From an early age, we are conditioned to reward ourselves with food. It might have begun in kindergarten, when we were treated to cupcakes at the annual Halloween party. It may have continued through junior high and high school, when we reached for the cookies after a hard day at school. In adulthood, we may buy a high-calorie frappucino to celebrate a success on the job.
But the problem is, food was not designed to be a reward. It exists simply to give us energy. When we look at food as a reward, there is a great temptation to overeat. We believe that we deserve it, that we've earned this opportunity to indulge. We feel gratified when we eat food that might otherwise be forbidden.
Our food-as-reward culture has had calamitous consequences. An increasing number of us are overweight, and getting fatter by the year. We suffer from a myriad of health problems as a result of our obesity. We may feel lethargic and unmotivated—too stuffed to engage in exercise. We have become a nation of couch potatoes.
Yet, we don't have to continue living this way. We can simply stop rewarding ourselves with food. However, it may not be that simple. We will have to change our mindset—to develop alternative systems of rewards. While this may seem difficult at first, it can be accomplished in time.
Here are some ideas for rewards that do not involve food:
• Give yourself a day at the beach. This can clear your mind and can be wonderfully invigorating. • Schedule some play time. Your play might involve tennis, video games, or blowing bubbles—whatever activity that will get your mind away from the daily routine. • Go shopping at a dollar store. You won't spend much, but you could pick up some tremendous bargains. • Share some quality time with your dog or cat. Grab some pet toys and have some fun. • Go to the cosmetics counter of your local department store and indulge in a makeover. • Spend a day at a spa. It can be wonderfully relaxing to be pampered with massage and aromatherapy. • Volunteer an hour or two at your local elementary school. Being with children, even for a short time, can be a rewarding experience. • Take your children to the playground, a roller rink, or a swim club. The activity can leave you feeling refreshed and energized. • Buy a new CD from one of your favorite musical artists. Then make sure you spend an hour or two listening to it. • If you play a musical instrument, sit down and play a few tunes. Music can be a great mood-elevator. If you don't like the idea of developing an alternative reward system, consider simply varying your routine. If you've become accustomed to rewarding yourself with a high-calorie cappuccino in the morning, spend some time in quiet prayer or reflection instead. If you feel as if you'll be tempted to raid a candy store on your way home from work, take an alternate route instead. In general, keeping busy can prevent you from indulging in food rewards. For instance, you might be so busy reading or knitting that you simply don't have time to reach for a snack.
Making a conscious decision to no longer use food as a reward is certainly counter-cultural. We have been conditioned to believe that there should be a plate of brownies at the end of the rainbow…that heaven is just one hot fudge sundae after another. While food itself isn't bad, our expectations about food can be. The first step to ending a food addiction may be to recognize that food can no longer serve as our reward.
While it can be rough getting out of the food-as-reward habit, it is well worth the effort. If we no longer view food as the prize, we will organize our day differently. We'll devote our mealtimes to food, and the rest of our day to something else. We will eat only those foods designed to help us stay healthy—and we'll be in better shape as a result