STOP rewarding yourself with food!

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 photo (39)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.

The bottomline

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 Review2(4), 192-210.

Wilson, C. (2010). Eating, eating is always there: food, consumerism and cardiovascular disease. Some evidence from Kerala, south India. Anthropology & Medicine17(3), 261-275.

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Are you earning your calories?

I have another pet peeve. This idea of EARNING the amount of calories you expend – essentially rewarding yourself with food. Many of the popular food tracking applications (and even some medical weight loss programs e.g., HCG programs) motivate you by encouraging you to EARN additional calories through exercise. The more calories you expend – the more calories you can add to your day. This is deceitful. This is a trick. This is a flat out LIE.

I have discussed your body’s weight set point, which regulates alongside your BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate), RMR (Resting Metabolic Rate), and other physiological functions. Eating consistent quantities – less than you have previously eaten – and regular activity is what will lower your set point. And it is changing your set point that is critical for sustainable weight loss.

The lies revealed…

I inconsistently experiment with MyFitnessPal (MFP) when I feel I am not consuming enough calories. According to yesterday’s summary, I had a 1164 calorie deficit. BULLS&*T. My logged physical activity (which by the way is completely inaccurate) EARNED me an additional 856 calories. MFP does not calculate caloric expenditure for strength training – therefore I did not EARN any additional calories for lifting heavy things and putting them down. Considering that lean muscle mass is what burns the calories, this is quite humorous to me.

NOTE: I did manipulate the default caloric and macronutrient needs to fit what I have determined for myself – the generic settings are not suitable for all, particularly not for the especially active.

MFP congratulated me and told me that if I make every day like yesterday that I would weigh 138.9 pounds in 5 weeks. Yesterday I was 153 pounds. The math from the girl who hates math:

153 – 138.9 = 14.4

14.4/5wk = 2.82 lb/wk

A one pound weight loss requires a 3500 calorie deficit.

1164 c x 7 days = 8148 c

8148 c / 3500 c = 2.3 pounds

So yes, MFP is working from the basic mathematical logic. They got the math almost correct!

Problem 1. I know my body, and I know that if I maintain a daily 1000+ calorie deficit I will gain weight as a result of my body going into starvation mode.

Problem 2. They have done the superficial math but what about macronutrient ratios? If I take in enough calories, but not sufficient protein for my muscular growth, I will gain weight. If I do not consume enough calories and still consume too little protein, I will gain weight. If my calories are on but I never eat vegetables, it could go either way. I could go on with examples, but I believe you can see my point.

With that said – what happens if I eat the calories MFP told me I EARNED? Would I lose weight? Would I gain weight? Would I maintain?

The impact…

These programs are preying on a society obsessed with food – large portions, added sugars, and more. “I can eat this cake because I went to the gym and burned it off – I EARNed it.” WRONG. Again, one of the crucial components of a lowered weight set point is a reduction in calories consumed.

Have you been eating the calories you EARN through physical exercise? How are your results? The chances are that your results are not what you would hope for, given the amount of work you are putting in. Do you feel defeated? At a loss? Like a failure? Frustrated?Sick and tired? Not worth the effort? Does an effective weight loss program elicit these feelings? Absolutely not. These lies you have been told are not setting you up for success – they are in fact setting you up for failure. (This truly saddens my heart; I wish it were illegal.)

If you have been consuming EARNED calories, STOP NOW!!! You will thank me next week.

There is a fix…

Determine your caloric and macronutrient needs. If you need to, consult with an RD – a priceless investment in yourself. The absolute best way to know how many calories you need to maintain your current weight set point is to know your lean body mass. How do you determine this? Body composition testing – NOT BMI. You see, only your muscles need energy (i.e., calories) to sustain. If you consume more than your lean mass requires, it will be stored for later (it is a bit more complicated than this, but you get the idea).

The bottomline…

Do not fall for the marketing! Do not let this world lie to you! We do not EARN food. Determine what your caloric needs are and stick with them – and do not forget to reassess this need when you have significant changes in body composition. Then, control your deficit through physical activity and expenditure.

Activity increases making you hungry? Eat more leafy greens – very few calories and they can sure fill you up!

Final thoughts –

Do you think that calorie counting alone is good strategy for weight loss?

Do you still want to count calories at all?