Balancing Calories: Should you “earn” your treats or alcohol?

treats and alcohol

By Sara Callahan, Founder and Head Coach of the Nutrition For Life Project Sarah can be also found on Instagram – @nutritionforlifeproject.

The exact question someone asked me the other day was:  “Is it wrong to look at treats and alcohol as something that can be earned? As a reward?”

GREAT question!

It’s not necessarily “wrong”, as this is what many of us have been conditioned to think about, but this mindset could have a negative impact, mentally and emotionally speaking.  And, if we can adjust away from this mindset, that is advantageous.  

Attaching eating certain foods or having certain drinks to your activity levels can make you feel like you have to do X before you can have Y… like, “I need to work out today so I can have a treat.” 

That mindset can influence how we feel about exercise, as a task that is now attached to how much/what you can eat.  Movement is no longer something we do because it’s healthy for us and makes us feel good, it now becomes something we’re obligated to do so we can eat.  This can cause us to not take rest days, or instill the mindset that we can “make up for” things we’ve eaten by crushing ourselves in the gym.  None of which is healthy or productive.  

Our Relationship With Food 

So, where does this “earning” mentality come from in the first place? 

Some of us grew up with it.  Maybe we got good grades, so we went out for ice cream.  Maybe if we behaved and did our chores we got to pick out a snack at the store.  I don’t share this to make a comment about parenting methods or how we were brought up at all, it’s just a reality that many of us experienced, and I also know that none of our parental figures were putting these things in place intentionally trying to “mess up” our relationships with food.  All I am saying is that if this earning attachment is something we grew up with, it may still impact us today.  And if we can start to break this connection piece by piece, we can take more ownership of, and empower, our food choices.  

Also, unfortunately, there are nutrition coaching programs and coaches out there who preach information like this, earning carbs and calories through exercise, which admittedly rubs me the wrong way.  And, breaking away from mindsets like this can be challenging and takes time.  

Establishing New Mindsets Around Treats and Alcohol 

So, what can we do about all of this?! 

First of all, since this “earning food” mindset can also put those “treat” foods or drinks on a pedestal, we can start by aiming to see all food as food, and remove the moral qualifiers of “good” and “bad” foods.  Instead, we can use the facts and nutrition information about it to help us make decisions. 

For example, I had pizza for lunch today, and because that is a higher carb source, I’ll opt for salad and chicken for dinner.  (Not, I had pizza for lunch so now I have to go on a 17 mile run to “make up for it.”)

Or, I’m so excited to go to this donut shop today and have chosen this donut to be my treat for today!  

Or, simply checking in with yourself to see if you actually WANT a drink or a treat instead of feeling like you have to earn it, or having it just because it’s available.

Next, we can start to actively check in with ourselves about our choices.  It’s typically easier to connect to our goals and use those to make decisions instead of thinking about earning food.  For example, does having 4 drinks today help support my goal of XYZ?  Then, you decide.  

If possible, we can also move away from attaching food to accomplishments all the time.  Is it possible to get someone a bouquet of flowers (or some other meaningful gift) to honor their promotion, instead of a cake?  Do all gatherings among friends have to center around food?  While I completely understand some of this happens regardless, if we can even make small shifts around these attachments it will help us adjust the connection in the big picture.  

Maybe most importantly, though, is gaining a better understanding of food, its qualities, each of our individual nutritional needs, and how to achieve overall balance in our food plans.  In my opinion, this is the crux of it.  

Balance and How All Foods Fit 

Certainly, how much we exercise, our food choices, and what we’re eating still matter, AND when we better understand what our bodies need, and the benefits and qualities of different food choices, we can make more educated choices about how exactly ALL FOODS FIT for us personally.  

In increasing your overall nutritional understanding, we can KNOW how many treats or drinks make sense for each of us and fit our respective goals.

We then also KNOW what it means to prioritize water, protein, fruits, veggies and overall food quality, and balance them WITH those treats and drinks!  This is the KEY!

We should never have to earn food through movement or accomplishments.  Period.

Our food and fitness plans should reflect our health and our goals, and mindfully include foods and drinks we love.  Period.  


For any further support, be sure to check out the Nutrition2change online courses developed by qualified health and fitness coaches. Find out more here.

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