Ask the Dietitian: How to Change the Mindset of Food as Reward

Trinh Le, MPH, RD
by Trinh Le, MPH, RD
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Ask the Dietitian: How to Change the Mindset of Food as Reward


The food-as-reward behavior is a problem if it thwarts your goal to be happier and healthier. When parents, teachers and other authority figures reward or punish children with food, it subtly teaches kids to associate treats with positive feelings. Once the association sticks, it backfires when children grow up to be emotional eaters, using food to make themselves feel better.

You can’t press reset on your upbringing. Uprooting this problem takes time and commitment, but adult-you can break free of the food-as-reward cycle and reestablish a healthier relationship with food.

Here are some strategies to help you visualize a better relationship with food.

BREAKING THE FOOD-AS-REWARD CYCLE

Rewarding yourself with high-calorie, nutritionally poor foods may set you back on your weight-loss goals. But, you still need to reward yourself to stay motivated. Instead of using food, find other rewards that excite you.

Make a list of your most common food rewards and swap it with a non-food idea. The list is personal to you, but here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Pamper yourself. Go fancy with a full-body massage, manicure, pedicure, haircut or coloring job. You can also keep it simple with a hot bath, music and bubbles.
  • Splurge on something special. Get yourself an outfit, shoes or that new watch you’ve been eyeing.
  • Subsidize your hobbies. Reward yourself by putting more time, energy and money into your hobby. Get new clubs for golf, new tires for your car or upgrade to a nicer camera. Giving yourself more time to engage in these hobbies is also a reward.
  • Invest in experiences. Buy tickets to a play, concert, spa or high-end workout class. You don’t even need to spend money. Maybe you can plan a beach trip, picnic or hiking adventure.

Over time, these non-food rewards can help sidestep the idea you need to eat to celebrate.

Of course this doesn’t mean you can’t celebrate with food as it’s linked to many cultural occasions. A healthy relationship with food isn’t built on deprivation. You should still be able to connect with loved ones over a meal to celebrate big wins and major life events such as a graduation, promotion, birthday or major anniversary.

There are a few catches:

  1. Draw a line at what’s a big win. Buying yourself donuts because you got through hump day is overkill, especially when you’re trying to lose weight.
  2. Food shouldn’t be the only reward. There are other forms of reward that don’t involve eating (refer to the list above). Choosing those rewards instead of food can help you reframe your mindset.
  3. Guilt shouldn’t be an issue. A reward should be enjoyable. Don’t eat it if you’ll feel bad afterward. It’s counterproductive.

READ MORE > WHY COMFORT FOOD DOESN’T NEED TO BE A GUILTY PLEASURE


VISUALIZING A HEALTHIER RELATIONSHIP WITH FOOD

We forge a healthier relationship with food when we find balance. This means not letting emotion be the pure driver of our decisions. It doesn’t mean you reach a zen where junk food no longer tastes delicious. It doesn’t mean your eating decisions are perfect, and you will no longer slip up here and there.

There’s no official set of standards, but here are three signs to look for in people who have found that sweet spot:

  1. They know when to stop eating. Your body sends physical cues to signal hunger and fullness, but you may not be able to spot them if you’re distracted or unfamiliar with them. Commit to learning these cues.
  2. They don’t let negative emotions get the upper hand. People who have a healthy relationship with food don’t often use it as a crutch to deal with stress, anger, frustration or sadness. Food doesn’t have the emotional upper hand after they eat, either. If you find yourself frequently overwhelmed by negative feelings where food is the root cause, seek help from a qualified mental health professional. There’s no shame in learning to manage your emotions — it will make you a stronger person.
  3. They make food choices that enhance their health. Whether they are aware of it or not, they eat in a way that promotes good health. Most of the time, they choose foods that nourish a healthy body and mind. They like to eat slowly and savor their food.

Having a healthier relationship with food takes time. But, it’s important not to let your past stop you — keep working at it and you’ll get there!

About the Author

Trinh Le, MPH, RD
Trinh Le, MPH, RD
Trinh is a registered dietitian by day, blogger at Fearless Food RD by night. She loves helping folks develop a better relationship with food, which includes lots of cooking, eating and learning about nutrition. When she’s not snapping mouthwatering shots of (mostly) healthy food, you can find Trinh HIIT-ing it at her local gym. For more, connect with her on FacebookInstagram and Pinterest.

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