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"If you finish your veggies you will get dessert."
"I had a really hard day at work, so I deserve a sweet treat after work."
"If you make a good grade on your test we will go out for pizza."
These are all examples of using food as a reward. Food is utilized as a reward all the time for a multitude of reasons. Parents use food as a reward to coax their children to complete an activity, including the consumption of certain foods like vegetables. Adults often reward themselves with foods after an emotional event or to celebrate an achievement. Children or adults may be treated with food after an accomplishment or successful event. Despite the frequency of using food as a reward, people often do not realize they are using food as a reward.
Why do we use food as a reward?
The simple answer is food can provide two things quickly- fulfillment and comfort. Food is one of the easiest and cheapest methods to promote a short-term behavior change or satisfy feelings (either of sadness or happiness). Think about why you may use food as a reward. Is it out of habit, family tradition, or to fulfill feelings?
What habits can be learned by using food as a reward?
When food is offered as a reward for a long period of time habits can develop. In a study by Puhl and colleagues, the researchers suggest some rewarded childhood food habits may have a long-lasting effect on eating behaviors. Specifically, they found binge eating and unhealthy dietary habits as an adult correlated with a memory of their parents controlling behaviors with food in childhood. Other publications suggest implementing foods as rewards contradict nutrition education being taught in schools and households. Food rewards typically promote excessive intake of foods high in calories, fat, and sugar. Using food as a reward disagrees with mindful eating. The habit can teach a person to eat when they are not hungry, which does not allow them to understand listening to hunger cues.
Is it ok to offer food as a reward on occasion?
When I started writing this post my original intent was to offer a conclusion that food should NEVER be offered as a reward. We were out last night with some friends who have young children, and I realized it is not that simple. I watched as our friends struggled to get their children to eat unless they were promised ice cream after dinner. Knowing I was a dietitian the parents were quick to let me know they don't usually offer rewards, but on occasion (when they are out) do resort to it.
Don't worry, on occasion offering food as a reward is ok. Whether you decide on ice cream for job promotion or offer your children a candy bar for making straight A's - as long as food rewards are not a habit go for it! (According to one expert habits take years to form).
Finding rewards without involving food is not always an easy task. It is important to establish rewards to help food appear less powerful and satisfying. You should not starve yourself or buy designer clothing, but find realistic rewards.
Some suggestions for children:
1. Extra playtime outside
2. Stay up 30 minutes past bedtime
3. Pick one activity to do on the (i.e.,. trip to the park or zoo)
4. Have a friend spend the night
5. Watch movie of choice
Some suggestions for adults:
1. Purchase a lotto ticket (love this idea)
2. Get a manicure or pedicure
3. Give yourself one hour of "free" time
4. Go to the movie theater
Your Family's Dietitian,