How Sugar-Coating Your Food Choices Is Stopping Progress

Our flawed thought-process on what to munch on can harm us more than we realize.

professional illustration by yours truly

In his book, Atomic Habits, James Clear proclaimed how “What is immediately rewarded is repeated. What is immediately punished is avoided.” This is what Clear described as “The Cardinal Rule of Behavior Change.”

It’s a simple yet truthful principle. Remember the first time you ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, then found out you’re allergic to peanuts? Yea…never doing that again. Or when your parents took you out to eat as a kid whenever you got a good grade on your tests? You always made sure to be on point in class.

The fact of the matter is, we use positive reinforcement to stick with good habits and negative reinforcement to prevent bad habits. As simple as it sounds, we have a tendency to apply this principle in a way that works against us rather than with us, especially with food in regards to our health and fitness goals.

Specifically, we tend to justify our decisions to eat “fun foods” as a reward for dealing with the stresses in our lives. “I just ran 2 miles, I deserve to treat myself to some donuts!” or “Man work today was tough, I deserve to snack on these Skittles.”

Whether it be positive stress (e.g. Exercise) or negative stress (e.g. Working long weekly hours), we come to the consensus that we DESERVE to treat ourselves like a king. I like to refer to this as “Rationalization Based on Compensation.”

What is immediately rewarded is repeated. What is immediately punished is avoided.

Rationalization Based on Compensation

Rewarding ourselves for carrying out certain behaviors is an effective way to keep us motivated to reach our goals (e.g. lose weight, get faster, get stronger). It’s imperative to keep in mind though that these rewards should be in line with those set goals. What happens if you don’t? Well…

more beautiful art by yours truly

Imagine studying your butt off every night leading up to your final exam because you need to earn an A in order to pass the class. You put in the grind studying up until 2 am night after night. After weeks of studying your heart out, you decide to not show up to take the exam because you feel like you deserve to sleep in due to your hard work. WASTED EFFORT.

As ridiculous as it sounds, that’s exactly what we’re doing when we gift ourselves rewards that don’t align with our goals. In this case, when we use (unhealthier) foods as a reward for our actions all of the time. Our daily efforts become wasted efforts if we take a step back from the finish line with every reward that isn’t supportive.

This is something I’ve dealt with myself too. After almost every track & field meet, I would come home and pretty much go on a binge-eating feast. Because I put forth my best effort in all of the races I ran, I felt that I deserved to stuff myself with almost any carbs I could get my hands on (Cereal on cereal on cereal was my motto).

Our daily efforts become wasted efforts if we take a step back from the finish line with every reward that isn’t supportive.

What I learned is that we need to be careful with the rewards we choose to satisfy the efforts we put forth in our lives. Our brains are most vulnerable to fall into temptation, over-eating especially, when our body’s are constantly placed under stress (physically or emotionally), but it’s moments like these when our ability to carry out thoughtful decisions are crucial towards accomplishing our ambitions.

Putting It Into Perspective

Let’s say your goal is to lose 10 Lbs. You start developing a habit to run for 20 minutes on the treadmill 4x a week in an effort to start losing weight. After every 20 minute run, you treat yourself out to eat. This is where rewards can either help us or hurt us, as depicted in these 2 possible scenarios:

  • Scenario A: “I just ran for 20 minutes on the treadmill, boy am I exhausted! I deserve to treat myself to a nice refreshing milkshake and fries!”
  • Scenario B: “I just ran for 20 minutes on the treadmill, boy am I exhausted! I deserve to treat myself to a nice succulent plate of grilled salmon, sweet potatoes, and a bit of mixed greens (Or any other generic healthy meal you can think of)!”

In Scenario A and B, both individuals put in the consistent hustle to run for 20 minutes 4x a week. Great.

However in Scenario A, this person is rewarding themselves with a meal that will make it much harder to lose any weight given that they indulge in a milkshake & fries after every run. Those calories are going to add up QUICK.

In contrast, the person in Scenario B is well on their way to dropping the number on the scale because they’re treating themselves with a healthy meal/reward that supports their weight loss goal.

If you’re someone looking to lose weight like in the above scenarios, using food as a reward can serve as a detriment or a catalyst for change. Remember, these principles are applicable to any goal, whether it be for fitness, health, or simply for personal development.

Be deliberate with those choices, and ask yourself “Will my future-self thank me for using (Insert food or any source of satisfaction) as a reward?” If yes, then go ahead and continue to treating yourself. If no, then perhaps it may be time to change up the reward.

Don’t Overlook the Effectiveness of Rewards

Short-term rewards can be great motivators that give us another incentive to continue working towards a particular goal. They provide us with immediate gratification in the present while we wait for the long-term benefits in the future. The caveat is that these short-term rewards should be aligned with your long-term vision.

Treating yourself to a big juicy burger or a refreshing milkshake is great every now and then, until it becomes a reward every time. The more we try to use our everyday stresses to compensate for our indulgences in less optimal foods, the further away we push ourselves from our health and fitness ambitions.

Stop sugar-coating your food choices (pun intended) with irrational rationalizations. Keep a balance, and focus on the long-term vision.

writing when the mood’s right. poetry and personal insight.

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