Rewarding oneself with food leads to an undesirable attitude towards self-treating. The extrinsic reward of food should be replaced with the intrinsic reward of treating yourself well (Lovell, 1994).
I had another conversation with a woman who views ‘treat’ foods as a reward for working out. “I workout so that I can eat that stuff,” she said. I do not know her well, but I know bodies and it is clear that she has never struggled with weight. The problem with this mentality is that the body doesn’t physiologically work that way. If your “reward” is a high fat food, your body does not turn around and use that as fuel for your workout. Further, after the workout, few “treat” foods provide the replenishing macronutrients we need for recovery. You cannot earn your calories.
And unfortunately, a calorie is not just a calorie.
Your relationship with food
Your relationship with food is cultivated from childhood. Unfortunately, parenting strategies that use candy or junk foods as rewards can teach someone at a young age that we can use these foods as rewards. For example, a parent might say, “If you are well behaved in the store, I will buy you a candy bar at the checkout.” (I guess my mom was smarter than I knew because we received Topps baseball cards.)
This has two negative implications: one, it instills a habit of rewarding with food and two, it sets a foundation to desensitization in the brain’s reward pathways (Amen, 2008; Amen, 2010).
Using food to reward exercise
Many of the benefits of exercise go unrecognized, because we too frequently consume food products that overstimulate the reward pathways of our brain. By using a food pleasure, we are not allowing our bodies to recognize and experience the natural pleasures associated with exercise – for example, boosted dopamine and serotonin. This is particularly harmful if you reward yourself with rich foods immediately following exercise. Not only do you eliminate the opportunity to experience the immediate benefits of exercise; but also, your mind begins to build an association between exercise and food.
Your brain is powerful, and once that association is made, your physical body will come to expect the reward (in this case rewarding food) following exercise.
Further, we humans are creatures of habit. If you habitually reward yourself with food, your mind, body, and soul will come to expect this consequence. You ask, what is wrong with that? Foods can be addicting – therefore not only are you then going to need to break a habit but you will then need to break an addiction.
NOTE: It is critical to eat as immediately following exercise as possible. But there is a difference between feeding your body’s physiological needs with a post-workout snack or meal and psychologically rewarding yourself with pizza or ice cream. As I said, the brain is powerful.
I could delve into the neurological reasons for not rewarding yourself with food, but those complexities overwhelm the mind. If you want to understand more about the neurological and reward pathways, read Dr. Amen’s books cited below (he does a great job of speaking in layman’s terms).
Similar to training for life with your workouts and physical activities, it is important to eat for life. And there is much truth to the saying – you are what you eat.
Ask yourself – what do you want to be?
Certainly NOT cheap and fast!
Amen, D. G. (2008). Change your Brain, Change Your Life. Three Rivers Press: New York.
Amen, D. G. (2010). Change your Brain, Change Your Body. Three Rivers Press: New York.
Lovell, D. B. (1994). Treatment or Punishment?. European Eating Disorders Review, 2(4), 192-210.
Wilson, C. (2010). Eating, eating is always there: food, consumerism and cardiovascular disease. Some evidence from Kerala, south India. Anthropology & Medicine, 17(3), 261-275.
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