As I've thought about my own struggle with weight it's become clear that I have an unhealthy relationship with food. One could reasonably say an addiction to junk food. This shouldn't be too surprising, it's well known now that food companies use flavors to hit the pleasure center of our brain, filling us with empty calories and leaving us a craving more. Our broken food system is only part of the problem for me and many others though.
For me, and I'm sure some of you and others you know as well, our unhealthy relationship with food also started in childhood when junk food was used as rewards or for special occasions. Our parents, rightly, didn't let us have these foods often, but when they did it was always a treat. We got to go out for dinner on the last day of school. We got candy for holidays. We'd get a gumball at the grocery store if we behaved well. We got cake or cupcakes for our birthdays. We got soda at big family events, like the Fourth of July picnic, or on those rare special occasions when we went out to eat. The circumstances of our treats added extra ties to the pleasure centers in our brains, above and beyond what was being created by the junk food alone. For me at least, later on in life, as I was able to make more and more of my own food choices, when I was (am) stressed out I crave those "good feeling" foods like cupcakes, cookies, brownies, chips, fast food and soda, all the more because I've treated them my whole life as a reward. So if I've had a really rough day I've "earned" that cupcake, or two.
In addition to serving "real food" to ourselves and our children, avoiding processed grains, sugars and industrial fats, I propose that we also need to re-think the mentality of junk food as a "special" treat. It is okay to have such things as a once in a rare while food - but I have come to believe that tying it to the idea of a "treat" may be as unhealthy for us as the food itself.
It is harder to re-train those of us who are already adults, though not impossible. Our brains are fairly plastic, and if you stop allowing a reward loop to continue it will eventually go away - but it will take much more will power as an adult than what is needed for children. Because they are still laying down their neural pathways, it's especially important with children that we come up with some non-food rewards for special occasions. Here are some ideas I have come up with that are good rewards for kids (and adults) that don't involve food. (Note that most of these are experiential, practical or educational - because we don't want to replace gluttony for food with gluttony for "stuff" either).
- A trip to the local amusement park
- A family camping trip
- A backyard camp out
- A movie night with healthy snacks
- Sleepover with friends
- Trip to the local zoo
- Trip to the museum
- Going out to the movies
- A new book
- A new educational toy
- An extra half hour of internet or TV time
- A trip to the library
- New sports equipment
- New article of clothing
- A new cosmetic item like lip balm or body spray
- New water bottle
- Extra allowance into a savings account
- A big hug
- Words of praise
- A card
- A potted plant
- A new journal
- New crayons, colored pencils or markers
- New supplies for a favorite hobby or craft
- Music, dance or sports lessons