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​“Earn it”, or don’t — Pitfalls of food and beverages as a reward

We like to sweat for our beer – but you don't need to "earn" any food or drink. Heather Caplan, RD takes a look at that mentality and why it's counter-productive.

​“Earn it”, or don’t — Pitfalls of food and beverages as a reward

Two years ago, I was hearing a lot about beer miles — I knew someone who was really good at running them and even completed one under six minutes. I hardly think I could consume a beer in under six minutes, much less consume three more beers while running four laps around a track in between drinking each 12oz can. But, I didn’t let that doubt hold me back.

A few San Francisco friends and I decided to give it a try. We didn’t want to feel stuck running in circles, though, so we chose to do our “Beer Mile” up and down the famed Lombard street. (You know, the crooked one that winds up Russian Hill, attracting thousands of tourists all day, every day.) We called it the Chutes and Ladders challenge—which is a reference I hope most of you get—and waited until late in the evening hours when it was dark enough that most tourists had moved on to other activities.

We wanted to play by the “rules” of a traditional beer mile—one 12 ounce can per “lap”, no bottles, and I think there’s something about minimum alcohol by volume (ABV) content—while putting our own twist on the route. One thing I knew about most experienced beer-milers was they chose lighter beers, and with good reason.

Without good reason, I chose a watermelon-flavored wheat beer, with close to 5 percent ABV.

I thought it would be refreshing. I thought I’d look forward to each can at the end of each climb and descent of Lombard street. I thought I could drink it quickly.

I was wrong about all of those things.

Needless to say, I haven’t enjoyed any watermelon-flavored wheat beer since that evening. But what I remember more than the nauseating attempts at chugging what was once one of my favorite seasonal beers is the hilarity of that experience with close friends. We picked up food on the way home, and continued celebrating our first beer mile with a San Francisco rooftop (takeout) dinner. Not because felt like we earned a reward, just because we were hungry. We hadn’t had dinner yet. We joked about how we could improve our times for next year. We marveled at one group member’s chugging and uphill-running abilities, feeling like we discovered something new about her. We brainstormed about who we might invite for a future Chutes and Ladders on Lombard challenge. It’s definitely in my top 5 favorite running and drinking memories.

It’s also something I wouldn’t have enjoyed, or even been open to, in a previous phase of life. One when I religiously counted calories and assigned “liquid calories” a high premium. Those calories had to be worth it, I thought, or I had to "earn it" in some way. (I would not have previously considered one lap around a track “earning” a beer, either.) It was difficult for me to give up food calories to drinks. Food wasn't fuel, it was a reward that I had to feel like I deserved. Drinking calories wasn't just a way to hydrate or celebrate; I felt like I was somehow mitigating the workout I'd achieved.


The author on a long run... think there's beer in that pack? (spoiler: it's water).

There are many pitfalls with that line of thinking—that we have to earn our food, or in some way be deserving of it—but a prominent one is how rarely I was able to enjoy many experiences. Any kind of rigid or restrictive diet (even if it feels less like a diet and more like a “healthy lifestyle”), will pull rank as the main thing we remember about any kind of experience in which food and drink are involved. I have a lot of wonderful memories from college, but coupled with almost every one of them is something I remember about the food or drinks had. The way I battled my inner demons to try and allow myself to enjoy celebratory meals or drinks, the way I constantly tried to “balance” these celebrations out with exercise or restriction to follow. The way I felt riddled with guilt and unease about making what I deemed unhealthy choices, such as drinking calories, especially alcohol.

One of my favorite fellow dietitians, Robyn Nohling, said it best: “Stressing over the pizza will kill you before the pizza does.”

It’s hyperbolic, no doubt, but there’s a lot to digest there. I see this with my nutrition clients over and over again: the stress caused by trying to routinely eat perfectly, sticking to rigid dietary rules and specific calorie intakes, far overrides the health they may gain from the fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, low-sugar-everything, and zero-calorie beverages. For anyone, a rigid diet and assumption that anything “extra” has to be a reward for something, may cause difficulty gaining fitness through training (because of constant fatigue), and even some nutrient deficiencies. Without adequate energy intake and variety in that intake, I see athletes that are at a higher risk of injury, fatigue, and even setbacks in fitness, not to mention long-term health complications.

Putting any “reward” foods on a pedestal fuels an unhealthy cycle: we are more likely to crave something that we restrict, and feel out of control with foods or drinks that we love, but feel like we need to "earn" in some extraordinary way. This isn't sustainable and the research indicates that this approach doesn't lead to happy, healthy humans. For this reason, and many others, I encourage my clients to break down the walls of diet culture around them—let go of the rules that suggest they need to eat and drink a certain (perfect) way every day and "earn" drinks. Instead, I want them to engage in health-promoting behaviors—such as physical activity, and food variety—and be able to relish the things they like.

This is all to say nothing of how much more I enjoy craft beers, sampling different seasonal flavors, and visiting breweries now, in the absence of the earn-deserve-restrict cycle. Sure, I all but ruined one of my summer favorites, but there are many more out there to try. So when you're out there sweating for your beer, just remember that you don't need to sweat to enjoy the things you love (in moderation, of course).

Cheers to that.


Heather Caplan is a Registered Dietitian and works with people to help them shed diet culture and rebuild their relationship with food. You can learn more about the amazing work she does here.

Follow along with her Instagram here.

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