How to Reframe Rewards - Ask a Nutritionist

April 27, 2023

Clean plate gets dessert, right? From a very young age we are taught sweets, treats, and sugar are rewards for good behavior, so no wonder we think the same way as adults. If you're interested in reframing this mindset and learning other ways to reward your good behavior tune in to this week's episode of Ask a Nutritionist.

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Hello and welcome to Dishing Up Nutrition. Before we start the show, I have a question for you. Are you struggling with pesky food cravings that seem to derail your good intentions? Do you find it difficult to hold yourself accountable and stay motivated when adopting new habits while trying to lose weight?

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Welcome to the “Ask a Nutritionist” podcast, brought to you by Nutritional Weight and Wellness. We are thrilled to have you join us today as we discuss the connection between what you eat and how you feel, and share practical real life solutions for healthier living through balanced nutrition. Now let's get started.

BRITNI: Good morning and welcome to Dishing Up Nutrition's new midweek segment called “Ask a Nutritionist”. My name is Britni Vincent, and I am a Registered and Licensed Dietitian. On today's show, brought to you by Nutritional Weight and Wellness, I'll be answering a nutrition question we've received from one of our Dishing Up Nutrition listeners.

The question today is, “Are there specific tips or suggestions for how to reframe celebrations or rewards that don't include food? Or what would make a healthy food option feel more rewarding? Or how do you celebrate your achievements in life without sabotaging your health effort?”

So the answer to this question really varies from person to person, and it's kind of a loaded question. There's a lot here. This person mentions rewards. And for me, I think too, how many people reward themselves with food after a tough day. If they're having a lot of stress, they feel like they deserve a treat. And then celebrations was also mentioned in this topic, and that's a little bit different. So I'm going to be touching on both of these.

I think for most of us, the association of food and reward really goes back to childhood. Most people think of dessert or candy as a treat. It's something special. You know, many of us only got dessert if we finished everything on our plate. So that alone puts that sugar up on a pedestal and makes us want it even more, and then creates a negative association with the vegetables on the plate or whatever else was offered for dinner. Some parents or caregivers also reward kids with food if they're good. You know, I remember in grade school we would get what's what was called power cookies. If we were good or did something extra special, we would get a power cookie, and they were really just animal crackers.

So think about it. You know, it's no wonder that as adults, most of us want to reward ourselves with food or think we deserve a treat after a stressful day, or we want to take advantage of every celebration and have some dessert. So this is really ingrained in many of us, and it will take time to create a different mindset. So I've got some tips to overcome this mindset or association, and then we'll talk about how to approach celebrations as well.

Tips to overcome mindset or association & how to approach celebrations

First, I think change the verbiage in your head. If you are somebody that is saying, “I can't have this. I can't have that.” Instead of that say, “I'm choosing not to have this because it makes me have more cravings, or it causes me a headache.” I think a lot of people are more likely to reward themselves if they feel like they're restricted. And eating real food, it's a lifestyle. It's not this restrictive eating plan. It's not a diet. It's just about eating real food.

And it's all about food choices, and the choices are always yours. And if you're constantly using that verbiage, “I can't have that food, or that food isn't on my eating plan,” then I think you're more likely to reward yourself with food. So instead of that mindset, I encourage you to switch that “I can't have” to “I don't want to, or I'm choosing not to because X, Y, Z.”

Let's use this scenario. Your coworker brings in these homemade cookies, and if you tell yourself, I can't have those cookies, you know, it's human nature, you're going to want those cookies even more. And chances are, at some point you're going to end up having one. Instead, if you said, I don't want to have those cookies because I know my knee pain will flare up, or it'll cause me more cravings, or it's not going to reach my health goals, by pausing and having that conversation with yourself, you're going to be a lot less likely to eat one of those cookies and just be able to move on with your day.

I mentioned that pause factor. If you're ever tempted by food, pausing before making an impulsive food decision can really help. Just have a conversation with yourself. How are you going to feel if you eat that food? You know, maybe it tastes delicious and you feel good immediately, but that feeling does not last long at all. How are you going to feel afterwards? You can think about your health goals as well to help to motivate you and not give into that temptation.

The importance of keeping your blood sugar stable

Another tip is keep your blood sugar stable throughout the day. If you let yourself get overly hungry, combined with a stressful day, you're going to be way more likely to choose something high in carbohydrates or sugar and then reward yourself. Or if you let yourself get overly hungry and then you're going to an event, again, you're going to be way more likely to eat that dessert that's offered. So to keep that blood sugar stable, it really goes back to the protein, fat and carb combination, and the protein and the fat specifically are going to help to reduce the blood sugar spike that you get from carbohydrates.

And then eating regularly enough. Most people really need to eat four, sometimes five times a day to keep your blood sugar stable. So by doing that, you're going to be able to, you know, think more logically and make a different decision. Another tip is you might want to think about what are the benefits of eating real food? I've had several clients create a list for themselves. How do they feel when they're eating real food? And keep that on a piece of paper that's handy, or put it in the notes section of your phone. So if you are ever tempted or just need a little boost in motivation, you can refer to that list.

Come up with non-food rewards

Another tip is come up with non-food rewards if you want to celebrate or reward yourself. Maybe it's a nice long bath or a new book, a new cookbook, a spa day, you know, whatever resonates with you and feels special.

Tips for navigating celebrations

As far as celebrations go, ask yourself, are you a person that can't stop with one or can you have a piece of dessert and then just move on? Knowing and accepting your own biochemistry will help you to know what the best approach for you is to navigate the the celebrations. You know, and realistically, if you partake in every single celebration, that could add up to a lot of dessert, right? But if you are someone that having a dessert or sharing it won't trigger cravings or cause a lot of physical discomfort, celebrate on your birthday, celebrate on your anniversary, have that piece of cake, and then move on. Have something balanced at your next meal or snack.

If you are somebody that can't stop with one, or if you find yourself at a lot of events, what else could you have that would be satisfying while everybody else partakes in that more traditional dessert? Maybe I've had clients bring dark chocolate or berries and cream. If you blend up half a frozen banana with two tablespoons of heavy cream, it makes like the texture of soft serve. It's very delicious. You could make fat bombs. There is a recipe on our website at, and keep those in your freezer.

So if you have one of those delicious snacks on hand, you're not going to feel like you're missing out as much, and that can be a very helpful strategy. Another thought would be instead of celebrating with dessert, what about celebrating with a nice steak dinner or splurging and buying some fish or seafood that you might not typically buy for yourself?

You know, many of my family's celebratory dinners include crab legs, a side salad, and a baked potato. It's all real food. It's still feels special, and of course it's delicious. So think about doing something like that. And then I also want to add, if you do end up having that dessert or something, it's okay. It's not the end of the world. Don't get mad at yourself. Just move on and choose a balanced meal or snack the next time that you eat.

And maybe do some reflection. You know, did you keep your blood sugar stable that day? Maybe it would've been easier if you brought something along to the party. You know, thinking about what could you do differently and in the next similar situation will just help you learn and learn more about yourself to be more successful. I hope that this gave you a lot to think about in regards of how to approach rewards and celebrations.

So thank you for listening to Dishing Up Nutrition’s “Ask a Nutritionist”. If you have a nutrition question you would like us to answer, we invite you to join our Dishing Up Nutrition Facebook community by searching Dishing Up Nutrition on Facebook. This private group is moderated by Nutritional Weight and Wellness nutritionists and nutrition educators, and provides our Dishing Up Nutrition listeners with a safe, supportive community to ask questions, share ideas, and get inspired. Once you're a member of our community, we invite you to join the conversation and share your questions with us. So please don't be shy. If you have a question, let us know. We look forward to hearing from you.

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