Episode 72 Summary

  • Reward eating - under the big umbrella term of emotional eating, there exists subcategories of emotional eating, one of which is reward eating. Reward eating is emotional eating or non-hungry eating, in response to doing something that was difficult, or unpleasant, or accomplishing something good. It is eating some kind of food when we are not hungry, rather using the food to enhance a positive experience or mitigate a negative experience.
  • Reward eating can be quite benign, such as going out to lunch to celebrate a new position at work. However, when it is non-hungry eating, such as eating cakes or other sugary, high carb foods simply to celebrate a moment that actually has nothing to do with food, it can sometimes take us further away from our health goals.  
  • Reward eating is taught to us very early on - as children when we are given vaccinations, we receive a lollipop as a reward. This teaches us that a painful experience in life results in a food reward. This extends into primary school, when for example kids are rewarded with lollies for good behaviour or academic performance.
  • Rewriting these stories in our heads - although society has taught us since childhood that we need food as a reward to either mitigate an unpleasant experience or enhance a joyful experience, we can change this narrative. This is done by bringing awareness to these subconscious thoughts that you need the food, which then brings these thoughts into your conscious brain and allows you to recognise that these are all just tools that we were taught that were helpful at a particular stage, but no longer serve us.
  • Food as a punishment - equally common, but perhaps not necessarily talked about is the restriction of food as a punishment. For example, telling a child, “If you don't do this, you won't get a lollipop”. People can also use fasting as a punishment, for example not eating anything the following day if they have indulged in overeating. 
  • How to avoid using food as a reward - the key here is to know yourself really well, to know the story in your head. If you know that you find it hard to regulate yourself at eating just one food item as a reward (i.e. you are likely to end up eating food item after item possibly even until they are all gone), it is often kinder to just remove yourself from that situation. Rather than using food as a reward for accomplishing something, instead think about using something as a reward which aligns with your health goals, for example a fancy cup of tea.
  • Learning through your failures - if you do slip up and use food as a reward, rather than berating yourself, use this as a perfect opportunity to examine the moment with self-kindness and think about what happened. And then the next time you will know yourself better and will understand that reaching for the “sugary treats” doesn't serve you well.

Show notes:


Rewards and punishment


Dr Mary Barson: Hello, my lovely listeners. I'm Dr Mary Barson.


Dr Lucy Burns: And I'm Dr Lucy Burns. Welcome to this episode of Real Health and Weight Loss. Good morning, lovely listeners, Dr Lucy here. And I am joined of course, by the wonderful Dr Mary. How are you this morning Dr Mary?


Dr Mary Barson: I am excellent this morning, thank you. Very pregnant, but still feeling well.


Dr Lucy Burns: Wonderful, wonderful. Growing a baby can be tiring.


Dr Mary Barson: Yes.


Dr Lucy Burns: But I think you're in that, you're in that middle phase, aren't you, where it is not quite as sort of, you're not dealing with morning sickness and you're not dealing with the massive, uncomfortable belly that happens close to term.


Dr Mary Barson: That's right. It is a nice little golden phase at the moment. Still, still getting a little bit uncomfortable. Every now and again, I look at my belly and with some slight disbelief that it's going to get bigger. But I am actually feeling fine.


Dr Lucy Burns: Wonderful, wonderful. So lovely friends, today we are talking about a subject that is very dear to our heart, close to our heart and something we talk about all the time. And that is of course, emotional eating.


Dr Mary Barson: Yes. So common.


Dr Lucy Burns: Very common. And one of the things that we know is that there's little subbranches of emotional eating. So it is sort of, you know, the big umbrella term, which can be emotional eating or comfort eating and then there's little subcategories. So today's subcategory is something that I'm sure many of you are familiar with, and a phrase that we call reward eating. So Mares, would you like to explain to our lovely friends what, what we mean by when we say reward eating?


Dr Mary Barson: So it's a subgroup of this emotional eating or non-hungry eating, when we do something that perhaps was hard, that was unpleasant, that you know, we take something off our to do list, and we feel like we deserve a reward for it. Or it could be that we've accomplished something really awesome. Maybe we got, you know that promotion at work, or we did something that we feel really proud of. We finished something that we needed to get finished and so to accentuate the joy and the sense of accomplishment, we celebrate with some kind of food when we're not hungry. So we're not talking about eating to nourish our bodies for fuel and sustenance, we're talking about using food to enhance an emotional experience.


Dr Lucy Burns: Absolutely. And in fact, that's exactly the definition of emotional eating. You can use it to null or mitigate a negative experience, or for some people to enhance a positive experience. But with all forms of emotional eating, the majority of it comes from conditioning. And what we mean by that is that it's how we act in our society. Stories that have happened, experiences that we've all had, that perpetuate this concept that reward eating is something that everyone does.


Dr Mary Barson: Yes. It can be quite benign, you know like going out for lunch to celebrate a new position. But when it is that kind of non-hungry eating, eating with cakes, going out and finding the sugary, high carb food, just to celebrate a moment that really has nothing to do with food, it can sometimes take us further away from our health goals. We do vaccinations at our clinic. I've been working at a few places that are doing childhood COVID vaccinations and I can see the buckets and buckets and buckets of lollipops that we as a society use to reward children for going through a painful, uncomfortable and frightening experience. And vaccinations are in many ways just a part of life. They are I would argue one of those life experiences that children and adults you know, just sort of need to do if you want to have the benefits of preventative Western medicine. I'm not just talking about the COVID vaccination, I'm talking about vaccinations more generally. They are painful and they suck, but it is just part of life. But we teach children very early on that you know, that this life experience is painful experience results in a reward. You have the painful jab in your arm, and you get a lollipop. Drives me crazy, but I don't think it's going away anytime soon.


Dr Lucy Burns: Yeah. You know, it's that concept of it can be both a reward and a bribe. So the idea you know, we will use it to coerce kids to do their thing. And so then what happens for us as adults is that we still have that same thought process. It's a mindset, we still have that same mindset. It might not be in our frontal lobe, right, in our logical brain, but it's in our subconscious brain, which is the, you know, the non-logical brain, the bit that just collate stories for ever, and then makes them a truth. So you know, for a lot of people, it might be something like you have to do, you know, a job that's boring. So, you know, for me might be, “Oh, I have to do my tax. Aww, I've got to sit at the computer for two hours. Ooh, I know, I'll cheer myself up and have a piece of cake when I'm done”.


Dr Mary Barson: That's right. I was studying, oh I remember. I've done a lot of studying in my life, and I would reward myself by you know, sitting down at my desk and studying hours and hours and hours every day before exams by eating chocolate sultanas. And it was a special thing, I would only buy myself chocolates sultanas in SWOTVAC as we call it, in the period of study that you do before your exams, and it was this special SWOTVAC treat. And it was very, very, this association that I had made with myself.


Dr Lucy Burns: Yeah.


Dr Mary Barson: But yes, it does suck having to sit here and study, you know, 10 to 12 hours a day for the next two weeks, but “chocolate sultanas”.


Dr Lucy Burns: Yes, I'll mitigate this discomfort with a reward. And I know that we've spoken about this, but we see it in in schools, again, kids being rewarded for either behaviour or academic results. And you know, I was one of those moms that went to our school to talk about it, because you know, the kids were getting lolly snakes for answering a maths question, you know, in a little quiz. And they put their hand up, and yeah, they get the answer, so they got a lolly snake. And it's like, “What are we doing here? What are we teaching them”?


Dr Mary Barson: It's hard, isn't it? But we've done, like I'm a mom of young kids, I am not above bribing my children, I'd tell you what. When you're in the thick of parenting, you know, you'll just use whatever works in the moment and that's alright. But I do try. I do try to keep the emotion out of food. You know, we've had a podcast episode on this. Try not to label food as good or bad. Try not to use food as a reward. And don't use food as a punishment, which we'll talk about later in this podcast. However you're up against it, because society will do it for you. So even if you're doing the best you can at home, that society is still doing a really good job of reinforcing that you can use food as a reward, you can use food to mitigate discomfort, and that's a perfectly acceptable tool.


Dr Lucy Burns: Yeah, absolutely. And so I think the purpose of us highlighting this is not to make people feel bad, because we've all done it. Absolutely, again why wouldn't we do it? We've been taught to do it, we've been conditioned to do it. We've all had it done to us. So it's not, definitely not to judge or make people feel bad. It's to bring an awareness to something that is really, just really common and understanding then for the adult of us who are trying to change behaviour and finding it really hard. “Why is it so hard? Why do I come home from work, and I just want to have a glass of wine? Why do I do that”? It's like, because you've been taught too, you've been conditioned too.


Dr Mary Barson: Your brain says, “I deserve this”. The wonderful thing is though, that you can rewrite the stories in your head. Just because from our childhood and from society, we have these stories in our head that we need the alcohol and we need the food as a reward, as to mitigate a yucky experience or to increase the joy of an experience. You can rewrite that story, Lucy and I see people do this all the time.


Dr Lucy Burns: Absolutely, absolutely rewrite it. The first step is of course, the awareness to know that it's even there. And again that, just bringing these thoughts into your conscious brain. So they were in your subconscious brain where you're not even really aware of them. You bring them to your conscious brain, and you can see your thoughts without judgement. Because as soon as we start judging ourselves, we shut down and it all just runs back. So the idea is that, “Oh, I see that”, and you know, recognising that these are all just tools that we were taught that were helpful at a particular stage, but no longer serve us. And so you can decide if you want to, because remember you're the boss of you, you get to decide, you get to decide whether to let this tool go or not.


Dr Mary Barson: And you can do it with kindness. So often we are our own worst critics and being highly self-critical tends to drive us to the food and alcohol even more.


Dr Lucy Burns: Yes, absolutely. So it's common, food for a reward. But equally common, and perhaps not necessarily talked about is the restriction of food as a punishment. Now Mares, this is pretty common and again it comes sort of like on the flip side of bribery. You know, trying to get somebody to do something and maybe a kid. “Do this and you'll get a lollipop. If you don't do this, you won't get a lollipop”.


Dr Mary Barson: Yes.


Dr Lucy Burns: So common and Mares, you've got a lovely little nursery rhyme to read.


Dr Mary Barson: I just, I was thinking about how pervasive this is, restricting food as a punishment going back to children. It's riddled all through popular culture and also nursery rhymes. You know “The Three Little Kittens”, by Mother Goose. “The three little kittens they lost their mittens, and they began to cry, Oh, mother dear, we sadly fear that we have lost our mittens. What? Lost your mittens, your naughty kittens! Then you shall have no pie. Mee-ow, mee-ow, mee-ow. Then you shall have no pie”.


Dr Lucy Burns: Absolutely. And when you read it out loud, it's brutal isn't it?


Dr Mary Barson: It is, it is. The story seems to go on that they find their mittens and then the kittens do get pie. And then it's a happy story in the end, they get rewarded.


Dr Lucy Burns: Yeah, absolutely. But yet again, it just comes back to the tying of food with reward and with punishment and for a lot of people, you know using fasting, they will use fasting as a punishment. So they may have had a time where they've overeaten, for whatever reason and then the next day, then they go, “Right, I'm fasting. I'm not eating anything”. And that's you know, so even then the following day they may be hungry and then they deny themselves food as a punishment for overeating the previous day.


Dr Mary Barson: And it's insidious, because it reinforces this whole idea that we need food to service our emotions. We need food to punish ourselves, or we need to have a lack of food to punish ourselves when we're bad. And we need to have a surplus of food to reward ourselves when we're good. And it's, it's not a very nice headspace to be in if you've got some health goals that you want to work towards, and you know you want to lose weight, you want to heal your metabolism, you want to reverse your blood pressure, your high blood sugar, your diabetes. You want to get your energy back, you want to live your absolute best life and be the best version of you, then it is really crucial that you kindly and with self-compassion, redefine your relationship with food. Food is not something that we need as a reward or a treat and it's not something that we need as a punishment. And we've all got these little stories in our head, these Mother Goose stories about being rewarded with pie or being punished by the removal of pie, and we can, we can rewrite them. And I would argue that we need to in order to live our best life.


Dr Lucy Burns: Absolutely, and this is how complex our brain is, and again, remembering that you've got your conscious and your subconscious brain. So the subconscious brain is tricky. So for a lot of people, we see this slightly sort of weird phenomenon happening where they might be eating well on their plan. They're really happy. They're, you know, they feel good. They've got you know, no joint pain. They hop on the scales and again you'll, you'll know that Mary and I aren't married to the scales by any stretch, but they hop on the scales. They see they've lost some weight and they go, “Oh, good”, and they reward themselves with a food.


Dr Mary Barson: Yes.


Dr Lucy Burns: “Oh, good, I can have a treat now. Look how well I've done”. And it's, when you spell it out like that, you know, the disconnect is so obvious. But at the time, you know, they can't quite understand why they're doing it. The other thing I see a lot is people planning a reward in advance. “So when I've lost five kilos or 10 pounds, or whatever a number, I'm going to treat myself with fish and chips or I'm going to treat myself with a giant something or other from Starbucks”. It's weird, isn't it, that when you say it out loud that you kind of go, “What? That's just this flawed logic”. But at the time, it feels completely reasonable.


Dr Mary Barson: It's all those stories in our head. Every single one of you beautiful listeners, you are all the boss of you. You can do whatever you want. You can have fish and chips and giant sugary Starbucks drinks if you want to. However, you can also completely change what you want. You can learn really new, lovely, fun, adaptive ways to celebrate your achievements, to find ways to reward yourself, to find better ways to deal with times when you're angry with yourself, rather than restricting food. Lucy give us some examples now. When someone, say they're in the thick of it. Let's say that they have just got, they've finally finished that project at work. They've just done it. It's been gruelling and difficult, and they had to work through several lunch breaks, but they've just done it, and there are all these cupcakes and donuts in the tearoom, and they really feel like they deserve it. Really deserve one of these cupcakes that they have been happily avoiding for the last six months, because they've been doing really well with their low carb, real food lifestyle change. What can you actually do? Like, give us some tools in the thick of the moment?


Dr Lucy Burns: Yeah. So I mean, a couple of things would be that if you've been avoiding them for the last six months, and clearly that's, that's actually what you want to do, you don't want to eat the cupcake. Sometimes in the moment, again our brain will go, “Oh, come on, you deserve it. You've done so well. In fact, you haven't had any for six months. One won't hurt”. And the truth is, that one won't hurt. That is an actual truth. The question here is going to be knowing yourself well. Will you stop at one? Because for me, it's very hard for me to stop at one, unless there's only one left. “If there's only one left for you, bad luck”. But if you go there, and there's a plate, or a box, or there's you know, 20 or something, you might go, “Oh, I'm going to have one”, and you have it and then your brain goes, “Ooh, that was good. Just have another one”. Because you know, and we use that same story. You've worked hard. You know, you're exhausted. You've been so good for the last six months, another one will be fine. And you may find that in the end, you end up having three or four and then your brain goes, “Oh my god, what have you done, you idiot? You didn't want to do that”. And then you berate. And then you can, then you go, “Oh my god, right, I'm not having dinner now”. And this is such a common scenario. So the answer is really to know yourself very well and we often talk now about weight loss is a personal development journey. If you know the story in your head, if you know in your deepest of hearts, that you find it hard to regulate just one, then the answer is it's going to be kinder to yourself to just remove yourself from that situation. So for me, again this is something in general practice land in, in Doctorville. There is always crappy food in our tea rooms. Mary and I are spending all the time sort of just going, “Oh my god, there's a you know”. Look don't get me started on all of that. So I will often just avoid the tearoom at that time and then my brain goes, “But Lucy, you've worked so hard, you need a reward”. Okay, all right, I can have a reward. “What can I have that is actually going to align with my health goals or my plan or what I want to be”. And for me, it might be, I might buy a new pair of earrings. I might buy a new lipstick. Not that there's any point wearing lipstick when we're all wearing face masks. But anyway. Or my latest thing, as most of you know, is I have very fancy cup of tea. So I'm not using some old Tetley Tea bag in a chipped cup. That doesn't do it. It has to be a fancy, colourful, nice to hold cup with perhaps a blend of tea, you know, that is not something I have every day. Or it could happen every day, but it's something that is fancy.


Dr Mary Barson: I love the fancy cup of tea, I'm totally onboard with the fancy cup of tea as a reward. It does lots of things. It's a little mindful moment to yourself, you feel a bit special. You're holding something that's you know in my case, it's kind of girly, and cool. And you do also get that oral sort of sensation of drinking, which is part of the reason why we're drawn to food and alcohol, is there is something very soothing about putting something in our mouths. I think that's just part of our human heritage. But it's, it's something that's in line with your health goals.


Dr Lucy Burns: Absolutely, and if you really want to take it that step further, you can choose a tea that might have some added benefit. So for example, the other day I was at a market, and I found this fancy Rooibos tea. It was blended by, you know, just a little business in Noosa, with a lovely, just a woman-led business. It's Rooibos tea, which for those of you don't know is from South Africa. It tastes quite a little bit like normal tea, but it doesn't have caffeine in it. So for me it's quite good at night time, but it also has some cinnamon and orange in it. And I go, “Ooh, that's a bit fancy”. And we all know that there are health benefits for having a bit of cinnamon here and there. So in my head I go, “Oh, I'm actually not only sitting down to this fancy cup of tea, it's helping me do the things I want to do, which at the end of the day is to help improve my health. And why do I want to do that? Because it makes me feel good”.


Dr Mary Barson: Yes. And I love what you said before about you know, it all comes down to knowing yourself well. And part of getting to know yourself well, is by learning through your failures, learning through those slips and lapses. So learning from the time that you're like, “Yes, finally finished this work project. I am going to the tearoom, and I'm going to eat one donut, because one donut's not going to make any difference”. And then you have one, and then it turns into six, and then you're hating and berating yourself. That is a perfect opportunity right then and there to be kind to yourself, because self-kindness is absolutely key. And to just take a little moment and think, what happened? And why did it happen, with kindness, and it can be hard. We are, a lot of us will just turn straight to self-beration, our inner critics can be extremely noisy inside our brains. But think of yourself, like how would you talk to a friend who had just done this, you know? How would you talk to your absolute very best friend in the world who'd just eaten six donuts and felt bad, and they wanted some help trying to figure out how not to do it again? How would you chat to them? Chat to yourself like that. And then the next time you know yourself better. So the next time that you're in this situation where you want the food as a reward, you will know that reaching for the “sugary treats”, I use the, oh you can't see my air quotes, because I hate the word sugary treat. I don't think that sugar should be a treat. You reach for the sugary crap. You know that that's actually not going to serve you well and so you might have just that, that perfect, beautiful bit of space in your brain to make another choice, which could be to walk past them, to call your friend and celebrate your success, or to have a fancy cup of tea. To do something else to commemorate the moment rather than the sugary crap.


Dr Lucy Burns: Absolutely, absolutely. Because honestly, humans we are developing all the time, we are learning about ourselves all the time. We are learning to sit with discomfort, which is an absolutely wonderful skill and it's bloody hard. And the thing to remember too, that emotional eating is not wicked. You know, it's not up there with murder. It's not up there with stealing. It's simply a tool that we have been taught to self soothe. And honestly, for most of us we are just trying to feel a little bit better in that moment. And so if it happens, you don't need to really punish yourself, again by restricting with or withholding food or berating yourself. It's really just as Mary said, that idea that step back and look at yourself. You can't learn from a situation that is done in judgement. If you're trying to learn so that this doesn't happen again, because honestly it will. We often think, “Oh, I'm never doing that again”, and that's the end of our lesson. Well, that's unhelpful, because you will do it again. We all do. So you go “Okay, alright well I don't want this to keep happening. What could I do to change the situation to change the way I think about this”? And when you do it like that, it's actually not that hard.


Dr Mary Barson: Yeah, yep. We're not, we're not naughty little kittens, you know. We are complex, beautiful humans with complex, beautiful minds that we can befriend and learn how to, how to work better.


Dr Lucy Burns: Absolutely. Alright, lovely listeners, I think that's probably enough for this week. I hope that you have a wonderful week and Dr Mary and I will be back next week with another episode.


Dr Mary Barson: See you later everybody.


Dr Lucy Burns: Bye lovelies. So my lovely listeners, that ends this episode of Real Health and Weight Loss. I'm Dr Lucy Burns.


Dr Mary Barson: And I'm Dr Mary Barson. We're from Real Life Medicine. To contact us please visit https://www.rlmedicine.com


Dr Lucy Burns: And until next time, thanks for listening. The information shared on the real health and weight loss podcast, including show notes and links provides general information only. It is not a substitute, nor is it intended to provide individualised medical advice, diagnosis or treatment, nor can it be construed as such. Please consult your doctor for any medical concerns.

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