How To Reward Yourself With Food Without It Turning Into Emotional Eating

Have you ever awakened frustrated by what you ate the day before, swearing today was the first day of “never again”? But then, as the day wore on, exhaustion, cravings and a maniac co-worker loosened the screws on your oath. It started with rationalizing why you deserve gummy bears. But then, mysteriously, those gummy bears turned into an evening of wine and food trophies?

Last week I was asked about “a healthy way to think about rewarding yourself with food, without feeling like it’s an unhealthy habit that gets repeated.” In other words, when does rewarding yourself with food become guaranteed to be one serving versus a downward spiral of regret like the scenario above? Today I’m going to share with you a flow chart of sorts to help know when food is a legit reward versus emotional eating.

Let’s start with the big picture:

The term reward is used for receiving something when you have done some worthy behavior. In U.S. culture, even if you run with a more progressive crowd, what gets outwardly rewarded is more or less, the old guard of Puritan ethos. The more you sacrifice (bonus points for women!), the theory suggests the more you are to be rewarded. What I’ve seen with many of my clients, all brilliant, caring and hard-working, is that despite achieving the end goal of job stability with benefits and industry recognition, Mother of the year awards, or running their own businesses, the accomplishment process of being the good soldier, in this case, good girl, has been in many ways, sacrificial. And in many ways, many systems demand this. From under valuing motherhood to business structures paying women less for more work, women are justifiably worn out. And the kicker? At the goal finish line, what next?

Photo credit: Anne Taintor

Photo credit: Anne Taintor

Enter the emotional representation of food. One key emotion food represents is nurturance. At birth, nurturance was the emotional alchemy of being fed, and thus safe. Food and being “mothered” will forever be linked. One limitation of the Puritan model is that you can’t have healthy crops or decisions without tending to the soil. As an adult, sustenance looks different for all of us. However, when your metaphorical plate (the one you most likely refer to as always too full or uninspiring) has more servings of sacrifice than nurturance, food becomes a chronic “reward” for all your “worthy” behavior.

There is a lot about our culture that has to change. Mega popular self-help sentiments – usually written by men – about your destiny being just about your individual will are naive. But, if you are on a computer with time to read this email, you most likely have the resources to reconsider the sacrificial-reward model. This is not about just taking back the night, but the day too.

Now on a practical level, here’s how to redefine worthy for yourself and determine when food is worth the price of admission:

1. Change your language from food as a reward to food as an experience. The language you choose is significant. Metaphors aren’t just intellectual exercises but a compass for how you navigate the world. If you want food to no longer be a default trophy, unlink food is a reward. You don’t need to earn nurturance. A more true metaphor is food thought of as an experience.

2. Make food a metaphorical experience you are happy to invest in with your time and money. Do you love art? Dance? Massage? Whatever experience you value, determine a criteria that makes the eating experience worthy. Then make your metaphor more specific. If food is art, then what criteria makes art so moving you carve our time to walk the entire length of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway or hop on a train to the Met to see that art? Novelty? Old-time favorites? Colorful? Quality?

If the process and after effects of eating the food will fill you up as much in the process of eating it and afterward, go for it. It’s emotionally feeding you in a supportive way. One of my clients was surprised how much beauty was important to her and found it very easy to pass up all the “brown food” at a niece’s Communion party and was happy to add the extra colorful side salad dishes. On the flip side, she knows when she goes to a restaurant and presentation is one of the guiding values, she opts for the dessert because of the experience and taste.

3. If it doesn’t meet your food is (insert experience) here, and you still want the food, what elements can you add? For example, massages are hands down, my favorite spa experience. To me, a massage represents relaxation, calm and really helps me get into my body since I tend to live in my head. When I still struggled with food, if I was at an event or even working at my computer, I knew creating these conditions, which included sitting down undistracted and engaging all my five body senses, would help me genuinely enjoy the food in question rather than feeling like a cheap reward.

4. Start adding more elements of your chosen metaphorical experience into your life. Just like food isn’t often about nutrition, massage, art or your chosen metaphor is often about the feelings underneath that experience. Start adding one feeling a week to your life and notice the magical, interconnected nature of life being its own, regenerative reward and food, not so much.

Not only can these four steps guide you, they also help enormously with portion control simply because you are being mindful.

If you feel now is the time to more drastically change the food as a (insert self-sabotaging idea here) metaphor, I’ve opened up more spaces in my private practice with my graduate work complete. Having said that, I’m already 40% full for the year. Here are the details to sign-up for an introductory consult to see if we are a good match.

Now I’d love to hear from you. What will your new food metaphor related to nurturing experiences be? What qualities will you look for in your food experience? Please share below!

2 thoughts on “How To Reward Yourself With Food Without It Turning Into Emotional Eating

  1. Yes, Mary! Great point. The body has certain requirements and there is no getting around that. However, it doesn’t ask for a lot and gives an awful lot in return!

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