Fri. May 31st, 2024

There’s a reason why “little treat” culture is so popular; it’s completely natural to be motivated by a reward waiting for you on the other side of something you don’t want to do. Food is a go-to reward because it’s relatively inexpensive and, well, eating is fun.

As a kid, you might have been rewarded with a pizza party if your class read a certain number of books. Or maybe your parents took you out to dinner at your favorite restaurant if you brought home an impressive report card. Heck, even animals are rewarded with food. Is it even possible to teach a dog how to sit or roll over without treats?

For adults, rewarding yourself with food might look like treating yourself to Starbucks after getting up early to work out or grabbing your favorite snack out of the pantry once you finish the biggest task on your to-do list. Maybe it looks like rewarding yourself with a big glass of wine simply for getting through the day, because sometimes that’s tough enough. These might not seem that different from other types of rewards (and, hey, it’s certainly cheaper than buying yourself something new for every small win), but according to therapists, it could be messing with your psyche.

Is it truly a reward? Or is it actually a restriction?

Eating disorder therapist Cherie Miller told HuffPost that she doesn’t believe there’s a hard and fast rule when it comes to whether using food as an incentive is a good idea or not. “Most things in life are nuanced, and this is especially true when it comes to ideas about food,” she said.

Miller pointed out that different people have vastly different relationships with food, something that should be considered when it comes to deciding whether or not using food as a reward is a good idea. For someone with a history of disordered eating, she said that viewing certain foods as something to “earn” can be a slippery slope, whereas someone who does not have this history may be able to use food as a reward in a more emotionally healthy way. That said, in general, Miller isn’t into the idea of using food as a reward.

“[Using food as a reward] is rooted in restriction; you’re rewarding yourself with something you wouldn’t normally allow yourself to have,” Miller said. This, she explained, can lead to deeming certain foods as “good” or “bad,” when in reality all foods can have a place in a healthy diet.

Amy Girimonti, a social worker specializing in disordered eating, feels similarly. She told HuffPost that it can be harder to make peace with food (which means not viewing certain foods as “good” or “bad”) when you feel that some types of foods have to be earned. “I would challenge someone who ‘allows’ themself a cookie for accomplishing something, for example, by asking them why they would deprive themself of that cookie otherwise,” Girimonti said.

“Putting certain foods on a pedestal can be harmful and lead to emotional disordered eating,” she added.

For example, it could lead to someone keeping themself from eating at all until they’ve accomplished a certain task, which can either lead to deprivation or overeating later. It could also lead to being preoccupied or obsessed with food.

Stefanie Ginsburg, a registered dietitian and the owner of Unrestricted Nutrition Counseling and Consulting, told HuffPost that viewing certain foods as a reward can be problematic because it might make you feel guilty when you enjoy them outside of the times when you’ve “earned” them.

Diet culture maintains a chokehold on American culture. Seventy-three percent of Americans under age 50 say they have a snack at least once daily, according to a 2023 survey from the International Food Information Council, a food industry-backed group. Of them, 29% say they snack to reward themselves. Simultaneously, 75% of Americans check their weight at least once a week and 8% of Americans always feel guilty after they eat.

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Is this glass of wine truly a comfort? Or is it more of a short-term fix?

What about rewarding yourself with food after a long day?

Many people may reward themselves with food after something emotionally draining, such as the end of a long work week or a particularly exhausting conversation with a family member or friend. Ever reach for a pint of ice cream or pour yourself a drink because you “deserve it”? Then you can relate.

“Everyone has this inclination, and it’s all about finding balance,” Girimonti said. She told HuffPost that food can provide comfort and joy — which is great! But she emphasized that it’s still important to get to the root issue of what’s bringing you down and to not use food as a crutch continuously. For example, if you’re turning to food or alcohol because you’re lonely, depressed or hate your job, it will only provide temporary relief.

How to stop using food as a reward

If you’re reading this and realizing that you do feel a lot of shame and guilt when eating foods you didn’t “earn,” or you’re using food or alcohol to cope with a deeper emotional issue, all three experts recommend talking to a therapist. If you think you could benefit from a therapist who specializes specifically in disordered eating, you can find one using the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders’ online directory.

But how are you going to be motivated to do all those hard things, without your delicious reward? All three experts say it’s still OK to have incentives; they just recommend they not be food-related. Ginsburg recommends making the incentive something tied to self-care, such as time spent doing something you love (like listening to an episode of your favorite podcast or enjoying a nice, long bath).

If food is your reward for working out, Miller recommends replacing it with buying yourself an item of exercise clothing after you meet a benchmark, like hitting a certain number of miles or going to the gym three times a week for a whole month. But no matter what method you choose, she said it’s important to keep checking in with yourself to make sure it’s not negatively impacting you in any way. (Other types of rewards can take a detrimental turn, too, leading to overspending or overexercising, for example.)

Adding to this, Girimonti told HuffPost that it’s still important to address any underlying emotions that could be causing you to over-rely on rewarding yourself to feel better. Feeling content with yourself is something no reward can compete with.

If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, call or text 988 or chat 988lifeline.org for support.

By admin

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