Embracing Food Reward

I mentioned at the end of the post Food Reward and Old School Bodybuilders that I would be testing the food reward theory for myself. There are several bloggers that get hung up on the definition of food reward. To me is simply that we tend to gain weight more easily on the foods that are easy to eat past satiety. Those foods tend to be processed and are often designed by food engineers. It is not a theory to explain all obesity, but one part of the puzzle.

My goal is to see if I can lose 10-15 pounds without feeling hungry. The last time I lost weight, I was stacking different strategies, including lower carbs, intermittent fasting, cold exposure and cooking more food at home. Eating foods cooked at home lowered my food reward, but how important of a factor did it play? I aim to find out.

I will not be lowering my carbs. In fact I plan to eat a lot of potatoes cooked plainly. I will also be pressuring cooking legumes. Sorry Paleo, but you are wrong about legumes (see #3). There will be no cold exposure and although I will be reducing my eating window, I do not plan to fast at the levels I did during my prior weight loss. Exercise levels will remain the same, which is two brief moderately intense machine based workouts a week plus walking.

Unlike the last time, I will be monitoring my sleep quality and body temperature. If either decline, I will add back in higher food reward items. This strategy worked for me before.

The biggest reason I am now embracing food reward is that it pretty much overlaps with so many other weight loss theories, so even if it is wrong, it won’t be too wrong. You know I like to hedge.

My Food Reward Fat Loss Plan

Here are the steps I plan to take. Some of the ideas I got from the comprehensive list on Food Reward: a Dominant Factor in Obesity, Part VII.

  1. Stop eating tortilla chips. Chips are everywhere in California. In Seattle, I was always in Vietnamese restaurants, so I never had them. Here Mexican restaurants rule. I love the chips. I love them too much. ¡No Más!
  2. Consume very few liquid calories.
  3. I do not plan to give up ice cream in Phase 1, even though it is considered high food reward. However, a few weeks ago I decided to only consume a plain vanilla ice cream. By removing the novelty and complexity of new flavors this has already helped me reduce my consumption. Phase 2 which I just began experimenting with restricts ice cream to exercise and travel days.
  4. Reduce snacking on non-exercise days.
  5. Eat more potatoes, legumes and veggies.
  6. Reduce the number of foods consumed when given many options. From the Whole Health Source article “Pick three foods, and eat nothing else.”
  7. Focus on making the most improvements on the pre-dinner meals. I eat pretty good already, so I don’t need to radically change anything. All I should have to do is make some adjustments to my pre-dinner meals.

Is there anything you would add?

Question on The Shangri-La Diet

I might also experiment with the idea of flavorless calories from the book The Shangri-La Diet.

At least an hour before one of your meals, consume unflavored sugar water and/or Extra Light Olive Oil. Both of these foods are flavorless and provide calories.

The one thing I am not clear about is if the hour before and hour after blocks are just calorie free or all flavor free. I gave my book away, so I can’t look this up. I ask this question because I have my last coffee between 2 PM and 3 PM. The coffee has no calories, but a strong flavor signal. Does anyone know if it is the absense of calories or the absence of flavor signals that makes this technique work?


Photo by Brian Hoffman


Add yours

  1. I find that post-dinner is when I’m more susceptible to food reward, “what the hell” effect, high incentive salience foods, etc. That’s probably because of being more tired and having depleted willpower at the end of the day. One other thing that might be worth to your list adding is positive visualization of how you want your evening to go. You can do this early in the day and reinforce the visualization when you have a free moment. Similar to athletes visualizing success.

    I also experimented with the Shangri-La Diet for a month last year with ELOO 1-hr pre meals. I believe the protocol is to be both flavor and calorie-free otherwise during the hour to break the flavor-calorie association. It helped a bit, but I found it inconvenient in the long-term, unless you’re willing to carry little bottles of oil around.

    Interestingly, what I found most effective for my personal N=1 is high-frequency weight training and interval training. I don’t intentionally restrict food, but for a 3-4 week period, will fasted-train 6-7 days/wk in the AM. I recognize that it could be a huge stress on the body if taken to the extreme, so I keep the workouts short (30-45mins), and always short of failure on the weights. I don’t count calories or intentionally maintain a caloric deficit.

  2. MAS:
    Great post.
    With SLD, I think the point of the flavorless oil, sugar water and/or nose clipping is to consume high calories with low flavor/taste. For this reason, I think that consuming a high flavor and low calorie beverage like coffee would complement the SLD.

    An interesting point about SLD is that Seth postulated that as our bodies associate a taste with calories, we tend to eat more of it. So, if you eat a new high calorie food, your body will recognize that the new flavor is associated with high calories and adjust your taste buds to prefer that food. The oil is supposed to undue this process. In turn, Seth also postulated that eating a variety of new foods and flavors would reduce the set point. He talked about eating less when traveling in Asia, and inventing a random spice combination shaker to change the taste of foods on a daily basis. So, in some ways, SLD is counter to eating the same foods over and over, even if they are low food reward.

  3. @DL – I too am more likely to engage in food reward at the end of the day, which is why I am choosing to tackle the low hanging fruit first. Get everything right before say 7 PM and I will have built up some buffer. This *might* be enough to create a downward shift in calories. If not, I’ll extend more discipline into the evenings on non-workout days.

    @All – If I do the SLD, I will do the sugar water and not the ELOO. Sugar is better for suppressing stress hormones, which I tend to spike with coffee. Also at lower levels of fat, I see stress as the enemy of metabolism.

  4. Glenn Whitney

    Mar 4, 2015 — 3:53 pm

    When people go relatively low-calorie, it’s possible that they’re just not getting enough nutrients pumping through the system to be optimally healthy…

    Let’s assume two diets with very similar nutrient densities.

    To achieve a stable weight, a semi sedentary adult can only eat (for example) 2,000 calories

    But a highly active adult, to also achieve a stable weight, could easily be eating 3,000 calories

    That’s 50% more nutrient-dense foods working their way through the highly active adults system…

  5. From the Shangri-La Diet book page 53- “Rule 2.Take the oil at least an hour away from food and any flavors…. The food-free and flavor-free window should have *no flavors of any kind:* no coffee, no tea, no toothpaste.”

    I’ll be interested to see how things go with this.

  6. @Char – Thank you!

  7. I have had huge success with this sort of thing; but my advice is to not vary between high and low reward foods of the same type. Once you have moved to a lower reward version, stick to that, and it will become just as rewarding as the more fattening versions. The brain gets into a habit, and the habit becomes its new favourite thing after a while. Any reversion to the previous food version, however, and the preference for the more fattening food returns. For example, if you stick to plain potatoes and never vary them with other versions, they, will, if you are like me, become just as enjoyable. To me this feels almost like magic. Best of luck.

  8. Swimmer’s nose clips while eating. Easier and more convenient than SLD. Seth Roberts thought highly of this approach too. I’ve used it, and it works. No smell means practically no flavor. Try it for a couple of weeks.

  9. @David – Thanks. I might try that in Phase 2. Don’t want to introduce too many ideas at once.

  10. @David – Just bought some clips on eBay. 99 cents from Hong Kong.

  11. First reading of the words food reward had me thinking of BF Skinner’s pigeons. I was hoping after a desired behavior you were going to reward with a cookie or ice cream sunday.

    best of luck, stay away from soybean oils!

  12. I was going to answer your question about the flavor-free window, but I see you already got an answer. I started SLD a short while ago after reading your review of it. I’d read about food reward over the years, but I have never been sold on it. SLD, however, makes much more sense to me. Which, of course why I am doing it. The experience so far has been quite fascinating, and without changing what I eat, I am able to lose weight for the first time in years.

  13. Hey MAS,

    I was thinking of re-introducing beer. I haven’t had one in almost a year. Would you have suggestions for how to mitigate bad effects? Anything I should try taking before / after? Any types of beer better than others?


  14. Food reward? Nose clips? SLD? There aren’t enough hours in the day. Anal retentiveness X10.

    Most of us who are reasonably healthy can do well on an omnivorous diet with a greatly varying proportion of carbohydrate to fat to protein, as long as we don’t get stuck in the same rut for too long.

    Address the essentiality of reducing carbs quantitatively, reducing high glycemic load carbs in particular, and eliminating fructose and n-6 FA as much as possible.

    Warren Buffet is 80+ and he drinks five cherry cokes a day. He appears lucid, and he has a nice portfolio. Washes his CAFO burger down with a cherry coke. Look at Anthony Bourdain. He drinks, crams a lot of garbage down his yaw, and he ignorant enough to take statins.

    I like your point as regards Asprey. ‘Nonsense’ is apropos. He hijacks a lot of Peat’s content and then puts his own spin on it. BTW, with regards to BP coffee: Molds are actually ubiquitous in the environment, and mycotoxins are everywhere. Almost every single human has detectable levels of mycotoxins in the blood. Of course, his coffee is mycotoxin free. Buy it now. It is the only mycotoxin free coffee on the planet.

    With regards to butter/coconut oil in your coffee:

    There is nothing essential about fragmented fats. The concentrated fats are largely empty calories, and do little more than add adipose tissue to your waistline.

    When I recommend butter and/or coconut oil and/or olive oil, it is not because they are “good for you.” People are going to eat fragmented foods such as concentrated fats, these 3 options are the least damaging.

    All the good fat you need comes from eggs, beef, sardines etc.

    Raw butter is not that big a deal. While raw cheese is far, far superior to pasteurized cheese, raw butter offers very little advantage over pasteurized butter. The damage in pasteurization is to proteins, and to polyunsaturated fatty acids. There is no damage to saturated fats. So, since butter is 100% fat and 0% protein, there is no damage to butter in pasteurizing it. There may be miniscule amounts of other nutrients in butter that are damaged by the pasteurization process, but quantitatively they are almost certainly insignificant.

    And there is nothing magical about coconut oil or MCT.

    IF in a tight window simplifies everything.

    Fermented foods: Generally, fermented foods are like eating a mouthful of lactic acid — disastrous for any patient who happens to be Anaerobic, and not particularly good for anyone else. Furthermore, there is little if any live bacteria culture in yogurt or any other fermented foods unless you make them fresh at home.

    L. reuteri. — is an extraordinary probiotic, with beneficial effects on immune function (probably through production of butyric acid, and probably by directly influencing mast cells and other components of the immune system).

    Bert Herring MD of Fast-5 summed it up nicely: “Does it work for you or doesn’t it. Is this healthy for me or not? People often don’t trust their own sense of what is good for them…they need it to come from outside. I’m saying–you can trust yourself. You can trust your own body. The study of one tells you what’s healthy for you. With your activity, your choices, your diet, your stress level, your environment and your genes. Navigating the old fashion way. You check your position, you set your course, you travel it for awhile, and then you stop and check again. If things are looking good, you keep going the same way. And if there are not looking good you do something differently. It doesn’t say what’s healthy for some lab rat, or some person who is in a paid study in an ivory tower somewhere.”

  15. @Gary – I am much more closely aligned with the spirit of your comment than most, but I do believe that some efforts we take to improve our health provide a greater return than others. Food reward may or may not be one of them. This blog is about risk vs reward and experimentation. Discover, simplify and move on.

    BTW, I love your writing style. If you have a blog, please drop a link.

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