What to do when your brain chases food rewards


Reading through Time: 6 minutes

In our fashionable food natural environment, most of us are blessed to have completely ready obtain to a wide range of foods. But what’s difficult is that we are also exposed to a great deal of visual foods cues, such as:

  • Adverts
  • Open up-principle kitchens
  • Coworkers bringing in cookies or doughnuts
  • Chips and candy around the sign up even at retailers that really don’t mostly provide food items

This form of environment will make it extra complicated to merely take in when we detect we’re hungry. In its place, we may perhaps want to try to eat just due to the fact we lay eyes on a foods that seems delicious. About time, visual foods cues may lead us to try to eat when we’re not hungry additional than we would if all those cues weren’t present. (Be aware: this is a lot less most likely to occur for folks who under no circumstances experienced their internal intuitive eater knocked out of them, or who have reclaimed and practiced intuitive taking in skills). We’re feeding on for the reason that we are searching for a reward, and that reward isn’t (or is not only) the fulfilling of hunger.

Why does this happen? Let’s investigate.

Evolution and your brain

Some behaviors that don’t make useful sense right now (and may possibly even trigger us distress) built a ton of perception to our lengthy-in the past ancestors. If you ended up an early hunter-gatherer, remembering how to accessibility great sources of food (which watering hole the wooly mammoths prefer, where to find the berries that aren’t poisonous…and when they are in year) would assist make it doable for you to endure so you could choose portion in perpetuating the species.

Remembering this important foodstuff info needs both positive or detrimental reinforcement (or both).

  • With good reinforcement, you acquire a reward for using a certain action.
  • With unfavorable reinforcement, you lower a thing destructive by using a selected action.

Equally forms of reinforcement boost the odds that you will take that motion yet again in the foreseeable future, simply because when our brains make the link amongst an motion (or habits) and a reward, it generates a impressive emotional memory.

Explained another way, if you take in a mouth watering foodstuff, and it helps make you feel good (favourable reinforcement), you embed a memory that helps you later on recall wherever you got the foods, what you favored about it, the circumstance in which we ate it, and many others.

Likewise, if you are pressured or unhappy or anxious, and you eat something that can help you experience less terrible (detrimental reinforcement), you may well embed a memory that feeding on sure foods cuts down selected not comfortable emotions.

I see the results of this “brain training” for meals benefits engage in out in distinct techniques, most notably “food addiction” and dieting.

The “rewards” of dieting

Let us say you are counting energy, carbs or excess fat grams—or if not “watching what you eat” or “controlling part sizes”—and you do lose fat (as most men and women do for the small term). If you get compliments about your shrinking entire body, that serves as favourable reinforcement to preserve undertaking what you’re undertaking. That can enable compensate for the soul-sucking nature of ingesting “good” foods that you don’t seriously like and giving up “bad” food items that you like.

Chasing the benefits of compliments, praise and acceptance retains people chasing body weight reduction, which perpetuates yo-yo dieting.

(There is yet another aspect to this coin, having said that. I have experienced shoppers who were in a phase of their daily life exactly where they were far more energetic than common and feeding on “normally,” and lost some pounds as a side influence. Then the compliments commenced coming, which created them uncomfortable—not all people desires their system to be commented on, even in a “positive” way—which activated them to start binge consuming and/or being significantly less lively so they could continue to be indoors and disguise their physique. When they acquired excess weight and the physique enhances stopped, this served as a unfavorable reinforcement to remain on this route.)

Let’s not forget about that restrained feeding on (meals restriction) typically sales opportunities to rebound feeding on. This rebound taking in may well really feel like emotional ingesting, “out-of-control” taking in, or binging. In some situations, it may perhaps really meet the clinical definition of a binge, and of binge feeding on condition (Bed).

The perpetuation of this rebound ingesting in response to real or even perceived restriction (shortage), is driven by meals tasting so considerably additional gratifying just after we have been deprived of it. On that note…

Fueling “food addiction”

On the “food addiction” front, I’ve had shoppers who had pretty powerful emotional feeding on tendencies. In some cases this started off in childhood (when they ended up also youthful to have made other implies of coping). At times this commenced in adulthood (during incredibly tense, quite occupied periods of daily life when having time for significant self-treatment was a pipe aspiration).

Do you think that making use of food to truly feel loved and cared for (beneficial reinforcement) or to numb out (unfavorable reinforcement) results in powerful psychological reminiscences? Of course it does.

It’s this reinforcement, and these psychological recollections, that preserve neglected youngsters locked in an psychological feeding on cycle a long time later even if they now have a loving companion, excellent mates and a satisfying everyday living. It’s what tends to make a professional medical or mental wellness experienced (who you could think would “know better”) recognize that they have no coping equipment other than food since food stuff normally labored so perfectly for them that they in no way bothered to diversify their coping toolbox.

There is some evidence that so-referred to as “highly palatable” meals (processed foods substantial in additional sugar, salt and unwanted fat) can have an even more fulfilling effect. It can get to the stage wherever we so strongly foresee that reward when we take in all those foods that it is really challenging to resist visible cues associated with all those food items. For instance, a picture of someone eating ice product, a pizza ad on Television, donuts (even stale donuts) in the split room.

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

Retraining the mind

Irrespective of what you call it, ingesting that feels emotional or out of command in some way may possibly feel good in the moment, but then not so very good later.

  • You could experience guilt or shame (which you truthfully do not have earned)
  • You could possibly have eaten to the stage of physical distress
  • You could dread bodyweight acquire (even however your consuming could possibly not truly be resulting in pounds achieve and stopping psychological/binge taking in might not lead to body weight loss)

Which of these instruments is ideal for retraining your brain with regards to food stuff benefits?

  1. Willpower
  2. Mindfulness
  3. A lobotomy

Oh, I hope you explained B! Willpower is serious, but it is not an infinite resource, and we use it up as we make decisions and deal with stressors all over the working day. (When you want to say anything snarky to a co-employee or honk at a impolite driver, and you don’t, you just made use of up some willpower.) And I’m not even likely to comment on the notion of a lobotomy.

Employing mindfulness in this context requires:

  • Turning out to be aware of our behaviors and what triggers them
  • Exploring and recognizing the genuine rewards (actual physical sensations and emotional results) we get from the behavior—without judgement (!)
  • Using that facts to make a compassionate choice that supports self-care

Even though obtaining a common mindfulness meditation practice can help with this, a shorter, informal, in-the-second apply, these types of as this model of the RAIN meditation, may be additional valuable:

  • Recognize the craving/eating impulse
  • Allow the expertise to exist, just as it is
  • Investigate with desire and treatment what it feels like in the body
  • Note the similar bodily sensations from minute to minute, with self-compassion

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

The base line

It is easy to get trapped in recurring actions styles that we didn’t consciously pick and may well also be repeating endlessly devoid of creating a mindful preference to do so. These designs are not confined to food…we may well uncover ourselves repeating specific styles in our associations, our shopping routines, and other features of existence.

When we can shine a self-compassionate gentle on what we’re undertaking and why we’re executing it, it opens the door to producing a acutely aware decision, irrespective of whether that alternative is in alignment with our founded practice, or anything totally different. The reality that we now have a option (no additional autopilot) is a earn.


Carrie Dennett is a Pacific Northwest-based registered dietitian nutritionist, freelance writer, intuitive feeding on counselor, writer, and speaker. Her superpowers incorporate busting nutrition myths and empowering women to come to feel improved in their bodies and make food stuff decisions that help enjoyment, nourishment and wellbeing.

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