I’ve been there many times before, sitting at my work desk, promising myself that I can have a sweet treat once I finish the project at hand. If you want to learn how to stop using food as a reward, it’s important to address both the biological and psychological triggers.
High-reward foods are formally known as “hyperpalatable foods” – those high in fat, salt, carbs, or sugar. Biologically, these foods activate our brain’s reward system and trigger the release of dopamine, the “feel good” chemical.
Not only are hyperpalatable foods closely linked with our brain’s reward center, but they also offer pleasure and solace on a hard day – and if you’re using food as a reward, it’s probably associated with work.
To learn how to stop using food as a reward, it’s important to understand the science behind the food-reward connection and also how excessive dieting could also be triggering the cycle. You’re about to learn plenty of evidence-based tips on how to stop using food as a reward.
The Science Behind Food as a Reward
When we eat a sweet treat as a reward for completing a task, the brain triggers a dopamine release, a “feel-good” neurotransmitter that plays a pivotal role in our brain’s reward system.1 Furthermore, some sources say that the act of completing a task within itself can release dopamine too, however the clinical evidence is lacking.
In fact, there is much more clinical evidence showing that getting a specific reward at the end of completing a task is what triggers dopamine release.2, 3, 4 This may help explain why we feel drawn to reward ourselves with food to begin with!
Beyond the gratification of getting a reward after completing a task, studies have found that the “reward value” of food is influenced by how much we like the food and how hungry we are.5 One can argue that you are more likely to reward yourself with food if you really like the food you’re using and if you’re really hungry.
Therefore, a clear step towards learning how to stop using food as a reward is to ensure you’re not actually hungry when you decide to treat yourself. If you are genuinely hungry, it’s better to simply eat. Making yourself wait to eat until after you’ve completed a task can be problematic.
This kind of behavior can lead to disordered eating, which refers to behaviors that don’t necessarily meet the diagnostic criteria for an eating disorder but still may negatively impact your physical, mental, or emotional health.6 If you start to feel obsessed or preoccupied with food, it’s a sign to stop using food as a reward, and we will discuss steps to achieve this soon.
If You’re Stressed, You’re Prone to Using Food as a Reward
When food becomes a reward, we not only benefit from the feel-good rush but we also – intentionally or unintentionally – use it to cope with stress. After all, when we reward ourselves with food after doing something difficult, that difficult task was likely stressful, even if just a little.
Studies have found that stress can reshape our eating patterns, intensifying cravings for hyperpalatable foods.7 If you ever find yourself stressed and craving foods high in fat or sugar – like salty chips or chocolate covered almonds – biology plays a strong role.
This illustrates another reason why it’s easy to use food as a reward. When we have a stressful task in front of us, the stress increases our desire for “snacky” foods. If we don’t want to indulge in such treats – for the sake of weight loss or simply overall health – we may use the task at hand to delay the indulgence.
We might make deals with ourselves that sound like this: “Sure, I can have one of the free donuts in the conference room, but only after I finish responding to these five emails and get halfway through my writing project.” This wheeling-and-dealing is a characteristic of using food as a reward, and it’s strongly influenced by the desire to gain pleasure (dopamine) and avoid stress.
While it’s helpful to understand the brain science behind using food as a reward, it’s even more important not to resign yourself as passive responder to biology. Though biology plays a role, you have plenty of inner strength and free will to overcome these biological biases and choose a new behavioral response.
Trying to Lose Weight Increases the Likelihood of Using Food as a Reward
Surprisingly, a goal of losing weight could also be linked to the likelihood of using food as a reward. Often, in the pursuit of weight loss, individuals restrict their diet – whether its counting calories, eliminating carbs, or cutting down on snacks at work.
However, when we cut down on calories, the body kicks into a self-preservation mode, releasing hormones that amplify our cravings. A prime example is ghrelin, the “hunger hormone,” whose production increases when we restrict our food intake, making our cravings even more intense.8
A normal response to these cravings could be using food as a reward. When we are afraid of breaking our food rules, we may use food as a reward so that we have to “work for it” instead of simply allowing ourselves to freely have it.
However, this strategy is unlikely to work as it goes against the body’s biological response to restriction, which is to increase cravings for the very foods we try to avoid on a diet. Furthermore, making certain foods “off-limits” – also known as forbidden foods – increases the psychological desire to eat them.
Studies have found that people become more preoccupied with a food when it is restricted.9 For example, restricting sugar ironically increases preoccupation with sugar, which can snowball into playing mental tricks with oneself such as only allowing sugar after a task is accomplished (using food as a reward).
How to Stop Using Food as a Reward in 5 Steps
As you can see, biology and psychology play strong roles in the desire to use food as a reward. If your job is stressful or if you’re on a diet, you might be vying for an escape from stress or dealing with heightened cravings for hyperpalatable foods. It can be challenging, to say the least!
Next, let’s look into some solutions to help you learn how to stop using food as a reward. These tips are all rooted in both clinical evidence and my philosophy, Psycho-Spiritual Wellness, which addresses compulsive eating through a purely psychological and even spiritual lens.
Here are steps you can take to stop using food as a reward:
1. Make Sure You’re Not Undereating
The first step in learning how to stop using food as a reward is to make sure you’re eating enough food to nourish and sustain your body. This ensures that your cravings aren’t a biological response to restriction.
If you feel averse to eating more food even if you’re physically hungry because you’re trying to lose weight, educate yourself about metabolism. Your metabolism slows down when you restrict your food intake, which means that even though you’re eating less, you’re burning less too.10
One way to boost metabolism if you’ve been excessively dieting is to eat more food – up to your true caloric needs. Without the stress of dieting, your body has a better chance at relaxing, which may help with weight loss.
While there is a lack of clinical evidence directly linking relaxation with weight loss, there is an abundance of evidence on the other side. Studies show that dietary restriction increases stress,11 and increased stress is associated with cravings for hyperpalatable food and weight gain.12
2. Give Up the Food Rules
Dietary restrictions and self-imposed food rules can inadvertently worsen our relationship with food and intensify our desire to use food as a reward. When certain foods are labeled as off-limits, they not only become more psychologically enticing, but our preoccupation with them increases.9
Therefore, the next step towards learning how to stop using food as a reward is to let go of the food rules. Instead of operating within the confines of what’s “allowed” or “forbidden,” aim to foster a positive relationship with all foods. Embrace that food isn’t inherently good or bad and view it more neutrally (also known as food neutrality). This will help diminish its allure as a special “reward.”
Over time, by aligning more with intuitive eating and listening to the body’s genuine hunger and fullness signals, one can break free from the cycle of using food as a reward.
3. Use Non-Food Reward Strategies
Now that we’re reviewed the importance of nourishing your body adequately and releasing restrictive food rules, let’s delve into alternatives that don’t involve food. Finding non-food rewards can provide the satisfaction and pleasure you seek, all while engaging your brain’s reward centers. The goal is to identify alternative strategies that provide the feel-good dopamine boost without turning to food.
Here are some options for non-food rewards:
- Self-Care Rituals: These can include activities such as taking a short walk, watching a funny cat video on YouTube (this is sure to provide dopamine release), or indulging in a hobby you love for a brief moment.
- Materialistic Rewards: This can be and item you’ve desired for a while, be it a book or a handy gadget. New items can feel good, especially when they align with our values and don’t clutter our lives. However, it’s crucial to be mindful of your budget because, just as with food, shopping can become compulsive.
- Shopping Without the Purchase: Not all rewards need to be purchased. Personally, I get enough of a feel-good experience just from building a cart while shopping online. I like the experience of imagining new things in my life and later sitting in gratitude and contentment for what I already have. Once I have my fix, I close my browser without spending any money. It feels good and it’s free.
- Experiential Rewards: These are often the most memorable and enriching. Think about attending a workshop, booking a weekend getaway, or even simply carving out quiet time to explore a passion project. However, because we often have to plan and wait for the feel-good experience to arrive, it’s important to treat the moment of purchase as its own feel-good moment, that way you get the dopamine rush necessary for a reward.
I also want to emphasize that your reward must actually feel good, otherwise it won’t create the feel-good dopamine release. For example, you might be tempted to use meditation as a non-food reward, but for many people, meditation is uncomfortable, difficult, or boring.
Even though meditation is healthy and beneficial — and we know this — it’s best to practice uncomfortable self-care tasks during a different part of your day, like in the morning, instead of the moment after a difficult task. Remember, dopamine release is the goal.
4. Try the “Stop, Drop, & Feel” Technique
What if your desire to use food as a reward is compulsive, though? What if you try your hardest to use non-food rewards but you keep going back to hard-to-resist hyperpalatable food as a reward? This is where my Stop, Drop, & Feel technique can help.
To combat the urge to use food as a reward, employ the Stop, Drop, & Feel during the precise moment when you want to eat when you aren’t hungry. The goal is to develop emotional awareness and emotional tolerance, or your ability to feel uncomfortable without being swept into compulsion.
Here’s how it works:
- Stop: The moment you feel the urge to use food as a reward, or if you’re on the verge of binge eating, pause. Give yourself permission to eat the food later, after the SDF technique, because this isn’t about denying yourself but about gaining clarity.
- Drop: Change your setting if possible, even if it’s just moving to another room. Set a timer for two minutes. During these two minutes, your goal is to drop into your body, becoming fully present and curious of your feelings.
- Feel: In this step, you allow yourself to fully experience whatever emotion is present. Avoid analyzing or resisting it. Simply observe the emotion, feel it, and let it coexist with you for those two minutes.
The underlying philosophy of my Stop, Drop, & Feel technique is that beneath every craving for food without hunger, there’s a suppressed or unrecognized emotion that doesn’t feel good — hence we chase the feel-good dopamine rush of food as a reward.
By pausing and allowing ourselves to sit with these emotions, we build resilience and emotional tolerance. This act can weaken the impulse to use food as a coping mechanism.
While the idea of pausing a binge or resisting the urge to use food as a reward may seem daunting or even impossible, the element of permission is crucial here. By not viewing the SDF technique as a restrictive tool but as a method to cultivate emotional awareness, you set the stage for genuine behavior change.
5. Practice Mindful, Attentive Eating
Mindful eating is last on this list but certainly not least. Studies have shown that slowing down your eating can significantly decrease the amount of food that you eat and increase feelings of satisfaction.13 This suggests that when we savor our food, we may need less of it to feel rewarded.
Similar research highlights the downside of eating while distracted, linking it not only to eating more food but also eating more food later on.14 By being more present with your food when you eat, you become less likely to overeat or use food as a comfort mechanism.
With this said, in my practice as an eating psychology coach, mindful eating is not my first recommendation — it’s still recommended, just not at the top of the list. Here’s why:
At the heart of compulsive eating often lies deeper emotional discomfort. It could be stress, anxiety, depression, or any other uncomfortable emotion. Addressing these underlying emotions is crucial.
Although mindful eating provides a layer of awareness, that awareness is solely on the level of food. It doesn’t go much deeper. On the other hand, self-inquiry practices like the Stop, Drop, & Feel go to the deeper layers that need exploring, tackling the root cause of compulsive eating.
Learning How to Stop Using Food as a Reward
Using food as a reward is deeply rooted in both our biological responses and psychological coping mechanisms. The interplay of stress, dieting, and our brain’s reward system creates a compelling urge to seek out hyperpalatable foods, especially after accomplishing tasks or during challenging times.
Changing our habits requires both awareness and actionable strategies. By ensuring we’re adequately nourished, letting go of restrictive food rules, and practicing emotional self-awareness techniques, we can build a healthier relationship with food.
Remember, the goal isn’t to deny ourselves pleasure but to find holistic, lasting ways to feel rewarded without compulsion around food.
- Morin, Jean-Pascal et al. “Palatable Hyper-Caloric Foods Impact on Neuronal Plasticity.” Frontiers in behavioral neuroscience 11 19. 14 Feb. 2017, doi:10.3389/fnbeh.2017.00019
- Bromberg-Martin, Ethan S et al. “Dopamine in motivational control: rewarding, aversive, and alerting.” Neuron 68,5 (2010): 815-34. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2010.11.022
- Adcock, R Alison et al. “Reward-motivated learning: mesolimbic activation precedes memory formation.” Neuron 50,3 (2006): 507-17. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2006.03.036
- Zald, David H, and Michael T Treadway. “Reward Processing, Neuroeconomics, and Psychopathology.” Annual review of clinical psychology 13 (2017): 471-495. doi:10.1146/annurev-clinpsy-032816-044957
- Rogers, Peter J et al. “Food reward. What it is and how to measure it.” Appetite vol. 90,1 (2015): 1-15.
- Nurkkala, Marjukka et al. “Disordered eating behavior, health and motives to exercise in young men: cross-sectional population-based MOPO study.” BMC public health 16 483. 8 Jun. 2016, doi:10.1186/s12889-016-3162-2
- Yau, Y H C, and M N Potenza. “Stress and eating behaviors.” Minerva endocrinologica 38,3 (2013): 255-67.
- Tschöp, M et al. “Ghrelin induces adiposity in rodents.” Nature 407,6806 (2000): 908-13. doi:10.1038/35038090
- Mann, T, and A Ward. “Forbidden fruit: does thinking about a prohibited food lead to its consumption?.” The International journal of eating disorders 29,3 (2001): 319-27. doi:10.1002/eat.1025
- Kouda, Katsuyasu et al. “Metabolic response to short-term 4-day energy restriction in a controlled study.” Environmental health and preventive medicine 11,2 (2006): 89-92. doi:10.1007/BF02898148
- Tomiyama, A Janet et al. “Low calorie dieting increases cortisol.” Psychosomatic medicine 72,4 (2010): 357-64. doi:10.1097/PSY.0b013e3181d9523c
- Yau, Y H C, and M N Potenza. “Stress and eating behaviors.” Minerva endocrinologica 38,3 (2013): 255-67.
- Andrade, Ana M et al. “Eating slowly led to decreases in energy intake within meals in healthy women.” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 108,7 (2008): 1186-91. doi:10.1016/j.jada.2008.04.026
- Robinson, Eric et al. “Eating attentively: a systematic review and meta-analysis of the effect of food intake memory and awareness on eating.” The American journal of clinical nutrition 97,4 (2013): 728-42. doi:10.3945/ajcn.112.045245