Now that I've got your attention with this cute dog, this is quite a controversial topic, but one I'm not afraid of sharing my views on.
Think back to the last fortnight or so... How many times (and be honest)... Have you rationalised eating or drinking something because you 'earned' it. Once, twice, daily? You're absolutely not alone - my guess is that about 90% of the human population does this habitually and feels it is harmless.
However, if you begin to think deeply about your relationship with food (and drink), would you say it is a happy one? Are you happy that you're achieving your health goals, by which I mean weight-loss, weight gain, trying to improve your cholesterol levels or your risk of diabetes...? The list is endless.
Making deals with yourself or rewarding yourself with food is one of the single most damaging things you can do to your relationship with food. I should know...
When I used to run, I would sometimes run long or fast enough to hit XXX calories, and these XXX calories were normally food that I'd considered naughty. A doughnut, a slice of cake, a pizza. The moment my brain made a connection that I could 'out-run' the caloric value of certain foods, it was a dangerous switch flicking. I suddenly felt the need to either a) cancel out the calories I'd consumed (eg by running them off), or b) reward myself for a great caloric expenditure by eating one of the above foods.
Let me be clear, in no way am I saying the foods I was eating are bad and needing 'undoing', it was that fundamentally my relationship with food was broken. I wasn't seeing the bigger nutritional picture of my overall energy expenditure, but was trading fitness with food as currency. This could've been a one way ticket to an eating disorder, and if I'm really honest, I think that viewing food and fitness in that way is - in itself - extremely disordered.
So why is food as a reward so bad?
1. It teaches your brain to respond to food in a more emotional way.
Sure, we eat for pleasure a lot of the time and that should continue - after all, what is life without some of the foods we enjoy as part of a balanced approach? Consider the foods you enjoy as part of an overall picture. This is why I don't endorse 'cheat' days or meals - it sets a trigger in your mind that what you're doing is fundamentally negative. Don't use food as emotional currency.
2. It will lead to an unhealthy relationship with exercise
You're more susceptible to resenting exercise if you feel it is the one way you are allowed to eat certain foods. And I'm not just talking about hardcore bodybuilding here - sure, that's a step away from my world, but I'm talking about things that might seem trivial. A days worth of gardening, rewarded with a bottle of wine. I'm not saying, don't pair the two things together - hell, go for broke! But when you do it, don't link the wine as a 'reward' for the day spent in the garden. Just think about it in its simplest form; you've done some gardening and now you're going to admire your handiwork through the lovely taste of a Pinot Grigio. It's all about loosening that emotional attachment we insist on making with food as a reward for something we have done.
3. Dogs are rewarded with food.
And dogs we are not. As much as I absolutely love dogs, we are smarter in many ways and we don't need to exchange food for something we have done or achieved. The moment you turn around that way of thinking, the healthier your relationship with food will be, I promise. I'd even go as far to suggest that changing this mindset could hugely improve the journey to reaching your health goals.
I could also delve into the subject of rewarding children with food, but I don't think I'm ready for that backlash yet... Suffice to say, I don't think that's a great start for us in a world plagued with idealised body images, a world where you can buy a pack of 4 Mars bars for less than the price of a bag of apples and a world where we are more immobile than we've ever been in the history of time.
I have an endless number of words I try not to connect to food in the way I speak and think, even flippantly; treat, earned, cheat, naughty, reward, bad / good (only when referring to the nutritional value, you are of course allowed to think that olives taste 'bad')... They're all on my banned list! Do I have any foods on a 'banned' list? Absolutely not!
Be positive about food and nutrition; understand that it is fuel - Often, very tasty fuel. You want to reward yourself for that PB out on a run? Buy a new pair of running tights (this mechanism might explain why until recently I had about 70 pairs). You want to reward yourself for tidying up the garden in a spectacular style? Get yourself those gardening gloves you've been admiring, or some new bedding plants. As humans, we respond well to treats, but for the love of God, stop making that thing food.
I'd love to hear your views, even if you strongly disagree!
*As I always make clear, I hold no qualifications in nutrition (yet) but I've learned an absolute bucket load through some extremely well-qualified nutrition and fitness bods so this is a personalised account of my learning, which I am sharing in a way that I hope makes it relatable to you all.*