar.

Weight training 2-3 times per week with heavy weights combined with high intensity interval training on alternate days will also help.

Step 6:
Try not to snack: I know the whole eat six meals a day thing is always thrown out there. Truth be told I started to feel my best when I started eating three meals and one snack or four meals. All of them contained a good protein source, healthy fat, and veggies up the wahoo (polite speak for a**)! Every time you eat your insulin response increases and your pleasure receptors do as well. If you do snack try and snack on healthy fats only like coconut oil or macadamia nuts. These are mostly fat based foods that will satisfy you and keep blood sugar stable.

This will change depending on your goals but just be clear as to what those are. If you are trying to put on a little muscle the snacks will help to add some extra calories. Just make sure they are the right kinds and emphasize real food. If you are looking to eat healthier and lose some body fat this is an excellent approach. Focus on meals that combine veggies, a protein, and a fat.

Step 7:

Decide ahead of time: If you are rewarding yourself with food decide it ahead of time. Be specific. “At four o’clock on saturday I am rewarding myself with a slice of cheesecake for reaching ______________ (fill in the goal). I will fully enjoy this treat, I am happy to be eating it, I deserve it, but after that I am back to my plan.”

Step 8:

Challenge yourself: Seriously, if you know yourself well and are capable of doing this one I highly suggest it. I want you to stress yourself out. Yup, signal those food cues, those pleasure receptors. I want you to walk through cinn-a-bon, go stare are a fresh pizza being made, sit with friends as they go out for sundaes and just watch. Do not partake. If you can continually do this and thus resist those cues you will slowly build up an immunity. Just when you think that the situation might get to tough and you could cave in you leave. Slowly try to last longer and longer until eventually you don’t respond to the cues at all.

Step 9:

Change the reward: Just like it says. Replace the food reward with another enjoyable activity. Go out to the park with a family for a good week at work. If you exercised everyday this week and lost a few pounds go buy that bathing suit you can now fit into. Trying to increase your back squat and nailed it then go spend the night out with your lady at the movies. BONUS points if you put here on your back and squat her to prove your strength. DOUBLE BONUS points if you are a girl and put your boyfriend on your back and squat him 😀

D you reward yourself with food? What are some other ways you can reward yourself? Share in the comments.

Live limitless,