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Sunday, June 20, 2010

Using food as a reward?

Many a diet regime or article that writes of diet strategies to incorporate “treat” foods such as chocolates, cakes, lollies or even cheese has spoke of the use of foods as rewards for sticking to certain regimes. A wine at the end of a day of healthy eating; a chocolate bar once a week or a coffee and banana bread after a heavy gym workout. While any diet regime that emphasizes the importance of balance rather than an “all or nothing “ approach is a good way to approach sustainable behavioural change, there is also evidence to suggest that rewarding with food may actually prime the brain to look for these food rewards more and more.

In fact, brain scans have shown that if the brain has been programmed to think of rewards, whether they be food or drink based, or physical rewards such as doing something pleasurable, the chemical dopamine is released. Dopamine makes us feel really good, and as such, once you get some, you naturally want more. So, if you are rewarding yourself with a chocolate bar for “being good on your diet”, you are going to be looking for this sensation chemically pretty soon again afterwards.

Knowing this, rather than using food as a reward for perceived good behaviour, a better approach may be to pay more attention to the cues your body is giving you about what you really feel like eating at any point in time. Often we eat simply because we have given ourselves permission to do so rather than building a baseline healthy diet and including higher fat foods for special occasions or at times we may really feel like a chocolate bar or some cheese and really enjoying it as a result. Food and eating is one of life’s greatest and simple pleasures, the sooner we allow ourselves to enjoy treats in moderation, the sooner we will achieve long term weight control and get to eat the foods we love, in the right amounts, at the right time.