Role of your Reward system in your food cravings

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When my clients tell me about their struggles with weight they often talk about their food cravings. Many people have strong attachment to their favorite foods like pizza or bagels, chocolate or cupcakes. They believe that to lose weight they will have to say “no” to the foods they crave and have a hard time resisting. Therefore, when they think of a weight loss process, they think of it in terms of deprivation. In addition, during our nutrition counseling sessions many reveal their belief that feeling deprived and unhappy is the only way they can lose weight.

This article explores how those cravings or strong desires for a particular food come to existence. Then, we’ll look at what the reward system is and the role it plays in our cravings. We will also explore the mistakes we tend to make when we believe the promise of our reward system. I will offer you a way to find out what you really crave, test the promise(s) of your reward system and find a “better offer” – three approaches to experiment with and to maybe shake some of your old beliefs that no longer serve you. As a result, you’ll be able to reevaluate your reward system promises, see them in a different light and hopefully free yourself from those irresistible cravings.

Our experience with food is more than taste and flavor

We learn from our experiences and many of our learnings about food go all the way back to childhood. We might not remember the actual events but we remember the feeling and the connections we made. Cake equals happiness! We learn to think of birthday cakes as something that gives us pleasure. The strong good feelings actually came from the whole experience of a birthday party, arrival of guests, excitement of opening the presents and euphoria of being the center of attention. Same is true about Halloween and candy. The kids are giddy, running around with their friends or parents dressed up as their favorite heroes collecting candy. Candy becomes a powerful anchor for that wonderful feeling. Candy by itself would probably never be able to make us feel so good.

It’s not the food itself it’s what we think about it

A beautiful display of pastries, a smell of freshly brewed coffee, a sound of the opening of a Coke can – anything that we think will make us feel good/happy/satisfied triggers the reward system and hijacks our attention. Our mind becomes fixated on obtaining that reward. Interestingly, even if the reward never arrives, if we never obtain the level of satisfaction we think a piece of cake can give us, the promise of the reward is enough to keep us hooked.

The experience of wanting is not a guaranty of pleasure

Now let’s take a look at this wanting, craving and desire from a neurological standpoint. Scientists attribute the experience of craving to release of dopamine and stimulation of what is called the“reward system” area in the brain. The reward system is a part of the brain’s most primitive motivation system that propels us to action. The rush of dopamine doesn’t feel like joy or happiness. It doesn’t give us any satisfaction. What it does is it captivates our attention and makes us alert so that we are ready to act and don’t miss out on the reward. The reward system doesn’t give us pleasure itself it gives us an anticipation of pleasure. And it’s this promise of feeling good that keeps us coming for more, and more.

Can we wear off the magical spell of the reward system?

The good news is yes, we can free ourselves from a craving and get disenchanted with our trigger foods. It’s helpful to make a list of those foods and address them one by one. Let’s become true detectives of our own desires, reactions and feelings. What captivates your attention and unleashes the promise of a reward? Which foods compel us and feel irresistible? Make sure to have a notebook to keep your ideas and discoveries recorded.

Find out what your food cravings really mean

Get very curious about your particular craving. Maybe you can connect it to an experience from the past that made this food so attractive for you. For example, one of my clients really loved donuts. When she got curious she remembered a particular shop in her hometown where she used to go with her girlfriends when she was in school. She loved the experience of hanging out with them at the shop and eating donuts. My client realized that when she was thinking of donuts her reward system was promising her the pleasure of the wonderful time she had there with her friends. She also realized that a donut can never fulfill that promise. As a result, the donut became just a tad less compelling for her.

Put the promise of the reward system to a test

Because our attention is captivated by the promise of feeling good we are mostly aware of how much we want our favorite food. Most of the time we are not aware of the bad feelings that accompany dopamine driven desire. Here is what I suggest you do to test your reward system promise.

Test your reward system promise: 

  • Get plenty of that food you think you love so much. 
  • Make sure there are no distractions, no TV, no phone, no one to chat with, not even a book to read. It’s just you and the food. 
  • Then start eating it slowly, savoring every bite, paying attention to the flavor, the smell and the texture. 
  • Notice how much you enjoy the first bite, and the second, and the third. Notice what happens with the fourth and the fifth bites. Are you still enjoying them just as much? Write down your discoveries and keep on eating until you don’t want to eat anymore. What did you learn? 
  • Write it down. After you ate as much as you wanted and you don’t want to or can’t have a single additional bite, how do you feel physically, how does your body feel? Write it down. 
  • How do you feel 1, 2 or even 3 hours into the day? What physical sensations are you having? What are your thoughts and feelings about the experience? When, if ever, did you experience the satisfaction? And yes, you guessed it, write it down.

Most people find out that one of two things is true for them. Some stop enjoying the food after only a few bites and realize they need a lot less of the food to feel satisfied than they initially thought. Others discover the experience unsatisfying all together, which shows that the promise is mismatching the reality of their experience with the food. But don’t take my word, find out for yourself. Learning by doing gives you evidence you can’t deny.

“Find a better offer” approach

Often when people give in to their reward system temptation and eat their trigger food, they feel bad afterwards either physically from overeating or emotionally. It’s that “hangover” feeling that we can use in the approach that we can call “find a better offer”.

Let’s assume you are going somewhere and you know your favorite food is going to be there (a social event, a grocery store, your boyfriend’s house). Here is an approach you can practice that can make it easier for you to make a choice you won’t regret. Take a deep breath and imagine the details of what’s ahead of you: the setting, the food, your anticipation of eating that food. Notice if there is a hint of stress and anxiety that comes along with it as well. Now see yourself eating the food the way you typically would. Then continue going through the whole scenario of what might happen. You’ll see that the promised pleasure will actually take you all the way to pain. And your brain will go “OH NO! I don’t really want that pain!” (of feeling stuffed, or feeling bad about yourself, feeling guilty or shaming yourself). 

At that point, the food you craved so much won’t seem so attractive anymore. What could be a better offer? Come up with another idea that will feel good. It could be some other foods that you can eat, that will make you feel comfortable in your body and happy because they take you closer to your lighter, healthier self. It could also be something unrelated to food like calling a friend or going dancing.

Conclusion

The reward system is there to motivate us and propel us to action. Its job is to point us to temptation and keep us coming back for more. Our mind mistakes our cravings, our desires for pleasure or happiness. And what’s even worse is we chase after things that don’t make us happy or satisfied. However, we do have a say in where our reward system points us to! And by testing the promise of the reward we can learn how far it is from reality and free ourselves from our food cravings. This will result in weight loss we truly desire.

If you are looking for a more guided approach to weight loss please contact me to schedule a free 15 minute consultation.

You can find more information on the reward system and how we mistake wanting for happiness in Kelly McGonigal’s book The Willpower Instinct.