6 Top Tips How To Stop Using Food as a Reward

We learn from birth that food is a type of reward (after all, a crying baby receives a bottle or the breast by means of comfort). As we grow older, our parents often allow us only to have dessert when we finish our dinner (calling the dessert a ‘treat’, whereas the vegetables on our plate are what?).

Or grannies and granddads spoil their grandchildren with sweets after school for ‘being good’ or, as I have often seen, a sweet is offered by means of a bribe for good behaviour or, worse still, as a comfort when a child is hurt or sad.

No wonder then that many of us have a tendency to automatically associate positive emotions like pleasure and joy with food. As adults, this can manifest itself in the belief that we ‘deserve’ a treat or some fast-food after a day of hard work (is fast-food really a treat though?), or ‘something nice’ (ie. sweet), or perhaps a glass of wine in the evening time after the children are gone to bed.

Is it Really Reward?
It is believed that over 85% of overweight people have this tendency to use food as a reward. The influence of advertising only compounds this association, with the underlying concept that we can find happiness in a chocolate bar or at the bottom of a drink. When contemplating this, start by asking yourself, ‘Is my happiness really about consuming something?’ or, on the contrary, is happiness something that comes from within; a feeling that we have rather than a product that we buy?

Don’t get me wrong: I love to indulge and enjoy eating some of my favourite foods a few times each week. But I see them as a small deviations from my usual eating plan, rather than an everyday thing. And I do enjoy every mouthful (see ‘eating mindfully’ below). Food is, no doubt, a very enjoyable aspect of our lives, but it is just fuel at the end of the day so attaching a whole host of emotions to it is, at best, unnecessary and, at worst, quite damaging to our relationship with it.

When you use food as a reward, at Motivation we explain to clients that the pleasure will soon be outweighed by the punishment of how it makes us feel afterwards (sometimes bloated and overweight). Of course, this is not always the case but, if we use food too often as a reward, it actually becomes our prison in a way.

So here’s our 6 top tips on how to stop using food as a reward and to change that relationship.

1. Avoid labelling foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’
Although you may think that labelling food as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ may help you to lose weight, the research shows the contrary. In fact, this seeps into our subconscious and keeps us well and truly stuck on that guilt loop of eating the ‘wrong’ foods, then beating ourselves up and wanting to give up.

Using ‘bad foods’ as a way to reward ourselves when we are feeling low creates a deeply unhealthy emotional relationship with food. So end it now. Most foods nourish us and those that don’t (such as foods high in calories and sugar) are fine, but only consumed in moderation, as opposed to saying ‘never’.

2. Start eating mindfully & watch your language
Slow down and really savour the food you eat; avoid the temptation to ‘wolf down’ breakfast or lunch – you will only feel deprived and may want to ‘reward’ yourself with something sweet later in the day, mainly because you don’t feel satisfied. Try to eat slowly and mindfully. This not only helps satisfy your craving in a healthy way but also helps your body digest the food more efficiently. It can also help tell you when you’re full before you’ve overeaten as it takes around 20 minutes for your body to signal to your brain that you are, indeed, full.

Also be aware of your habits around reward and be careful of language like “Sure you only live once!” and ‘Sure you deserve a treat!’ – either from yourself or those around you. Change it to: “I want to enjoy good food with my family friends,” and “Over indulgence doesn’t mean I’ll have a better time.” Or “Weight loss means I need to be careful on all days a week; why would I sabotage that just because it’s a Saturday?”

3. List the benefits
Remind yourself at least once a week of the amazing rewards you can enjoy by choosing a healthier lifestyle. By continuing to lose weight you will feel great, improve your health and gain energy, vitality and more confidence. You’ll be able to climb those stairs without getting out of breath; you’ll be able to enjoy playing with your children or grandchildren more and you’ll certainly enjoy getting into that sleek dress or fitted shirt for an event.

In fact, almost everything becomes more enjoyable when you reach a healthy weight, from choosing what to wear each morning to the feeling of energy you have on a walk or at a social occasion – remind yourself regularly of how far you’ve come and how good it feels. No reward beats that feeling.

4. Set up non-food rewards
Notice your habits around rewarding yourself; does it happen especially on days off or on weekends? If so, then it’s crucial you start inputting a reward on a Friday night that is unrelated to food or alcohol in order to break the habit. Perhaps book in for a massage, manicure or a facial? Treat yourself to a new item of clothes, a new book or a DVD to sit and watch with the family, or book tickets to a show or to the cinema.

Also, every few days or so, make sure you are doing nice things for yourself that don’t involve food (things like taking a bath, reading a good book or doing something creative, whether that’s gardening, knitting or woodwork – it doesn’t matter what it is, as long as you enjoy it).

Or buy something related to your new, healthier lifestyle such as a new blender, a new cookbook or some workout gear. Also, if weekends are a problem for you, set aside some time on Friday night to plan your weekend’s eating. Make a food shopping list and decide in advance what you’ll eat. Try as best as you can to stick with it, but accept it and move on if you have a slip.

5. Be kind to yourself
Reward is associated with weekends as it is often linked with tiredness and convenience. Make sure to develop a good sleep routine to ensure clear thinking and the ability to make better choices. Also, practise some self-compassion and kindness. Often, we reach for food to soothe difficult emotions and anxiety.

And, too often, we are our own worst critics.

Write down on a page what you think you are ‘failing’ at, or doing wrong, and then write down a more rational way of looking at it. What are you doing ‘right’ or well? You might be surprised what comes out; usually people find that they are being overly harsh and that they’re doing the best job they can, whether it’s regarding their parenting, their career or the way they handle stress.

It’s okay to moan every now and then, and to admit that things are hard, but beating ourselves up isn’t going to help. In fact, the opposite is true; being kind to ourselves and showing self-compassion goes a long way and impacts all areas of our lives.

6. Don’t get overly hungry
This sounds obvious but a lot of people get it wrong, and then they wonder why they keep eating the wrong foods.

Fluctuating blood sugar levels leave us wide open to reaching out for sugary or carby foods, in an attempt to ‘fix’ our low blood sugar (be particularly wary of the mid-morning or mid-afternoon ‘crash’, where so many people go wrong). Opt for a protein snack such as a babybel cheese, some greek yoghurt with berries or a Motivation protein bar.

Be sure to eat consistently throughout the day (every 3-4 hours is our golden rule). This way you won’t be tempted to overeat later on due to hunger. When we are overly hungry, we physiologically are programmed to reach for higher calorie food, and to eat a bigger portion that we need.

So here’s to stop using food as a reward and really enjoying rewarding ourselves in new and great ways this year!

Blog Post by Maebh Coyle