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Food, Emotion and Reward

What you eat and drink is often dictated by your emotions. The reason you may struggle to adhere to a nutrition plan is often because you are stressed and busy at work, having relationship issues, feeling low or maybe even training hard and feel you deserve a “little treat.” The thing all these have in common is that they are an emotion. More to the point though, they are all emotions that often lead to a need for a reward. Does this sound like you?

Sky Dive Carb LoadingIn a previous post I mentioned the huge connection between food and reward. You have a hard day at work so of course you deserve a pizza. You trained your backside off in the gym, so drinking a bottle of wine with dinner and having a dessert is fine right? Well no, not really. Whilst I am not suggesting you avoid these things for the rest of your days, the purpose of this post is simply to highlight the connection between food reward, your emotions and how to go about it in a smarter way. It’s time to take control of your emotions!

What is a reward?

“something given in exchange for good behaviour or good work, etc”

The above statement pretty much sums it up right! Look at the examples I give and think of your decision process when you reach for that so called “treat” after a hard days work.

  • “Wow, what a stressful and long day today has been, I am shattered.”
  • “As I worked so hard today I am just going to get a pizza on the way home, plus I can’t be bothered to cook.”
  • “I have been to the gym 3 times this week so I definitely deserve this pizza.”
  • “That was a great pizza, but as I have already fallen off the wagon might as well start again from Monday.”
  • “I wonder if there is any ice cream left?”

This may seem like an exaggeration but I can assure you it’s not. Many of us feel the need to constantly reward ourselves but often we choose the wrong reward. If you are stressed, feeling low or training hard this is an even bigger reason to eat a clean and nutritious diet, not sweets, processed foods and excess alcohol.

We have developed this insane habit where everything we do needs some sort of reward. “I brushed my teeth really well this morning so I deserve a pain au chocolat”, “Man I hit five 3 pointers playing basketball today, I owe myself a tub of Ben and Jerry’s”.

Super Keris Positive SmileyOkay I am being a little silly now but reward should not always come in the form of food or drink, how about the reward being the outcome? What I mean is, if you’re training well, then you should eat well and the results will come faster, wouldn’t that be a better reward? You will look great, feel awesome and be healthy.

If you are meeting a deadline and feeling super stressed at work, then have a nutritious, tasty dinner (check out these recipes), and a soak in an epsom salts bath to relax as your reward. You will feel less stressed, be more productive and pleased you didn’t succumb to the urge to crack open a bottle of vino to unwind. And no you can’t reward yourself for not rewarding yourself 🙂

I am no saint however, just last week I wanted to crack open a bottle of wine as it had been an insanely busy week and very stressful. BUT, I knew that as much as it seemed like a good idea, it was the last thing my body needed and it would only hate me for it. I didn’t cave, instead I cooked a big bit of steak, steamed some vegetables and sweet potato and got stuck in.   The next day I woke up feeling energised and refreshed, my reward!

Why do we feel the need to reward ourselves with food?

That’s an easy one. Let’s face it, food is awesome and without great tasting food, life would be straight up dull. But think about it, this goes way back. How often do you see a parent shut up their screaming child by handing them a biscuit or chocolate? This kind of food reward has been drummed into many of us from a very young age.

Food is a huge part of society and since we were children, we have seen food used to celebrate, calm, relieve boredom (we’ve all been there I am sure), initiate good behaviour and let’s face it for many of us is at times a comfort. We all reward ourselves as adults because often it’s all we knew as children.

If we continue to reward ourselves to meet our emotional requirements in this way, it will become a problem as emotionally driven food habits will take over healthy eating and result in weight gain and potential health problems.

“Emotional eating is eating for reasons other than hunger,” says Jane Jakubczak, a registered dietitian at the University of Maryland. “Instead of the physical symptom of hunger initiating the eating, an emotion triggers the eating.”

It’s important to enjoy food but equally it’s essential the food we consume benefits and supports optimal health.

So what do we do to take control?

Here are some tips to take control of your emotions and ensure you don’t end up stuffing your face with fake food and vast amounts of alcohol to get a temporary fix.

1) If you are stressed and feel the need to reach for your favourite ice cream ask yourself “why am I stressed?” and “will eating this ice cream solve the issue?”  Chances are ‘no’ so avoid it and start to address the cause of your stress.

2) Remind yourself that any comfort food will only provide a temporary high and it will most likely make you feel worse in the long run.

3) Decide a day each week when you may wish to indulge in a favourite meal or treat and when you do, savour it thoroughly and appreciate life’s pleasure foods.

4) Remind yourself that you are training towards a goal and enhancing your health not aiming to get a reward with food like a dog. Let the reward be the outcome of good health and feeling awesome.

5) When stressed, don’t reach for the vino or take a diversion on the way home from the work to the pub. Instead put some music on and go for a walk, chill out and focus on solving the problem rather than masking it and putting it off with the use of alcohol.

Keris Marsden Wine GlassA healthy take away

Remember folks, food is to be enjoyed, be it at home, at a social occasion or daily throughout the week. We eat to survive and to fuel our lifestyles but each of us have our good and bad days. Some days it may be best to just have a couple of drinks with pals or share some ice cream with your partner whilst watching a movie, but make sure it’s because you chose to do so rather than letting your emotions get the better of you and decide for you.

Enjoy food, enjoy life, chill out and eat to thrive.