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The Dangers of the Food Reward

Sound dramatic? Find out why using food as a reward has serious downsides.

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Updated April 16, 2012

You've probably heard this advice before: Avoid the temptation to use food as a reward for your kids, whether for good behavior, achievements at school, or cleaning their plates at dinnertime. But why—especially when these rewards can be so effective?

For one thing, this practice adds unnecessary fat, calories, and sugar to your child's diet today. But more importantly, it could change the way he eats for years to come. Yep, promising a child ice cream if he finishes all his veggies will probably work. And then he's eaten some healthy green stuff, so that's good, right? Well, yes; but we're trading a short-term win for long-term loss. Using food as a reward teaches unhealthy lessons like these:

Some Foods Are Better than Others

Repeated food rewards reinforce the idea that some foods are rewards, or treats, while others are hard work (at best) or punishment (at worst). A better lesson: We need lots of different foods in our diets, but since some supply more fat, calories, and/or sugar than others, we need to eat them in moderation. Holding them out as extra-special makes them more appealing. And not just now, when parents are in a position to limit kids' access to such foods. The food-as-reward link hangs on into adulthood. One scientific study concluded that "food reward, not hunger, is the main driving force behind eating in the modern obesogenic [obesity-promoting] environment. Palatable foods, generally calorie-dense and rich in sugar/fat, are thus readily overconsumed despite the resulting health consequences."

Some Foods Are So Good, You Should Eat Them Even If You're Not Hungry

If you're out at a restaurant and just ate a delicious, filling meal, you probably don't have room for dessert. But do you eat it anyway? Many of us do, just because we want to taste whatever amazing confection is on offer.

Bad idea, right? In this case, our hunger cues are fighting against our love of sweets. If we've established a pattern of needing to finish each meal with a treat (whether we're hungry or not), those hunger cues don't really have a chance.

Food Is the Best Way to Celebrate

Using food as a reward also sends kids a message that when we achieve something, we should eat something (and not carrot sticks, either). Sounds kind of silly when you look at it that way, doesn't it? Sure, holidays and special occasions are intimately connected with food, family, culture, and tradition. But when a child masters a new skill, we can just as easily, and more healthfully, offer him a hug, some words of praise, or a non-food reward.

Healthy Eating Is Important, Except for Right Now

Both at school and at home, adults are trying to teach children about good nutrition and help them develop healthy habits. So it's confusing when the same parents, teachers, and coaches who sing the praises of veggies and whole grains also provide snacks and treats with little to no nutritious value. This is why healthy snack policies are helpful for sports teams, too; kids lose some of the benefits of physical activity if they follow it up with a junky snack.

Sources:

Alsiö J, Olszewski PK, Levine AS, Schiöth HB. Feed-forward mechanisms: Addiction-like behavioral and molecular adaptations in overeating. Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology, 10.1016/j.yfrne.2012.01.002. Available online 2012 Jan 28.

Action for Healthy Kids, accessed April 2012.

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