Main content

Your primal brain made you do it! Why you shouldn’t feel bad for rewarding yourself those sugary and fatty foods after a hard day

7 February 2019

After a difficult day at work we’ll often turn to fatty, sugary food as a reward. But we shouldn’t feel bad about it, according to psychotherapist Avigail Abarbanel, because turning to food in times of stress is a primal instinct.

One mechanism to feel safer is to eat.
Avigail Abarbanel, psychotherapist

Speaking on Fit in 5, she explained that we have three brains, including the limbic brain and neocortex, and they are responsible for this reaction.

“Our limbic, or mammal brain, is basically a primate’s brain. Its job is to keep us alive another day by constantly searching for danger and alerting our feelings.

“Much, much later in our development we got a new brain on top of our limbic brain: the neocortex. At the front of it we have the executive, which gives us amazing abilities like decision making and clear thinking.

“There hasn’t been enough time for the two brains to integrate naturally, so when we feel threatened the limbic brain takes over and temporarily shuts down our executive functions.”


The science behind why we need to reward ourselves.

So, how does this translate to a sneaky trip to the biscuit tin after a long day at the office?

“When we feel threatened, we’re just limbic,” said Avigail. “We feel smaller and insecure and we just react. One mechanism to feel safer is to eat.

“Fatty, sugary foods provide fast energy. It makes us feel safer because in our ancient history it was associated with better chances of surviving another day.”

Latest features from BBC Scotland