We’ve talked a lot this month about nutrition and its effects on mental health. In previous posts, we’ve listed foods that are uplifting and help our bodies produce sufficient “happy” hormones like serotonin and oxytocin. There is one aspect of nutrition and mental health we’ve not touched on – the idea of food as reward. We’ve all done it, mostly because we grew up having it done to us – you are feeling proud because you’ve reached some goal you set for yourself, so you “treat” yourself with food you would ordinarily consider off limits. Whether it’s candy, ice cream, a bag of potato chips, or whatever you know is decidedly not nourishing, in your mind it’s a fitting reward for good behavior. Or it’s a salve for a rough day/week/month/hour. Let’s break this down a bit!

First, for all living creatures food is essential. You deserve food even if you’ve done nothing that you or anyone else considers above and beyond. Why would a little bit of something unhealthy be a treat? Yet, this is woven into the fabric of our culture. We have unhealthy “treats” for everything from birthday celebrations to a little something when you used the potty all by yourself as a 2-year-old. You’ll see it in after school programs – kids are rewarded with candy or gum for getting correct answers in quiz games, etc. While the occasional scoop of ice cream or [your favorite dessert here] is fine, the idea that you’ve earned it is where we run into a little problem regarding food and our mental health. The reason it’s potentially unhealthy for our mental state is that usually these types of treats leave us feeling at least a little unwell. When we choose toxic foods to congratulate ourselves, we’re sending mixed messages to our bodies and our minds.

What types of things can we do that have no ill effects but can still feel like a reward? It depends on what brings you joy, of course! We recommend you make your own list of easy-to-obtain non-food rewards and keep them either in mind or actually written down somewhere so you can “treat yo’ self!” without digestive (and subsequently mental) upset. Here’s some examples to get you started:

  • Take a walk someplace pretty
  • Take a bubble bath
  • Take a nap
  • Schedule a night out with your sweetie or your friends
  • Spend extra time hanging out with your pet(s)
  • Watch a movie you’ve been wanting to see
  • Do something that feels luxurious (massage, facial, anything that requires a babysitter)
  • Indulge in a little extra time for your favorite hobby