November 28, 2022

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What to do when your brain chases food rewards

Studying Time: 6 minutes

In our present day foods environment, most of us are blessed to have prepared accessibility to a selection of food items. But what is difficult is that we are also uncovered to a large amount of visual food cues, including:


  • Commercials
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  • Open up-idea kitchens
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  • Coworkers bringing in cookies or doughnuts
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  • Chips and candy in close proximity to the register even at retailers that really don’t mainly provide food items
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This sort of setting would make it more hard to simply try to eat when we detect we’re hungry. Instead, we may want to consume just mainly because we lay eyes on a meals that seems tasty. In excess of time, visual food items cues may well lead us to eat when we’re not hungry a lot more than we would if those cues weren’t present. (Notice: this is considerably less probable to materialize for people who by no means experienced their inner intuitive eater knocked out of them, or who have reclaimed and practiced intuitive having competencies). We’re ingesting because we are searching for a reward, and that reward isn’t (or is not only) the enjoyable of starvation.

Why does this take place? Let us investigate.

Evolution and your brain

Some behaviors that really do not make realistic feeling these days (and could even result in us distress) produced a whole lot of perception to our long-back ancestors. If you were being an early hunter-gatherer, remembering how to entry good resources of food items (which watering gap the wooly mammoths choose, exactly where to locate the berries that aren’t poisonous…and when they’re in period) would assist make it attainable for you to survive so you could choose component in perpetuating the species.

Remembering this important foodstuff facts demands either beneficial or unfavorable reinforcement (or both).


  • With optimistic reinforcement, you obtain a reward for taking a specific motion.
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  • With negative reinforcement, you minimize a thing unfavorable by having a certain action.
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Both equally varieties of reinforcement enhance the odds that you will choose that action again in the upcoming, for the reason that when our brains make the connection among an action (or actions) and a reward, it makes a impressive emotional memory.

Reported another way, if you take in a delightful food stuff, and it would make you truly feel fantastic (constructive reinforcement), you embed a memory that allows you later remember where by you acquired the food, what you liked about it, the circumstance in which we ate it, etc.

Similarly, if you are stressed or unfortunate or nervous, and you eat a thing that helps you truly feel much less undesirable (negative reinforcement), you might embed a memory that eating specific foods lessens specific awkward emotions.

I see the outcomes of this “brain training” for food benefits enjoy out in distinct strategies, most notably “food addiction” and dieting.

The “rewards” of dieting

Let’s say you are counting energy, carbs or body fat grams—or usually “watching what you eat” or “controlling part sizes”—and you do reduce body weight (as most individuals do for the small time period). If you get compliments about your shrinking entire body, that serves as constructive reinforcement to retain executing what you’re performing. That can aid compensate for the soul-sucking character of eating “good” meals that you really don’t genuinely like and supplying up “bad” foods that you love.

Chasing the benefits of compliments, praise and acceptance retains folks chasing excess weight decline, which perpetuates yo-yo dieting.

(There is a different facet to this coin, however. I have had clientele who have been in a phase of their everyday living where they ended up a lot more active than regular and feeding on “normally,” and shed some bodyweight as a aspect effect. Then the compliments started coming, which manufactured them uncomfortable—not everyone desires their entire body to be commented on, even in a “positive” way—which triggered them to begin binge taking in and/or staying much less energetic so they could continue to be indoors and disguise their entire body. When they obtained body weight and the system complements stopped, this served as a detrimental reinforcement to remain on this path.)

Let us not forget that restrained taking in (foodstuff restriction) often sales opportunities to rebound having. This rebound feeding on may come to feel like psychological taking in, “out-of-control” ingesting, or binging. In some conditions, it may well really meet the scientific definition of a binge, and of binge having problem (Bed).

The perpetuation of this rebound ingesting in reaction to true or even perceived restriction (scarcity), is pushed by food stuff tasting so considerably much more fulfilling right after we have been deprived of it. On that note…

Fueling “food addiction”

On the “food addiction” entrance, I have had shoppers who had pretty solid emotional ingesting tendencies. From time to time this begun in childhood (when they had been much too younger to have made other indicates of coping). From time to time this commenced in adulthood (in the course of pretty demanding, incredibly active situations of existence when using time for meaningful self-care was a pipe aspiration).

Do you assume that making use of food to feel beloved and cared for (favourable reinforcement) or to numb out (damaging reinforcement) produces strong psychological recollections? Yes it does.

It’s this reinforcement, and these psychological reminiscences, that hold neglected kids locked in an emotional ingesting cycle a long time later even if they now have a loving spouse, great pals and a satisfying existence. It’s what helps make a medical or mental overall health specialist (who you may possibly consider would “know better”) notice that they have no coping tools other than meals because foodstuff usually labored so well for them that they hardly ever bothered to diversify their coping toolbox.

There is some proof that so-named “highly palatable” food items (processed meals significant in additional sugar, salt and fats) can have an even a lot more satisfying influence. It can get to the place exactly where we so strongly foresee that reward when we eat those foods that it is extremely challenging to resist visible cues associated with those people foodstuff. For example, a photograph of somebody feeding on ice product, a pizza advertisement on Television set, donuts (even stale donuts) in the split place.

So is this foodstuff addiction, or is it mind training?

Retraining the brain

Regardless of what you contact it, taking in that feels psychological or out of manage in some way may possibly feel fantastic in the second, but then not so excellent later.


  • You may possibly truly feel guilt or disgrace (which you honestly do not ought to have)
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  • You might have eaten to the place of actual physical pain
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  • You could possibly anxiety pounds obtain (even though your feeding on may possibly not basically be creating pounds obtain and stopping emotional/binge taking in might not lead to bodyweight decline)
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Which of these applications is most effective for retraining your brain about food items benefits?


  1. Willpower
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  3. Mindfulness
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  5. A lobotomy
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Oh, I hope you stated B! Willpower is actual, but it’s not an infinite source, and we use it up as we make decisions and deal with stressors all over the day. (When you want to say a thing snarky to a co-employee or honk at a impolite driver, and you really don’t, you just employed up some willpower.) And I’m not even likely to remark on the notion of a lobotomy.

Using mindfulness in this context involves:


  • Turning out to be informed of our behaviors and what triggers them
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  • Exploring and recognizing the genuine rewards (actual physical sensations and emotional outcomes) we get from the behavior—without judgement (!)
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  • Using that details to make a compassionate decision that supports self-care
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Though getting a general mindfulness meditation observe can assist with this, a brief, casual, in-the-moment practice, such as this model of the RAIN meditation, might be more beneficial:


  • Recognize the craving/ingesting impulse
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  • Allow the knowledge to exist, just as it is
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  • Investigate with interest and care what it feels like in the physique
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  • Note the associated bodily sensations from instant to moment, with self-compassion
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If you would like to learn more about RAIN, Tara Brach discusses it nicely on her web-site.

The bottom line

It is easy to get trapped in recurring actions styles that we did not consciously pick out and could also be repeating endlessly devoid of producing a aware alternative to do so. These patterns are not limited to food…we may well obtain ourselves repeating selected designs in our associations, our browsing behavior, and other factors of life.

When we can shine a self-compassionate light on what we’re executing and why we’re doing it, it opens the door to producing a conscious preference, irrespective of whether that choice is in alignment with our recognized behavior, or a thing absolutely diverse. The actuality that we now have a option (no extra autopilot) is a earn.

Carrie Dennett is a Pacific Northwest-primarily based registered dietitian nutritionist, freelance author, intuitive consuming counselor, author, and speaker. Her superpowers contain busting diet myths and empowering women to come to feel superior in their bodies and make food stuff choices that help enjoyment, nutrition and overall health.

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