The Obstacle Meter – 18: Food Reward

18: Food Reward

Some people live to eat, and others eat to live. I live to eat.

When we talk about food reward, we are not talking about the act of rewarding yourself with food, rather we are speaking specifically about foods ability to activate the pleasure centers of the brain and not necessarily about your decision to eat.  This may seem like splitting hairs but stick with me. 

The brain’s reward system is evolutionarily designed to seek out things that offer survival and/or reproductive advantages.  Evolution coupled pleasure with those things that offered a survival advantage to ensure that humans would seek out and complete those activities.  From a biological perspective, if pleasure were not tightly coupled to survival, we would have no incentive or reinforcement to seek out and complete the activities necessary for survival.  These activities would just be more work and none of us want to do unnecessary work, that is for sure.

The brain’s food reward system was designed to seek out sugar, fat and/or salt for calories and body water (fluid) balance respectively, to ensure a survival and reproductive advantage.  The interesting thing about food reward is that, although we all respond to sugar, fat and/or salt in the foods we eat, the degree to which each of us responds to sugar, fat, salt or a combination of the three is different in everyone.

For example, some people’s food reward systems are activated by potato chips other people’s food reward systems are activated by chocolate, and some are activated by both.  And oftentimes the chocolate lover can take or leave potato chips and the potato chip eater does not really like chocolate all that much.  It is just so interesting!

To further extend our discussion of food reward, food can really be viewed as a drug.  As with drugs, certain foods activate distinct physiological events (pleasure) that occur in the brain in response to sugar, fat and/or salt, whatever your preference might me.  And like any drug, food can be abused.  When drugs are repeatedly used (let us take alcohol for an example) your body develops a tolerance to that drug and now you need to take in more and more of that drug to elicit the desired response (to overcome the tolerance).  Do you see where I am going here?

The same thing happens with food (especially your problem foods).  You need to consume more and more of the food to activate the pleasure circuits in the brain.  A side effect of this overexposure to food happens to be weight gain.

It can also be said that overeating is similar to self-medicating.  I am not trying to oversimplify things and say that all overweight people are super unhappy and that they overcompensate/self-medicate by overeating.  We all have our own struggles to deal with but there are those individuals that have a heightened reward sensitivity to food and are more prone to coping with stress and/or seeking pleasure through food than other individuals.  There is nothing inherently wrong with either individual but it is extremely important for you to know which of these individuals you happen to be.


1) Identify what Your Problem Foods Are: start keeping a running list of the snacks and meals that you tend to overconsume and takes notes on what the context, circumstances, and situation was when you consumed those meals or snacks.  You should start to see patterns develop.  Now you have a better understanding of what your problem foods are and the circumstances in which you eat them.

2) Substitute Problem Foods with Alternative, Healthier Options (please see our list of healthier alternatives in Obstacle 16: Palatability): this may or may not make sense for you.  If you are stimulating your food reward system with highly palatable foods containing high amounts of sugar, fat, and/or salt, the likelihood that replacing these foods with a moderately palatable (less sugar, fat and/or salt; also, most likely less processed) food that will activate your reward centers is small.

With that being said, when you switch your diet from highly palatable to moderately palatable food, your tastes will begin to change, and your reward system will become re-sensitized.  What was once somewhat bland will taste pretty good and some (but not all) of the highly palatable foods that used to stimulate your reward system may now be just too rich.  For example, when I used to drink Diet Mountain Dew a friend of mine ran into the gas station on a fishing trip and bought me a regular Mountain Dew.  I was not going to tell him that I was not going to drink it, so I drank it.  But guess what?  It tasted like thick syrup to me.  I did not enjoy it at all and before switching over to diet, I used to drink regular Mountain Dew every now and again.

3) Ways to Increase Palatability of Moderately Palatable Foods: there are ways to manipulate your reward system. 

A) You can use a variety of spices and their mixtures to make a moderately palatable food highly palatable without overdoing it on the calories or salt.

B) Some people use energy restriction to heighten their reward system. For example, a friend of mine eats a very small breakfast and a small lunch. When he gets home from work his food reward system is highly activated and foods that would be normally be moderately palatable now taste extremely good. 

C) The same thing can also be said about exercise. I will let you in on a little secret that I used to do but should not recommend as a health professional. Go on a 30 – 50 mile bike ride and after you get home make yourself an extra-large White Russian.  Man did that taste great.  I was able to double down on the endorphins of the bike ride with a White Russian drink while sitting pool side.

And one more story, a bodybuilder friend of mine had severely restricted carbohydrate during his cutting phase prior to competition.  When he started to reintroduce carbohydrate back into his diet, he ate a banana and said that it tasted absolutely amazing!  But he also stated that you need to be careful with your reward system because he went on to eat a peanut butter cup and the next banana, he had did not taste good at all to him!

4) Nutrition Rules and Limited Access: nutrition rules are arbitrary, non-medical/evidence-based rules that you make up to guide your eating decisions.  For example, one of my wife’s nutrition rules is to only eat French fries when no other side option is offered.  My wife really likes French fries, but she restricts them to special occasions.  One of my many arbitrary nutrition rules is that I am not allowed to finish a bag (full size) of chips in 3 sittings or less.  There is really no scientific rhyme or reason for this other than that I would feel embarrassed if I ate that many chips that quickly and it is also nice to spread out those pleasure buzzes a little further.

You need to make your own set of nutrition rules for the snacks and meals that you find to be your problem foods and also limit your access to them.  These rules can be crazy and nonsensical but if they work for you, who cares, they work!

5) Non-Food Reward Alternatives:  life is tough.  We encounter tens and hundreds of stresses every single day.  Food offers an easy way to hit the pleasure button AND offers a socially acceptable way of doing so.  For example, food is much more acceptable in a variety of situations and offers less stigma than alcohol, nicotine, sex, illicit drugs, and driving too fast.  However, with that being said, it is important for all of us to find non-food ways to activate our reward systems.  Whether that be calling a friend you have not spoken with in a while, practicing acts of gratitude, journaling, going for a walk, going to the park, various types of exercise, reading, watching a movie or your favorite tv show, you name it there are many other ways to activate our pleasure centers.  Now granted, many of these activities do not activate your pleasure centers in the same way, as intensely or as easily but we have to try them.

For example, I used to road cycle like a mad man, many weeks logging well over 200 miles.  My longest solo ride was 132 miles.  I just loved getting out there, being by myself, seeing different scenery, jamming to my music, and pounding those pedals.  When you are riding really hard, you do not have time to think about all the other things in your life that may not be going as well as you would like them to.  Long story short, I hit the pleasure button too many times, too intensely, and did not train smart enough or treat my body like I should of, and my back gave out on me/let me know about it.  I have never found an activity that I enjoyed as much as road cycling but that does not mean that I cannot find other activities to activate the pleasure centers of my brain.