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What do certain foods do to our brain? Highly Rewarding versus Satisfying Foods

There are no good and bad foods.

Debate surrounding food and nutrition is always fraught. After all, food is something that we all need every day, and what we eat, and how we eat, affects how we feel. However, when it comes to the question of whether there are good and bad foods, the answer is actually quite simple: no, there are no good and bad foods. Sure, some foods are more nourishing at a cellular level for you than others, but at the end of the day, the body is not that particular about calorie-quality. It is very particular about the reward of food and we talk about ‘wanting’ as the manifestation of this in Responsive Eating™.  And as long as you’re eating a variety of different foods, you’re likely getting all the nutrients your body needs barring a few medical conditions. So instead of fixating on whether a food is good or bad for you, focus on whether it is rewarding, satisfying or both. And, most importantly, whether it brings you joy and alignment.

I have a free six minute webinar on Highly Rewarding versus Satisfying Foods and you can watch that here.

Nutrition is a complex science, and there’s a lot we still don’t understand.

When it comes to nutrition, there’s a lot of information out there. And it can be overwhelming to try to sift through it all. But the fact is, nutrition is a complex science, and there’s a lot we still don’t understand. That’s why it’s so important to avoid getting caught in the web of diet misinformation out there. That’s where I come in. As a physician, I’m here to help you separate the facts from the fads. All we really know for sure about food selection is that highly-processed foods are experienced differently by our bodies and brains and this can alter how we metabolize these foods.  In Responsive Eating™, I help you create inventories of highly rewarding and satisfying foods, and map these onto your values, so that you can have eating experiences that are aligned with your values and your hunger. 

Diets are supposed to be confusing.

Dieting can be confusing and I believe that this is the point of them.  Confuse you, disempower you and get you stuck in a cycle of not trusting your own appetite. There are so many conflicting rules and opinions out there, it’s hard to know which ones to follow. And it seems like the rules are always changing. Just when you think you have a handle on things, a new diet comes along and upends everything you thought you knew.

The appetite has three layers.

But there is a simpler way to approach food selection, one that is based on scientific evidence rather than fad diets. This approach starts with an understanding of the three-layered appetite system: the homeostatic (nutrition-focused), the hedonic (reward-focused) and the executive (the aware mind).  

The hunger drive is our body’s way of telling us that we need energy. It is controlled by the hormone ghrelin, which is released when our stomach is empty. The hunger drive motivates us to seek out food so that we can replenish our energy stores.  Hunger is what keeps us alive and honours the homeostatic needs. 

The reward drive is what gives us pleasure as we anticipate and taste food. It is controlled by the hormone dopamine, which is released in response to pleasurable stimuli such as food, sex, and drugs. 

Our executive area is ideally a thoughtful, decision-making conscious piece of the appetite system. They all work together. They all signal to each other. They all feed back on each other. The way that each of us is wired varies highly and it certainly varies based on the kind of stress that we’re under, our previous eating experiences, our childhood eating experiences, whether or not we have anxiety, depression or ADHD, and whether or not we’re sleeping well. 

Satisfying foods are foods that actually fulfill some of the nutrients that you need and sustain you. The homeostatic system is going to respond to the eating of satisfying foods, because it’s going to say, wow, this is sufficient and is going to fulfill our needs nutritionally. The system will recognize that you can fill up your stomach appropriately and that the hunger pains are going to go away. It’s important that we recognize that the goal is not to always eat satisfying foods. And, the goal is also not to never eat highly rewarding foods. The goal is simply to understand and to maintain an awareness that there are foods that hit us in different ways and that those foods may actually contribute to our experience of life.  Sometimes there are foods that, in certain portions and eaten in certain contexts, provide us with a feel good, nourishing experience. And then those same foods, in different contexts or different portions. really make us feel unwell. And that’s, again, not for me to decide.

It’s your call.

I encourage people to identify for themselves what works when it comes to food selection. I cannot do this for you. I can give you parameters and guidelines, but ultimately it is up to you to decide what works best for you. I encourage you to develop a list of highly rewarding versus satisfying foods. Highly rewarding foods are foods that give us a great deal of pleasure, not just eating them, but anticipating eating them, thinking about them, acquiring them, pursuing them. This leads to experiencing pleasure and even anticipatory pleasure. Ultimately, by identifying what works best for you, you will be able to make the best choices for yourself when it comes to food selection.

Our own food histories matter.

It’s true that we all have different experiences that dictate what is rewarding and what isn’t. Our hedonic response to certain foods is determined by a variety of factors, including our childhood experiences, the way we eat, and how food fits into our lives. This is why some people have a strong response to sugary or fatty foods, while others find pleasure in unexpected places, like hummus. It’s all about perspective. And while our individual preferences are important, it’s also worth remembering that food is meant to be enjoyed so that we continue eating so that we continue living.

The practice is the progress. 

Creating these lists or articulating the context for highly rewarding foods and for satisfying foods and then going through a process of learning how those foods sit with you is a bit arduous. It’s not going to come easily. I bet you have a pretty good guess of what belongs where, but remember there is no rule book here. So, this is something that may evolve. And I encourage you when you’re building out these lists to think about context cues, to think about times in your life when you’ve experienced a great deal of benefit from those or times in your life when you have experienced different things as a result of eating different foods in different contexts. This is all part of the process of learning. 

Our modern food environment matters. 

Our modern food environment has evolved pretty dramatically, particularly over the past 60 years. So, the kinds of foods that were available to our ancestors are simply different from what we have now. Food is packaged in a way that is extremely varied compared to what we have previously had available to us. We have a lot of food additives. We have a lot of endocrine disruptors. We are probably lacking in pre and probiotics in our food supply just because we do like sterile vegetables or vegetables that are highly cleaned and disinfected before we eat them. All of these things can actually change the microbiome in our gut, which can then influence how those foods are processed by our body and how much reward we actually derive from eating them. So, it’s not just the food itself, but it’s also the environment in which that food is consumed that matters for its impact on our health.

There is friction between our ancient genes and the modern food environment. Therefore, it’s important that when you’re building out your lists of highly rewarding versus satisfying foods, you’re specific and not simply just writing chicken or licorice. It’s likely that the way the food is packaged, prepared, and grown actually influences whether or not it’s a satisfying versus highly rewarding food based on how you experience that food in certain contexts. 

Nutrition matters less than the diet industry would have you believe.

When I teach Responsive Eating™, I’m often asked if I give specific advice about nutrition. I certainly am quite educated on nutrition and very experienced in it. My own dieting history has led me to acquire a pretty broad understanding of dietetics and macronutrients, especially given that medical training is quite devoid of these things. However,  my general rule is that if the food is highly processed, it’s probably meant and designed to hit you in the hedonic system, and it belongs in the highly rewarding list. This is not to say you shouldn’t eat it, but it is to say that this food has been designed to hit your appetite system in a way that may lead to big eating and overeating in a way that is not something that you would otherwise anticipate or something that your brain is necessarily prepared for. That is my one piece of nutritional guidance when it comes to deciding how and when to eat.  If the food is highly processed, it is probably a reflection of our modern food environment, and that is not necessarily something that your body is going to be ready to decide on how much to eat and when to eat it. 


Food is pleasure and medicine, and sometimes both.

I think it’s important to know that a lot of people use highly rewarding foods to self-medicate, to comfort, and to soothe, and this is not a judgment. This is actually a really, really important thing to know about yourself, and it’s an important thing to observe. And actually the work that we do in Responsive Eating™  is meant to help you understand and see that and not to punish yourself for it. Because in reality, it’s actually a really critical survival instinct. But to connect to that experience, bring awareness to that experience, and to dive into what may be happening in that moment is important. It’s important so that you can actually move away from avoidance of the experience, and into acknowledgement and acceptance that sometimes discomfort is okay, and that you don’t necessarily need to eat through it, particularly with your highly rewarding foods.

In Responsive Eating™, I support learners and patients in developing a whole view of their eating experiences, one that most commercial diets do not address. Visit to join a coaching program or the Self Study.

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