Growing up, how often were you were awarded – or bribed – with food for good behavior?

“Clean your room and we’ll go out for ice cream.”

“You got an A? Well, that calls for a treat!”

“You did a great job at the doctor today, here’s a sucker!”

If you’re like most people, food, particularly sweet food, was used as a treat or reward when you behaved well or accomplished something. Maybe it was even used as a comfort mechanism when you got a scrape or a cut.

Unfortunately, these seemingly benign gestures from parents or grandparents set many of us up for a lifetime of using food as a reward.

“I aced my final exams, time for pizza!” “I got the promotion! Let’s go out for beer and wings.”

And while consistently using food as a reward may feel innocent enough, it can lead to weight gain, health problems, and depression.

One way to tell you have a food/reward issue is to take a little test. The next time you celebrate with eating your favorite food (perhaps your guiltiest pleasure), take notice of how you feel afterwards. Do you feel euphoric at first, but then remorseful? Do you feel physically uncomfortable or even ill from the kind of, or amount of food you chose to eat? Do you feel shame, regret, or self-loathing?

If you feel bad after rewarding yourself with food, it’s time to become more aware of your food choices and think of other, healthier ways to celebrate or treat yourself for a specific achievement. Think of ways you can indulge without feeling bad afterward.


Food habits to avoid


Emotional eating


Try to think of healthy ways to reward yourself – specifically ways that don’t result in you feeling guilty afterward.


It’s natural for people to want to treat themselves to something special after a hard day or challenging experience. If you just finished a brutal 12-hour shift, maybe you and some coworkers want to hit the bar for happy hour apps and drinks. After a funeral, it’s a tradition that everyone gather to eat.

It’s when eating becomes a daily coping mechanism for the stressors in life that there is a problem that needs to be addressed. While comfort foods may seem to offer relief and even give us a little high, eventually we end up feeling worse than we initially did.

To overcome emotional eating, it’s important to get in touch with your emotions. What are you trying to cope with or stuff down with food?

Becoming comfortable with your emotions will make you less likely to avoid them with food (and other unhealthy distractions i.e., phone, tv, substances)

Find healthier ways to comfort yourself during times of stress and grief. Go for walks, take hot showers, meditate, listen to your favorite music.


Mindless eating

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Mindlessly eating in front of the TV is not good.


A study out of Cornell University illustrates mindless eating perfectly: movie goers were given extra-large containers of stale popcorn, yet they still ate 45% more than the movie goers who were munching on piping hot, fresh popcorn out of smaller containers.

From many of us, if the food is there we will eat it when our mind is distracted with something else. And this is a big problem in this country, where portion sizes have increased exponentially over the past 30 years.

It is incredibly important to pay attention to what you eat and how much of it. Stop eating in front of the computer or television and sit down as a family. Really take the time to savor each bite.


Eating too much

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Eating slowly is the key to not over eating. Savor each bite of food.


Similar to mindless eating, eating too fast causes many of us to eat too many calories. We don’t realize we’re full and we keep stuffing it in. Some studies have even suggested eating too fast disrupts our G.I. tract and may even leads to insulin resistance.

A simple solution? Chewing each bite fully. Go ahead, count those chews. However many times you find you normally chew your food before swallowing, double that number. You’ll be amazed at how much more pleasure you get from your food. You will also be amazed at how little it takes for you to become full. And when you feel full, stop eating.

There’s nothing wrong with some comfort food now and then or a celebratory meal or evening of cocktails. But if you find food to be your go-to coping mechanism to manage your feelings (good or bad) you may want to explore increasing your comfort level with the discomfort in your life and find some alternative, healthier habits.


James Killian, LPC is the Principal Therapist & Owner of Arcadian Counseling in New Haven, CT where they specialize in helping over-thinkers, high achievers, and perfectionists reduce stress, increase fulfillment and enhance performance so they can move From Surviving To Thriving.