The Not So Sweet Side of Using Food as a Reward

| Food

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It’s been a long day. To-do list continues to grow with no end in sight. The kids need to be shuffled from dance, gymnastics, soccer. Your husband is out of town and the responsibilities lay on your shoulders. Stressful. Now, the kids are in bed and its is finally quiet in the house...finally. You turn on the television and open the freezer and reach for what?

If you are like many, you are reaching for ice cream, a slice of cake, potato chips or some other usually forbidden treat to reward yourself for making it through the day. Unfortunately, not many people gnaw on a carrot stick and sigh, “Ahhhhh, I deserve this.”

The fact remains that food being used as a reward is likely something that we began to experience as a child. How often did we hear as kids (and even repeat as parents), “no dessert unless you make a clean plate.” In fact, according to the University of Rochester Medical Center, "it's common for parents to offer a special - and often unhealthy food as a reward for good behavior or a job well done." However, the lasting impact is explained as "leading to children overeating foods that are high in sugar, fat, and empty calories. Worse, it interferes with kids' natural ability to regulate their eating and encourages them to eat when they're not hungry to reward themselves."

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There you have it. Likely this reward policy of using food as an earned reward was engrained in us when we were children. Stressful days, special occasions, and sometimes even a reward for healthy eating are compensated with food with little to no nutritional value.

The true danger is that we are breaking the goal of learning to be healthy eaters when we eat for reasons other than fuel. Eating in the absence of hunger is reinforcing ourselves that eating is a coping mechanism (read Getting a Handle on Emotional Eating), when what we should be looking for are other ways to make us feel good outside of food.

“Cheat” days are a great example of this.  We have forced ourselves to eat healthy all week, and in turn, feel like we deserve a feel good day of eating whatever we want. This can lead to binge eating and reinforcing the association of food as a reward. Instead, try to incorporate those foods that you just love on a moderated basis throughout the week. And reward yourself for moderation using other rewards like a new workout outfit, movie night with your husband, or a spa day for yourself! Even more important, think about your association with food as a reward and work hard not to pass the same mentality on to your children (this is a tough one, we know) by avoiding the temptation to entice them to behave with treats of no nutritional value. Instead offer stickers, coloring books, park dates, etc. as rewards for good behavior.

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After reading this, would you classify yourself as an emotional eater? If so, stock your arsenal with positive thoughts, immediate action plans and healthy examples for your family.