Reward Versus Comfort
If you haven't seen it going around, I'd be surprised. There's a meme going around that says "Don't reward yourself with food, you're not a dog." Now, I have an entire blog about why food is so rewarding, and how that is both a good and bad thing, which you can read here. This blog, however, if different.
What I find, is that often when people berate themselves for "using food as a reward" they aren't actually meaning a reward. To start with, it's horrible how much we berate ourselves over our choices when it comes to losing (or not losing) weight, our food choices, our exercise choices, etc. We really could benefit from being more positive instead, but that is a tangent.
The fact of it is, the words we use matter. When we say we are using food as a reward because we are stressed or because we had a long day, that's not quite true. That isn't using food as a reward, a reward is something you earn for doing something specific. No, it's not a reward. It's a comfort - at least in this context. Recognizing the difference is the first step to making an effective game plan that supports your goals.
(Sorry for making you hungry. I totally want pizza now, too.) So is using food for comfort a good thing or a bad thing? To start, let's stop placing a value judgement on food. There's more nutritious and less nutritious foods. There are food choices that take us closer to our goals and food choices that do not. But there's no BAD food. It's not the food that is the problem, it's the result of eating it. Since using food for comfort tends to happen when we aren't hungry (or we eat more than we are hungry for) this is a choice that moves us AWAY from our weight loss goals.
Now- we all have multiple priorities in life. If you are in the middle of a crisis, then using food for comfort because that will keep you more mentally stable in the moment isn't a bad thing. It may be more important than your weight loss goals at that point in time. That is OK. If your car breaks down at the side of the highway, paying for a tow and a mechanic may get in the way of your goal to put money into savings. You're not going to beat yourself up over not putting as much as you intended into savings because you had to fix your car, would you? You do what is necessary, and get back to normal as soon as you can. A crisis situation is just not an appropriate time to worry about certain goals. This includes a mental crisis.
However, we DO want to get out of the habit of using food for comfort when it is a response to every day stresses. If you use food to comfort yourself after a stressful day at work, for example, it is time to learn some more productive strategies to relieve that stress and to provide comfort. Plan this ahead of time when you aren't particularly stressed, because stress clouds judgement and you will jump right to the habit of turning to food if you don't already have something else planned. Take time- right now- to brain storm ideas of things that can provide comfort that aren't food. Take the time to go back to it on occasion and add anything new or cross off things you tried that just didn't work.
Need a place to start your brain storming process? Here's a list of just a few things that you may find soothing, that won't add to your calorie intake (and ultimately your stress level and waistline.)
Take a bath
Do some coloring
Turn on calming music
Do a puzzle
Get some sun
Go to the beach
Call a friend or family member
Snuggle with a loved one or a pet
Watch some comedy
Read a book or magazine
Squeeze a stress ball
Get a massage or a manicure
Play with slime/putty/kinetic sand
Play a game with kids
Play a video game (this may not be soothing, depending on the game!)
Take a nap
Build something (with legos, wood, whatever!)
As you can see there are a number of possible alternatives to turning to food for comfort. It may take some trial and error to see what works for you, and maybe some aren't going to be options because of time limitations or budget. That's why it is important to take the time now to brainstorm ideas that will work for you and fit into your life.
Taking the time for self care even when you are not in need of extra comfort can help keep stress low and make you less likely to feel the need to comfort eat to begin with, but if that urge does come you will have practice with other, more productive options, if you get in the habit of building them into your life now (or during a low stress time.)
If you find that you are an emotional eater on a frequent basis and use food for comfort, it may also be helpful to keep a record of when this happens, writing down the situation, how you feel, what time of day, what you ate, how you felt afterwards. This can help you identify patterns and may help you decide which alternative comforts for your tool box may be most appropriate in different situations.
It can be important to recognize the difference between using food for comfort and using food for a reward. Using food as a reward isn't always a bad thing and doesn't always keep you from making progress towards your goals, when it is truly used as a reward and done effectively. Using food as a reward CAN strengthen other, healthier behaviors over the long run. Using food for comfort, on the other hand, on a regular basis will very likely keep you from reaching your goals, so it is important to be proactive about it.
Are you an emotional eater? Did you find any of these suggestions helpful? Don't forget to like, comment, and of course SHARE!