Rewarding Children With Food: Conditioning For Obesity?

Alarming evidence from Datamonitor predicts that by 2013, roughly 40 per cent of UK children will be clinically overweight or obese, thanks to a lack of exercise, less than ideal diets and overeating. An overweight four-year old is 20% more likely to become an obese adult, and an overweight teen a staggering 80%. Psychologists are concerned that using food as a reward is sending the wrong messages to children, and can lead to obesity.

The government has caught on to the fact that a heavier population will place a hefty burden on the public health system, and is taking action to combat this growing health problem with initiatives to promote healthier options in school meals and encourage physical activity and sport as part of a healthier lifestyle.

‘Whose fault is this?’, we ask, since our culture likes to hold someone responsible. Consumers have often apportioned the blame to the likes of confectionary manufacturers and fast food retailers, but that is akin to blaming excessive credit debt on the providers of irresistible clothes, cars, hi-fi equipment and exotic holidays.

One of the causes of over-indulging is how some people have been programmed to use food as a comfort; our support in times of need, boredom and even celebration. As parents, it can be tempting to use food to control our children’s behaviour, rewarding ‘good’ behaviour with treats, and keeping kids quiet with the likes of lollipops and aptly named ‘gobstoppers’. This is not so dissimilar from how we teach our dogs to learn a trick by rewarding them with a bone – many of us learn from a young age to reward ourselves with treats, and sometimes even a bowl of ice-cream as an antidote to cuts and bruises!

For these reasons, many children grow up associating particular foods with feelings of happiness, anger, love and sadness. These methods may have short-term benefits, but over time we’re actually reinforcing the sort of excessive and impulsive behaviour we find in overweight and unhappy adults who comfort eat when they’re sad, and who reward themselves with an edible treat when they’ve achieved something.

In short, rewarding children with food encourages over-eating of foods high in sugar, salt and fat, eating when we’re not hungry, connecting mood with food – all of which is likely to lead to poor health in adult life.

Dare I suggest we’ve probably all been guilty of this sort of behaviour, whether we’ve used food, drink, shopping or simply spending unnecessarily as our personal vice. For many people, it’s a case of slowly unlearning these behaviours and trying to replace them, if needs be, with experiential treats like a weekend away, a long hot bath, time with friends and family, or a massage.

A suitable substitute reward for a child could be something educational or fun, such as a day out, playing sport, cooking or reading together, or playing with their favourite toy, which they can enjoy without the negative repercussions of rewarding with food. Perhaps not so appetising, but gradually we can reduce the strength of the unhealthy associations which drive us to comfort eat.

Ultimately the goal of rewarding children is to help them internalise positive behaviour so that eventually they do not need an incentive. Despite these activities being offered as a reward, the child will not make the same associations as with food, since the act of ‘doing’ something generally requires more attention.

It’s fine to give into treats every now and them, and many people support the 80/20 rule (80% of one’s diet to be healthy, the remaining 20% to be whatever the person chooses), but food rewards should not be regular, or it’ll come to be something that’s expected.  It’s all about balance; the age-old rule of ‘everything in moderation’.

Tips for encouraging good behaviour

However you choose to reward your child initially, do remember that these patterns of behaviour aren’t learned overnight, and it’ll likely take a little time to establish new associations. Rewarding a child for improved behaviour is fine, assuming they know that next time they are expected to do better; unrealistic expectations disincentivise a child if they feel that something is impossible.

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