I Eat Because... It's a Reward

While there's nothing wrong with turning to food to self-reward occasionally, it can become an unhealthy habit – particularly if you can only achieve a sense of satisfaction by eating.

As a child, you may have been given sweets or chocolate as a treat for doing well at school or being extra obedient during the weekly shop.

Now, you might wind down after a tough day at work with a takeaway or indulge in a bowl of ice cream after a challenging fitness class.

It's common to use your favourite snacks to pat yourself on the back or make yourself feel better.

We wanted to understand more about why we use food to reward ourselves, and how those coveted childhood treats can impact the choices you make today.

Sue Bradley, an eating psychology coach, looks at the reasons why we turn to food to improve our emotions, alongside common reward-based habits.

Prize and punishment: Britain's emotional eating rollercoaster

Do you always reach for ice cream when you're sad? Would you feel smug after choosing a salad for lunch, instead of a burger? What thoughts run through your mind after you inhale a chocolate bar in seconds?

The reasons we choose foods and how we feel about them afterward can vary from meal to meal. And it can impact our physical and mental health. As our survey revealed, Britain's relationship with food can be an emotional rollercoaster...

Munching on memories: Childhood snacking habits

For many of us, using food as a reward is something that stems back to childhood. We asked Brits about how treats and snacks factored into their upbringing:

14% had a 'treat cupboard' in their homes.

19% were rewarded with sweet and sugary treats as a child.

29% were given pudding after dinner.

According to Sue Bradley, these associations can have an impact long into adulthood.

"Within us all there is a needy child, hungry for affection. As adults, we automatically turn to our 'reward' foods for comfort, and even if our adult voice is telling us it's not the best food to eat, the noisy child will often win out!

Setting up certain types of food to be 'naughty but nice' or informing children that ultra-processed foods with a combination of sugar and fats – carefully manufactured by the food industry to be irresistible to us – are 'treats', sets us up for a lifetime of guilt around our eating habits. Similarly, the reinforcement that green vegetables are 'yucky' but nutritious also instils a distain for healthy eating in later life."

Sue Bradley - Psychologist

Why am I eating this?

Today, though it might not be as simple as 'do your homework and you can have an iced bun', it seems we still use food to motivate ourselves and control our emotions:

20% reward themselves with food.

18% eat to make themselves feel better.

42% often eat when they're not physically hungry.

38% eat when they have cravings.

Sue Bradley explains there are plenty of things that factor into what we choose to eat and when.

"A lot of what we choose to eat and when we eat it is not based on natural hunger or our nutritional requirements; instead, it based on habit and product placement. For instance, many people will think about popcorn the minute they enter a cinema, and eat a huge box of it whether they are hungry or not. The association is so strong and unconscious that it is difficult to resist.

Often we don't use our 'logical thinking' skills to make these decisions. Rather, they come from a more primitive part of our brain, so we are more likely to act from an emotional level. If we were to pause for a moment, take a deep breath and ask ourselves, 'Do I really want to eat this?' or 'Why do I want to eat this?' we might find ourselves making more adult choices."

Sue Bradley - Psychologist

Rejoice or regret? (It's complicated)

Sometimes, feelings about what we've eaten can resonate long beyond the last bite. Depending on what we're indulging in and why, food can have a lasting emotional impact.

19% feel better after having eaten to satisfy a craving.

21% of people feel guilty or disappointed with themselves for eating something they 'shouldn't have' at least once a day.

34% feel guilt, shame, or embarrassment after eating.

34% feel better physically after eating healthy foods.

31% feel better mentally after eating healthy foods.

If you've ever felt regret over something you've just eaten, Sue Bradley suggests that it's time to rethink your attitudes towards all food.

"Regret can knock our self-esteem and we might find ourselves being tempted to eat even more as a result. Better to 'have a little bit of what you fancy' while really enjoy eating it with your full attention, in order to prevent yourself continually craving what you can't have.

Food is morally neutral. It can't be 'good' or 'bad', in the same way a knife can be used to butter your bread or to stab someone – the knife itself is not at fault. The guilt comes from within ourselves, and is influenced by our parents, friends, and the people around us. We have to learn how to manage it."

Sue Bradley - Psychologist

A psychology expert's top 5 tips for managing reward eating

There have been countless studies and experiments conducted about reward-based eating, all of which offer different theories about the complicated reasons behind why we reach for certain foods at certain times.

But in real life scenarios, it's hard to always think logically – no matter how many facts and theories we've armed ourselves with.

As Sue Bradley explains, everything from the physical reaction we have to certain foods to a sense of guilt and habit can have an impact.

Sue says: "Often, we are eating so mindlessly we don't even notice we are eating. For instance, working at your computer with a packet of biscuits next to you when you are stressed often results in you eating the whole packet without even realising! But sometimes it can be deliberate and is often a substitute for something else – you might think you are hungry when actually you are lonely and a seeing a friend is actually what you need."

If you want to stop eating for reward, try to follow Sue's top five tips:






Learn to control your inner child: "Take a deep breath and allow yourself the mental space to make the best decision for yourself."

Stop assigning morality to food: "There's no such thing as 'naughty' or 'nice' food, so try not to wrap up feelings of guilt in what you're eating."

Teach children to view food objectively: "Don't say they will love or hate anything before they eat it; let them make their own decisions."

Let go of the past: "If you've eaten a snack that you think you shouldn't have had, don't dwell on it, as the regret will make you crave a new reward through food."

Notice what you're eating: "Rather than allowing yourself to mindlessly snack from a packet, consider setting up a portion for yourself, so you only eat what you want to eat."