You are not a dog!

Do you use food as a reward?

We are all guilty of having that little foodie treat, but some of us, use food as a reward more often than we should. If we are aiming to lose weight a food reward isn’t going to do us much good.  Much like if Willow the Be Strong dog was looking a bit rotund around the middle, food rewards wouldn’t do her much good either.

If we are trying to change our behaviour and get control of food, the worst thing we could possibly do is reward ourselves with food, as it is just reinforcing the control that food has over you.

Rewarding ourselves with food, sets off the pleasure centres in our brain. Back in the days of cavemen and women, this reward system had a purpose… to make us eat when food was available. But now food is abundantly available all of the time, so all it serves for, is for us to get bigger and bigger. We no longer experience that period of fast, when food is not available, nor do we have to chase down a buffalo, kill it, butcher it and burn off a tonne of calories in the process, in order to obtain our food. We just pick up our smart phone and tap ‘the app’, then 45 minutes later, whilst we have been sat on our backsides, the little fella from the local take away drops off your curry, naan and rice, and the free bottle of full fat coke!

It doesn’t have to be about food!

My Dad trains dogs, they are proper working dogs. He has never, in 25 years of training dogs, ever used food as a reward with his dogs. He uses affection. And those dogs worship my Dad! They will do anything he wants them to, because they have been conditioned to expect a good stroke or a ruff of their fur when they have done a good job.  This works because it still triggers those same pleasure centres in their brains. In fact, it triggers the most basic pleasure centres in the brain. Now I am not suggesting that we all go around stroking each other and ruffing up each other’s hair as a means of reward, but it might be a good idea to look at some other things that make us feel good, and use these as a reward for our achievements, rather than a hot chocolate with cream and marshmallows and a piece of cake.

In fact, to reward ourselves with food has actually been shown to leave us feeling bad.  A scientific study has shown that there is actually an inverse link between the consumption of high calorie food and the level of dopamine released in the brains of obese and overweight people. This study suggests that a larger quantity of higher calorie food is consumed in an attempt to feel good, to release the hormones, but because the brain has become desensitised to this over time, the hormones aren’t released and therefore the person doesn’t experience the pleasure of eating that highly calorific food!  All this translates to guilt for eating the food in the first place, and even more guilt for the volume of high calorie food consumed.

How many of us have experienced that feeling? The excitement of that enormous piece of chocolate cake when you see it in the dessert counter at your favourite café.   The sugar rush of that first delicious mouthful, but once it has been consumed, you are left feeling awful, guilty and like it wasn’t really worth it… familiar? Well now we know why – it’s chemical.

And to make matters worse, a reduction in dopamine production is related to lack of motivation, increased fatigue and apathy, lack of focus and forgetfulness.

So almost certainly, it is a bad idea to use food as a reward, when we are in the overweight and obese category, because not only is it reinforcing bad habits around food, but it is actually going to make us feel bad in the long run and promote further negative feelings. And that’s the last thing we need.

So, how can we feel better about ourselves, and change that food reward impulse?

The hormone that is stimulated in our brains when all this is going on is the pleasure hormone, dopamine. Dopamine is released when we do all sorts of things, not just eating, so if we take steps to do the other things that stimulate dopamine release, our brains will become conditioned to carrying out these activities in order to feel pleasure.

The next time you feel compelled to reward yourself with a piece of cake, stop, you are not a dog, you don’t need a biscuit throwing in your direction to say ‘well done’ – Think! What else might make you happy?

There are lots of non-food rewards that you could use…

  • Tell your family and friends about your success, in person or on social media, the responses you get will give you a real boost!
  • Buy a magazine and treat yourself to an hour’s peace and quiet to read it
  • Buy a bunch of flowers to display at home
  • Download a new song, movie, audio book
  • Take a trip to the cinema
  • Have a day out with your favourite people
  • Take an afternoon off work and don’t tell anyone, spend it in the bath having a pamper session – my idea of heaven!!
  • Collect pound coins for every pound in weight you lose, then every now and again treat yourself to something with it – a new nail polish, some clothing, a beauty treatment – or save up for something special, if you have got a lot of weight to lose.

Let me know about your non-food reward ideas by commenting at the bottom of this article.

Increasing Dopamine

There are also steps that we can take to help increase the amount of dopamine in our brains, activities that we can carry out, that are all believed to stimulate dopamine production in our brain. This in itself will self-perpetuate, as the dopamine is released it will condition you to want to do it again.  It might not happen immediately, but eventually it will, and you will have a new thing that you love to do!

Exercise regularly. Physical exercise is one of the best things you can do for your brain. It is believed to encourage the production of brain cells and slow down brain cell ageing. But it also increases your levels of dopamine. This is why everyone always feels happy when they have done one of our HIIT workouts!

Get a massage.  Avoiding stress is key to keeping dopamine levels up.  We know that this is nearly impossible these days. To counter the effects of stress, research has demonstrated that massage therapy increases dopamine levels by nearly 30% while decreasing cortisol (a stress hormone) levels. You don’t have to pay a fortune for a massage, ask a friend, your partner or your kids to give you a shoulder, foot (if you aren’t ticklish) or even hand massage. Just the act of touching your skin will increase the dopamine levels in your brain.

Exposure to sunlight.  I never need an excuse to get out in the sunshine, and it has been proven that during periods of low sunlight, our mood can suffer. So as soon as that sun is shining, get out there and soak it up – remember to sun yourself safely though!

Learn to meditate. Many research studies have shown that meditation increases dopamine levels leading to improved focus and concentration.  So, find a quiet spot, and spend 15- 20 minutes meditating. There are lots of meditation apps available for smart phones, but an easy way to meditate is to complete the ‘Yoga Nidra’ exercise. You lie down on your back, in a quiet room breathing deeply and slowly. The practice encourages you to focus on your breath and then every part of your body in turn, imagining banishing any tension you are carrying in that muscle. You can find lots of guided ‘yoga nidra’ exercises on the internet. Give it a go, and if you fall asleep whilst doing it, that’s ok too, the term itself means ‘yogic sleep’.

Sleep. Who doesn’t love sleep? And to ensure that your brain increases dopamine naturally, you’ll need to get enough sleep. This includes setting aside time before bed away from the computer, TV, phone or tablet screen, as it’s been proven that screen time before bed affects our sleep quality. Lack of sleep has been shown to reduce concentrations of dopamine and its receptors.  If ever you have needed an excuse to go to bed early or have a lie in, this is it!

Listen to music. Research has shown that the positive effects of listening to music are achieved due to an increase in dopamine levels.  I like nothing more than putting on my favourite tunes and singing along as I am driving in the car (much to my passenger’s dismay) or putting on a banging dance tune and doing some exercise. And now I know why – music coupled with a workout – double dopamine!!!

This week!

When you think about rewarding yourself with food – stop!  Remember you are not a dog! Pick something else and tell us about it, share your ideas in the comments below, or in the Facebook group, they might just help someone else.

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