sunday life: my #1 secret to cracking reward snacking. finally!

This week I eat stupendously expensive chocolate. To see if it can cure the world’s overeating problems. A happy life is not spent controlled by the synthetic lure of doughnuts in food courts and dieting. So for the sake of my ongoing research I invest in dark Prestat at, hell yeah, $11.90/80g.

How long have I known you all via this Better Life column? About six weeks? Time, then, I share that I’m a shocking reward snacker. In the main I eat very well. But at various punctuation points in my day – when I get home, when it strikes 3pm, when I finish typing this paragraph – I treat myself with food. It’s an anxious, procrastinatory thing, not aided by the fact I often work from home with no one to pat me on the back for incremental achievements or give monitoring looks when I return from the fridge with another bowl of muesli with toasted walnuts (my snacks aren’t particularly scintillating, just punctuating).

It used to be a harmless thrice-a-week habit; but it’s kind of grown.  Let’s call it treat creep.

The solution would be to apply a diet technique. But I don’t do diets. I like to think it’s because I’m intellectually above them (“Statistically they fail, they’re destructive, look what they did to Princess Di”). But it’s more that I’m not good at “not doing” things. Being told to refrain or limit myself makes me want to do the opposite. It’s like when I see a Wet Paint Do Not Touch sign; I always have to touch.

But tell me to do something (like go running) and I’m all yours. Many of us work this way. Ergo, why diets don’t gel with 97 per cent of the population (a real statistic; not a columnist’s device).

So, as of this week, to put my treat habit in check I do eat dark chocolate, which unlike the grab-and-shove treats of the past few months, is worthy of treat status. It’s anti-oxidising and the expensive stuff doesn’t contain soy lecithin. The fact it’s hard to buy (7-eleven don’t stock it) meant I had to consciously factor it in to an appropriate reward point (when I finished a backlog of home admin) and walk 20 minutes to redeem it. This and the ludicrous price tag necessitated a sense of ceremony as I ate it in the sun with green tea.

Treats these days are very literally dime-a-dozen. But they should be experienced like Charlie’s gold-wrapped Willy Wonka bar, don’t you think? There should be poignancy and every surge of saliva enjoyed. There should be true reward, with closure.

I only ate two treats this week. A laughably expensive filigree of chocolate and some organic dates. I savored them and my need for a symbolic pat on the head was sated. And I got on with things.

This gentle, kind framing of food is gaining momentum and has emerged as the Positive Eating movement overseas. The principle is simple – achieve wellness and your happy weight by approaching food with positive and conscious intent. Do eat butter and whole-wheat toast. Do invest in organic, high quality food. Do eat food as close to its original source, and containing as few ingredients, as possible.

It’s not about not eating fake food, not eating processed sugar. It’s not about eating less. Although, naturally, when you eat positively you don’t have time or space in your gullet for the crap.

The scope for goodness is huge. Overeaters can tame their appetite with the mantra, “I do eat more green vegetables and grains”. For coffee addicts, “I need to drink more green tea”. It’s about shifting the focus to something healthy and helpful, to positive action. The lure of the doughnut slowly, gently dissipates.

In the new book The End of Eating, Dr David Kessler argues it’s not our fault we “hypereat”. Our brain circuitry’s been altered by the evil ways food is contrived to grab our attention, then fail to satiate, creating gnarly, addicted neural pathways. For example, packaged food is soft so we go back (and back) for more seeking the (elusive) satiating crunch that turns off hunger signals.

Worse still, he says, modern food is sold as a treat. Cereal, fruit toast – bloody tea bags! – are “temptations” to “indulge” in. Treat culture has created a highly destructive inner dialogue in us: “I want cake, but I shouldn’t. But I deserve a treat. But, no, don’t.” This denial tug creates anxiety, which stimulates dopamine to obsess on the treat further, like a lion anxiously focusing on the gisele. The cycle becomes even gnarlier.

But it’s not stopped by tossing the cake in the bin (then pouring water over it, as Miranda so memorably did in Sex And The City during a treat cycle she couldn’t fight with volition). It’s not stopped by stopping. But by doing something gentle and kind.

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