How food became our biggest reward

How food became our biggest reward

When you accomplish something, what do you do? You celebrate! Let's grab a drink! I'll treat you to dinner! Sounds like time for some Ben & Jerry's and Netflix!

How did we get here? We used to treat ourselves to a night out with friends, a weekend getaway, or invest money in a new passion. If we did reward ourselves with food, it was more of a "we can have steak for dinner instead of chicken" kind of deal. So what happened?

Sugar. Salt. Fat.

The food industry has duped us. The three things above, salt, sugar, and fat, are all triggers to our dopamine system, the system that says, "Yes! Amazing!" -- our reward system. Fat-free? More sugar. Sugar-free? Artificial sweeteners (which can still link up with our reward system). But these things are also what make processed foods taste so good and addicting. Ever heard of the disappearing calorie? For example, when you eat a cheeto, it almost seems like you chew it and it melts in your mouth--then you eat another, and another. Bam, the bag is gone. Is your willpower to blame? Not necessarily, our reward system is also playing a role.

This system was discovered by two scientists by the name of James Olds and Peter Milner. They allowed rats to pull a level which sent a small jolt of electricity (through electrodes) to the rat's brain. Eventually, they found a certain part of the brain that the rats enjoyed electrocuting (weird right?). That is the septal area, where dopamine is released from, causing the rats to have a pleasurable experience and continue to pull the lever multiple times. 

So these dopamine pathways lead to reward, and certain foods high in sugar, salt, and fat activate them. Ever heard that sugar is addicting? This is the reasoning behind it. But we could also get this same sort of reward from other activities, so how did food become our main venue? 

It's quick, easy, and cheap. 

We are busy people! Have you ever thought, hm, I can reward myself by taking a two-hour detour and going to my favorite hiking spot for a hike? Probably not (if you have, good for you! you've got more gusto than me). It's way easier to take a five-minute detour to Wendy's and get a frosty, or McDonald's to get a fry. And heck, why not add a double pounder, it's only $1! Or maybe you want to reward yourself with some game time--well, making dinner would take up that valuable time... let's order in. Chinese? Pizza? Sugar, salt, fat?

Maybe you want a new game instead. Ouch, $50? I can get two medium two-topping pizzas for 5.99 each according to that billboard I just saw. Truth is, we are short on time and likely short on cash. Even though these other rewards may last longer, the reward response is often not as strong as the one processed food can provide and it satisfies your need for instant gratification without breaking the bank. So we need to re-train our brains and beat this triple threat boss battle of salt, sugar, and fat.

Donald duck and goofy beat this guy... why not us??

Donald duck and goofy beat this guy... why not us??

How? We start by taking more time for ourselves and thinking before we act. Take a different route home to avoid fast food. Don't keep tons of treats in the house. Begin to cut out some of the processed food in your diet, and find other ways to reward yourself that make you happy. There are cheap ways to enjoy yourself without ordering in cheesy bread. Besides, you probably don't always feel great after all that processed food right? How are you supposed to stay up all night playing your new game or fiddling with the latest Pokemon Go update full of cheese and bread!

This doesn't mean we cut out our treats altogether but rather recognize them as just that: TREATS. We can have them just as often as we treat ourselves to that 3-hour hike ;) Start by making a list of all the things you want to do but never seem to find time for. New speed run on Ocarina of time? Unlock some Hutt contracts on Star Wars: Battlefield? Learn to cook a new dish? Reward yourself in these ways to be healthier with your body, and happier with life.

What do you guys think? Am I off-base? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

-NN

November Jams

University Health Service: Outpatient