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Why Is Food So Damn Rewarding?

February 21, 2018

 

This is going to be my first blog that is going to really focus, behaviorally, on one specific aspect of weight loss. It is going to use a few technical terms but at the same time I'll try to explain what they mean so you can have a deeper understanding. If you have any questions, shoot me a message or drop a comment!

Now let's jump right in! Let's start with the idea of a reward. Behaviorally we'd refer to this as reinforcement. The technical definition for reinforcement is "any consequence that leads to the behavior being more likely to occur in the future." There are endless possibilities for what these can be- a hug, a high five, an award, a paid day off, being let out of class early, a new phone. These vary by person since we all have different preferences and interests. If you don't like being hugged, then a hug wouldn't be very rewarding! But a few things serve as reinforcement for everybody. We don't have to learn to like them because they're required for life. Food is one of these things. Which specific foods are most rewarding for you may be different, but you literally need food to survive so getting food is VERY REWARDING. If you weren't motivated to eat, you'd starve to death.

Though reinforcement is a concept originally from behavior science, it has a neurological basis. When you eat something, especially if it's something tasty, it causes signals to be sent to the reward system in the brain which makes it so you remember how to get that food in the future. To be clear- this is how most, if not all, learning occurs. The reward system is there for a very necessary reason and does NOT equal addiction, though one part of it is involved in addiction. The reward system is used by your brain to tell itself, "remember this! Do this again!" It helps build strong memories.

Though the purpose of this with food is to ensure that we learn where and how to get food- again, because we need to just to survive, this response isn't limited to when we are hungry. We learn through this same mechanism that food = comfort. Again, this reward effect happens whether we are hungry or not. Unless we are really satiated, at which point our brain typically gets a signal to cut it out. Even THIS can be over ridden at times (ever been so full you couldn't eat another bite... until you saw dessert? Yep. Blame your brain.)

The use of food as a reward is NOT usually a problem. It's natural and NECESSARY for survival. But that's what makes it so powerful. Food addiction (which there is some disagreement on whether or not it should be considered an addiction at all) isn't as simple as using food as a reward. FOOD IS SUPPOSED TO BE A REWARD. Food is by definition one of the most necessary things to be rewarding. 

It's not our brains that are working wrong at all. It's our environment.  Only relatively recently in history has nearly unlimited amounts of food been available to us at all times. Prior to this, eating even when not necessarily hungry was how you made sure you didn't starve when you didn't know when you'd be getting your next meal. Which is why we are still so motivated by food, even when we may not be hungry.

Bottom line, food being highly rewarding is a built in and very human thing. This is why it is so hard to moderate our eating habits, because our brains are literally working against us. That is why it is so hard, not because there is anything wrong with you.

This can be a problem- for those of us who have difficulty with choosing healthier foods or have trouble with over eating our favorites. But it also has some powerful benefits, in addition to the very important one of keeping us alive. Food, and our unending need to ingest it, shapes many of our behaviors. There are times when using food as a reward CAN be helpful, like teaching a child to eat their vegetables ("you can have a cupcake after you finish your broccoli!") In this way you can also teach yourself healthier eating habits. When we put something highly rewarding directly after something not-so-rewarding, it can make the not-so-rewarding thing itself become rewarding. Luckily for us, even nutritious food is rewarding! And we can make it more so- instead of depriving yourself of your favorite foods, instead allow yourself to have them, preferably in a smaller portion, ONLY IF you have already eaten a healthier option first. Your brain will begin to associate the healthier foods with the treats, and the healthier food will, in time, become more rewarding on their own. You can absolutely also use food as a reward for doing things you may not like- post workout snacks are not only rewarding you for your hard work, but (as long as they are somewhat nutritious) can be necessary fuel for your body at that time.

Now, it is important to distinguish between FOOD (the reward) and EATING (the behavior) Food always rewards the behavior of eating the food, and any other behaviors leading up to it. Food should be used of course when you are truly hungry but also is OK in moderation to reward healthy behaviors. Stress eating, emotional eating, binge eating, are not healthy behaviors. However, food is just as powerful of a reward when eating for the wrong reasons as when eating for the right ones. This is where food being rewarding causes us problems.

The key isn't to stop using food as a reward. The trick is to hack the power that food has as a reward to use it in a healthier way. 

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