Letting Go of Food as a Reward
When you hear ‘treat yourself’ does food come to mind? For too many, food is a reward. Our culture of birthday cakes, lollipops at doctors’ visits, and eating out, all shore up this notion that food is a prize to be won. Multiple studies have shown however, that this tendency toward food as a reward is more intense in obese and overweight individuals. In fact, even in the absence of hunger, the leaning toward food has been shown to be higher when compared to normal weight individuals. So, how do you turn off your impulse to use food to reward yourself? Do you keep eating even after you're full for enjoyment?
Practice Makes Perfect: Restraint vs. Control
Despite the reality of appetite, multiple studies have proven the battle of overeating can only be won by practicing self-control. Those using the just-say-no approach are more prone to overeating than those who allow themselves to indulge a little. Training yourself to control overeating because of reward means not avoiding certain foods, but facing your temptation head on, and finding ways to limit the amount of the food you eat. One study employed a stop signal to a high calorie food. So you know, counting calories, setting a specific serving size, and limiting how often you eat certain foods are ways to practice control.
In addition to practicing self-control, for your new ways to stick, creating healthy habits is another way to stave off the urge to use food as a reward. A study by researchers in the Netherlands found habit strength to be the most important predictor of unhealthy snacking behavior. A new habit that will throw off your usual routine can be setting timed snack reminders. Another way is to set a trigger before snacking, such as walking, logging the previous meal, or looking at a goal picture. Create a new habit that consistently reminds you how overeating affects your health. As the new habit gains strength, you'll build up that muscle to make better choices. By the way, walking isn't just about burning calories, exercise has been proven to reduce brain responses to food reward.
Because old habits die hard, and healthier habits are weaker rewards, you must also find ways to reward yourself so that food slowly becomes less powerful or satisfying. This doesn't mean starving yourself for a pair of Christian Louboutins, it means eating a balanced meal, and when you feel full, setting rewards in place so that the urge to continue eating for enjoyment is hampered. Your rewards should not be impulsive or in reaction to not doing something bad, instead they should play up something good in your life. Have you promised to contact a friend more regularly, or have your eye on accomplishing a life-long goal? Create a post-meal ritual that includes interacting with a non-food related endeavor. Eventually, you may find yourself looking past the plate for fulfillment.
Have you been able to change your food-as-reward attitude with specific habits or rituals? What has and has not worked for you?
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