Let's Stop Treating Food Like A Reward

Remember when your soccer team won a game and you all went out for pizza afterwards? Or everyone in your middle school class had great attendance, so you all got ice cream on the last day of school?

By Gwen Farrell3 min read

While these memories might be reminiscent of fun, simple times, they also give us insight into how we’re conditioned from a young age to look at certain foods and automatically use the caveman part of our brains to evaluate them, rather than look at them accurately as part of a larger whole — for example, sugar bad, vegetable good. 

When we mature into adults and start exploring the diet and exercise regimens that work well for us and our individual needs, food — specifically, the “bad” foods — can hold a power over us that is neither healthy nor productive, and can even control how we view and treat our bodies.

The Battle of Good Vs Bad Foods

While it’s true that we internalize what others say to us, what’s infinitely more powerful is the language we use to speak to ourselves.

We’ve all done it. Maybe you and a coworker ate a donut in the break room and joked, “I’ll need to work that off!” 

It’s extremely tempting, especially if we have less-than-ideal perceptions of our bodies, to use food as measurements, instead of what we consume and enjoy to satiate our body’s natural appetites. You might think of that breakroom donut as 30 stomach crunches or a cupcake at a friend’s birthday party as 50 burpees. In doing this, we hold ourselves captive to some sort of higher food god, who supposedly demands we “work off” or repent for whatever we’ve just enjoyed.

We hold ourselves captive to a food god, who demands we “work off” whatever we’ve just enjoyed.

Not only is this a miserable way to live, but it’s unhealthy for our bodies as well as our brains. In the end, it has to be said: a donut is just a donut, not a measurement of how productive you are, how fit you are, how hard you exercised yesterday or will exercise tomorrow, or how well your body functions. 

Now, if we’re eating donuts every day, or so many that we’re making ourselves sick, that’s another conversation to have. But if we’re enjoying treats every once in a while and immediately feeling so guilty about it that it elicits the inner need to punish ourselves, we’re giving both food and exercise far too much power.

The Bond between Nutrition and Exercise

It’s hard to give both food and exercise the credit they deserve. When that respect turns to fear, though, we’ve gone too far.

Food and exercise have a strong symbiotic relationship, and we can sometimes obsess or neglect one in favor of the other. This is dangerous for obvious reasons, and overeating or over-exercising without the existence of that other balance can put both our bodies and minds in exhausted, overextended places that may be difficult (but not impossible) to escape.

Food and exercise have a strong symbiotic relationship.

Balancing each according to the other’s needs is the best possible way to keep both in check, and in making sure our body is healthy physically and mentally.

Regular exercise can jumpstart our appetites, and food in turn fuels those energy levels we need to work out. Think about all the things your body does for you, if not over the course of a lifetime, then even just daily. Why wouldn’t we want to give our bodies the best possible opportunities for functioning as well as they possibly can? 

Try Eating Mindfully Instead

While it can be hard to break this mindset, practicing a few simple things can help us develop better, healthier relationships with both food and exercise.

Eating mindfully — as in, shedding outside distractions when we eat and thoughtfully, slowly consuming the food we’re eating — can make us more cognizant of how hungry or satisfied we are and prevent overeating. When we’re more distracted, we’re more likely to not pay attention to the cues our brain is giving us when it’s occupied elsewhere, increasing our tendency to overeat.

Avoiding “good” and “bad” labels when thinking about certain foods can dispel the pressure around them.

Snacking is good for us, and we shouldn’t be afraid of it. Furthermore, avoiding “good” and “bad” labels when thinking about certain foods can dispel the pressure around those foods and help us avoid the guilt and shame we associate with them.

Back to “this donut equals XYZ in my daily workout.” Calorie counting, to the point of obsession, encourages us to measure those calories in how much it will take to be rid of them. This kind of defeats the entire purpose of eating when you think about it. If we’re matching our workout calorie for calorie to the meals we eat, wouldn’t we pretty much wither away without nourishment and cease to exist? Six miles on the treadmill doesn't equal the fajitas you had for dinner, nor should it. Keep the gym at the gym, and the food in your kitchen — where they both belong. 

Closing Thoughts

Food isn't a reward, just as exercise shouldn't be a punishment.

Both can be fun, satisfying rituals we use to honor our bodies, and letting each worry and anxiety about eating too much or not working out enough can slowly break down the way we perceive their respective benefits, to the point where one dictates what the other does. 

It’s often hard to tow the line between the two, but it's so much healthier to acknowledge the mutuality of both, and how that can feed our physical body and a sound mind.