Cows are ruminants, meaning they sort of vomit up their food and chew it again as cud, and then swallow it. No, I’m not endorsing this as a method of weight loss, although I do notice a striking loss of appetite as I write these words. Rather, I’m thinking of the ruminant piece in the figurative sense. This past week, I’ve been doing a lot of ruminating. Let me explain.
My plan for this week’s post was to elaborate on the conventional wisdom of how food shouldn’t be used as a reward. But somehow, the more I thought about it, the less convincing the conventional wisdom sounded to me.
We are told that we should stop emotional eating. I get that. But perhaps ninety-nine percent of us can’t stop emotional eating any more than we can stop emotional laughing. Or crying, as the case may be. I think we should own that, but I also think we don’t need to be ruled by it. We’re also told that we should seek non-food rewards. I agree with that, too. But still.
Sometimes, food is a fabulous reward. After my daughters and I completed the arduous hike that I mentioned in my Italy post, I said to them, “Tonight, I’m going to have pasta and gelato.” What’s wrong with that? My new answer: nothing.
Sometimes, despite what I wrote about in the “Comfort Circle of Hell,”comfort food is a magnificent idea. Last night, my daughter Joanna came home from a nightmarish 9-hour drive, all her earthly possessions stuffed into a rental minivan, into which she promptly locked her keys (who knew that was even still possible in modern cars?) You can imagine how gratifying it was for me to feed her warm rhubarb crisp and ice cream that I just happened to have left over from a dinner party. You can imagine how delighted she was to eat it. What’s wrong with that? My new answer: nothing.
Here’s what is wrong, though. When food becomes the only reward or the default setting for emotional pain control, then there truly is a problem. Then it’s time to develop new habits that give food less of a role in the normal course of your life. As I talked about in that comfort post, emotional eating begins, understandably, as a way to comfort and protect yourself — but it becomes destructive if “eating your feelings” becomes a habit that leaves you feeling worse. That’s when eating comfort foods is a quick fix that doesn’t fix anything.
After my husband died, I was on a pretty steady diet of grilled cheese and Hershey’s Kisses every night for dinner for two years. For the first month or two, that “meal plan” seemed helpful. I had something to look forward to when I came home at the end of the day. A reward for getting through another day. But eventually, it wasn’t helpful at all — it was just numbing. Once I made the decision to change my relationship with food, then I had to completely sever that emotional connection. I needed non-food rewards, and so I planned a hiking trip and prepared for it by exercising more — especially climbing hills with my dog. This was a great option for me because walking my dog is a source of pleasure; because exercise, in particular outdoor exercise, is a potent mood elevator (1,2); and because I was so pleased with myself to be working toward a goal. I also rewarded myself with new hiking boots (purple suede) and constant gushy positive feedback. That might have been the best reward of all. That and climbing the Alps!
So yes, I think you really can use food as a reward. As long as you’re sure that the reward isn’t a punishment. How do you tell the difference? I think it’s mostly a matter of not habitually using food in an attempt to regulate emotions and by not using food as a substitute for human connection. I’m going to continue ruminating on this subject, and I’d love to know your thoughts.
(1) Lacharite-Lemieux M et al. Adherence to exercise and affective responses: comparison between outdoor and indoor training. Menopause 2015; 22(7):731-40.
(2) Puett, R et al. Physical activity: does environment make a difference for tension, stress, emotional outlook, and perceptions of health status? J Phys Act Health 2014; 11(8):1503-11