Done with Dieting Episode #92: Using Food as a Reward

food as a reward

If you were brought up, like many of us were, that if you were bad, you were sent to bed without dinner or at minimum, dessert, it’s natural that you might use food as a reward for something that you don’t want to do, or to celebrate getting through a tough time.

In this episode, we’re specifically exploring the phrase “I deserve it!” that so many of us use to justify eating in response to feeling resentful, or irritated, or some of the other instances when our brain offers us the thought, “I deserve it”

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What You’ll Learn from this Episode

  • The 4 different examples of when we use food as a reward.
  • What to do instead.
  • How to recognize that you’re using food in a way that isn’t helpful.

Listen to the Full Episode:

Full Episode Transcript:

Have you ever had the thought that I deserve this? Whether we’re talking about relaxation, or a piece of chocolate, or even something more decadent like a night out on the town. And you feel a little guilty and I want this, or I deserve this is a way of justifying them. We’ve all had that experience.

What this episode is about is I deserve this and using food as a reward when you don’t want to. So, let’s get started.

You are listening to the done with dieting podcast. The podcast for women in midlife, who are done with dieting, but still want to lose weight and feel good in your clothes.

You know that diets don’t work long term. But you feel like there’s this secret that everyone else knows that you just haven’t figured it out yet.

I am your host, Elizabeth Sherman. And I’ve helped hundreds of women get off the diet roller coaster, change their relationship with food, exercise, and their bodies.

Through this podcast, my goal is to help you too.

Welcome. Let’s get started.

Hey everyone, welcome to episode 92 of the done with dieting podcast. So, this episode is born from episode number 89, my interview with my client, Stephanie. And in that episode, she talks about how she used the phrase, ‘I deserve it’ as a way of telling herself that she could eat a bagel after her kids were irritating her.

And in the episode, she talked about a friend of hers that she was having a conversation with and how they were looking at the phrase, ‘I deserve it’ differently. And it really got me thinking about how we use food as a reward, but then also the phrase, ‘I deserve it’ and all of the different permutations that it means to us based on what it is that we’re feeling.

And so, what I wanted to do in this episode is talk a little bit about when we’re using food as a reward, and then, also when we use the phrase, ‘I deserve it’ really understanding how we’re using that, whether we’re using it as an excuse or not. Okay.

So recently, I saw a friend of mine post on social media, and she said something to the effect of the picture that she posted on social media was of some beers and something that she was eating which didn’t really look super healthy. And her comment about it, the caption read something about ‘we took a five mile hike this morning, and then we played an hour of tennis. And so, this is our reward.’

And it really got me thinking about how I used to think that way too. And what are the reasons why we justify our eating.

First of all, let’s address the fact of where all of this I deserve it comes from. So, what we’re basically telling ourselves is when we decide that we’re going to eat a piece of cake and tell ourselves, well, I deserve it. Or we’re going to drink beer and say, I deserve it. Or even eat a bagel and say, I deserve it. The subtext with ‘I deserve it’ is that we aren’t allowed to eat this just because.

And so, the first thing I want to point out is that is a bunch of BS, that we somehow have to earn tasty treats. Right? That we have to earn them by working them off, or we have to earn them by working hard, or we have to earn the reward of eating sugary or something that we love, something that is wonderful to us. We somehow have to earn that through doing something else. And I want to point out that this is rooted in diet culture. Okay.

Now, part of this starts within childhood. And within childhood, we teach children that we use food as a reward system for good behavior. So, we will tell our children that we’re going to take treats away when they’ve done something bad. You’ve been bad, so therefore you have to go to bed without dinner, or you have to go to bed without dessert. Right?

And so, we’re starting this socialization out at a very young age, and there’s some evidence to suggest that controlling food intake in children actually leads to emotional eating in adulthood. So, what we really want to do is first of all, if you have a child that you are trying to teach a healthy relationship with food, one of the things that we don’t want to do is actually use food as a reward.

So, telling children that if you eat your vegetables, you will get to eat dessert. Okay. You have to eat your vegetables first in order to get to the tasty thing. And I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, but if we allow children to eat whatever they want to, they’re only going to eat sweets. Yes, that’s true. We definitely want to make sure that your children are getting enough nutrients.

However, just like with yourself, think about how you would parent yourself and what you need to do as an adult. Because part of what we’re doing with children is we’re teaching them how to become responsible adults. And so, when they move out of your house, you want them to be able to make good choices.

And so, the same thing is true with you. So, you want to be able to make good choices. Part of that is parenting yourself and talking to yourself like you would talk to a child. I know it sounds silly, but it’s absolutely true because we all have toddler brains. Okay. So, that’s the first thing is understanding that all of this starts in childhood.

Now, typically, when we’re talking about tasty treats, what’s happening in the brain is when we eat foods that are ultra-processed or that are sugary and that taste good like that. What’s happening is in our brains, there’s a neurotransmitter called dopamine that makes us feel good. And so, we want to eat more because that hormone, that neurotransmitter in our brain keeps firing. And so, it makes us want to crave it more, and more, and more. And so, that’s really kind of the Genesis behind why we crave tasty things and why we want to limit it to some degree.

Now, here’s the other thing. We are socialized to believe that pleasure is forbidden. And what happens then, and this is especially for women, right? Because we see articles, or we see magazine ads that have like chocolate and it’s the guilty treat or it’s something that’s guilt free. Right? So, advertisers will often promote like ice cream, or chocolate, or something like that as being a guilty pleasure or a guilt free pleasure.

And so, we never want to use food and feel guilty. We never want to feel guilty about our food. Right? Because when we feel guilty, what happens is we hold off, and we hold off, and we hold off, and we hold off until eventually, we just take. Right?

And what that does is in our brains, we’re like, well, I couldn’t hold on for so long. It creates this justification and this entitlement within us that I have to take it because I want it and it’s not good for me and no one’s going to allow me to have it. No, one’s going to permit me to have it. So, I’m just going to take it.

And so, ultimately, it creates this defensiveness which is where we get the reward system from. When we feel the defensiveness, we’re like, oh, well, I’ve actually worked really hard for this. And because I’ve worked really hard for this, that’s why I deserve it. That’s why I’m using this as a reward. Okay.

And the last piece here is, again, just thinking about how we view food from a lens of diet culture, right? From a lens of, well, there are foods that are good for us, and there are foods that are bad for us. There are foods that are pleasurable, and we’re not allowed to eat the foods that are pleasurable. Right?

So, culturally, we’re taught that we have to earn our calories. Okay. And I’m going to talk about that again in just a little bit. Now, in terms of using food as a reward, thinking of the idea of I deserve it, I broke it down into about four different situations. And some of you may resonate with some of these, some of you may resonate with not all of them. And that’s totally fine. You may not use all of these reasons.

But number one, when we’ve been active outside of our identity. And so, this is the situation with my friend that posted on social media. When we say I deserve it after doing something like a run or doing something outside of what we normally do, what happens is I identified myself as someone who doesn’t go for hikes, who doesn’t play tennis on a regular basis. Because if those were things that we did on a regular basis, we wouldn’t feel like we deserved it. We would feel like this is just normal.

And so, that’s the first thing to really notice. And where I started noticing this on was when you go to for example, like a fun run, a 5k, you know how at the end of one of those fun runs, they have tents set up all over the place after the finish line. And the tents have things like bananas, and like protein bars, and energy bars, and all of this free swag. And you see people who are going up and eating foods. And then, you also have people who just kind of walk through and they’re like, oh, maybe I’ll take a banana or whatever and they kind of move on.

And really thinking about when you feel like you’ve done the run, and now you deserve to eat overeat in response to that run. What happens is it’s an identity level shift. I’m not someone who normally goes for fun runs. I’m not normally someone who does this type of activity. And so, therefore, I deserve to eat in response to it.

Now, the second place that I see us using, I deserve it as a reward for food or using food as a reward for doing something is when we’ve been quote unquote eating good. And so, what will happen is someone will go on a diet, and she’ll say, well, I’ve been eating salads, and I’ve really been on plan, and I’ve been eating so good. Therefore, I deserve this cookie. Okay.

And now, we are not debating whether she is or is not right in this situation. What we’re really talking about right now is just the self-justification of eating the cookie. So, number two is when we’ve been eating good. Okay.

And then, in the third situation, sometimes and this was the situation with my client, Stephanie is she was feeling a negative emotion. She was feeling irritation, or she was feeling stress, or frustration. Somehow, we have an entitled belief that life isn’t supposed to be difficult. And so, when it is difficult, we’re like, well, I don’t like this. And so, I’m going to self-sues with whatever it is that I want. In her case, it was a bagel. Or we think life shouldn’t be this way, it shouldn’t be this way, my situation shouldn’t be this way.

And so, therefore, I deserve to treat myself. Or it should be easier. Okay. Some variation of that. That life isn’t supposed to be difficult. It shouldn’t be this way, or it should be easier. And what we do is we think, you know what? This is too hard, I deserve a treat because of it. Okay.

And then, the last one is when we feel sorry for ourselves. And you could take this, I feel sorry for myself. And actually, apply it to all of the other three situations, right? When we’ve exercised or been overly active, we’re like, oh, poor me. I deserve to eat something in response to that. Or I’ve been so good, I’ve restricted, I’ve been depriving myself. And so therefore, I deserve this cookie. Or I shouldn’t have to deal with my children, or I shouldn’t have to deal with my boss. Poor me, I’m self-soothing with this food.

So, we feel sorry for ourselves. We feel self-pity, we feel resentment, and we want some enjoyment. And here’s something that’s really interesting. So, Brene Brown has a book called ‘Atlas from the heart.’ And in that book, she talks about resentment. And I love that book because what she’s talking about in that book is really putting words to our emotions. Because when we can put words to our emotions, we can actually communicate so much better.

And since so much of the human experience is emotion based. It’s really important for us to understand, what our emotional experience is and be able to understand it and communicate it.

But within that book, she talks about how resentment we usually think about as resentment as being anger based. So, I resent that person and I’m angry at them. But something that was just so brilliant and has completely changed my relationship with the feeling of resentment is that she learns that resentment is actually born out of jealousy and envy. That when we feel resentful, what we’re really doing is we are jealous that someone else or something else has it easier than us.

And so, when we feel sorry for ourselves, what we’re saying is I am envious of maybe someone else or maybe a previous version of myself or whatever it is. And again, we’re identifying as a victim in the situation. We’re saying, oh, poor me, I’m not in control. I’m not empowered in this situation. And so, therefore, I deserve a treat.

So, in all of these self-situations, what we’re really doing is we’re self-soothing. We’re using food as an emotional crutch. We’re buffering our negative emotion whatever it is with food. Okay.

Now, the problem with using food as a reward and first of all, it’s not necessarily a problem. But it is a problem if one, you think that it’s a problem. Or if you have goals where this habit, this behavior is getting in the way of what it is that you truly want. Okay.

So, typically, why this is a problem is we’re not choosing good and nutritious foods, right? Like, no one is saying, I deserve this and then eating broccoli. Right? Or eating soup, or eating something that is like generally, regarded as nutritious. And so, we’re typically not choosing nutrient dense foods. We’re typically, choosing foods that have less nutrition and that are highly caloric and they’re highly processed.

So, although, we’re treating our taste buds, what we’re ultimately doing is we’re being unkind to our body. When we choose these ultra-processed and highly palatable foods. Okay. So that’s the first reason why using food as a reward is can sometimes be a problem. And then, also we typically underestimate. So, in the situation of using food as a reward for being overly active, we’re typically underestimating the number of calories that we consume and we’re overestimating the number of calories that we’ve burned in that activity. Okay.

So, what typically happens is when we’ve gone for our run and we think, oh, I deserve to eat this thing. We’re thinking that we’ve really expended a number of calories. And what I want to suggest is that if you really tune into your hunger signals, you’re probably going to notice that you’re just going to have a slight increase in the number of calories that you would normally consume. If you kept everything else the same.

Now, the other piece to this, going back to the change in identity is we have this halo effect or this imposter syndrome that this isn’t my normal activity level. And so, therefore, I’m going to reward myself with more calories because I think that I deserve it.

So, we think about like, oh, I’ve had a super active day. I’ve taken a five mile hike. And I’ve done an hour of tennis. I ran a 5k. I cleaned the entire house today. I did all of these things that really make me feel like, oh, this isn’t really who I am, and so therefore, I’m going to reward myself.

And so, again, these speak more to the identity level belief that this is not who I really am. This isn’t who I normally am, and I’m playing house, or I’m faking it. And so, I’m not someone who quote unquote eats well, seven days a week. I’m not someone who is active. And so, when we have those root level beliefs, what happens is we use, I deserve it as an acting out.

So, first, I want to let you know that you do not have to earn your calories, and that is centuries. Centuries, and centuries of diet culture, and Christian morality pairing restriction and discipline with godliness and gluttony. And gluttony is just one of the seven deadly sins. Right? And so, we don’t want to appear gluttonous, so therefore we justify it with ‘I deserve it.’ Okay.

Now, you do not have to justify again, eating anything that you want to. You can eat as much as you desire. Okay. That said, when we desire to overeat, that’s not celebrating food or your body. And once you really tap into how your body feels and really pay attention to listening to your body. Overeating does not feel good. It may feel familiar and what you’re used to. But when we really pay attention to our body, feeling overly full doesn’t feel good.

Now, I want to invite you to decouple using food as a reward system. Can you decouple using food these ways? You don’t have to, but you might want to if you’re overusing food in these as a reward system, or overusing food. And especially if they go against your other goals. Okay. And so, when you start thinking about, I deserve this, what I want to invite you to do is also think about what is it that I really am deserving.

Now, in these situations that I’ve outlined, being overly active, being really good with your eating for a period of time, feeling a negative emotion or feeling sorry for yourself. Really asking yourself, what do I need in this moment? And what I’ve boiled this down to is really two different things.

The first is celebration and acknowledgement. So, how can you celebrate yourself and say, you know what? I am so proud of myself today. I did a 5k and I played tennis and that is so outside of what I normally do. And I just want to acknowledge myself, and really celebrate that I did it, and I’m proud of myself. So, that’s the first thing is noticing that what you’re really looking for is celebration and acknowledgement.

And then, the second thing is maybe just some rest and relaxation. So, in the situation where your kids are bugging you, or your boss is irritating you, or you’re feeling stressed out. And you’re thinking, I deserve to eat this thing. What you’re really telling yourself is I need a time out. I really need to figure out some downtime. I need to figure out another way of getting my self-care needs met other than eating them. Okay.

In summary, there are ways that we can use the ‘I deserve it’ in a healthy way. But again, try to get away from decoupling food as a reward. And instead, be like, look! Yeah, of course I deserve it and it doesn’t have to be tied to anything.

Now, if you want to change your relationship with food and or your body and get out of diet culture, of course, I’m going to invite you to work with me. So, you can work with me one on one, or you can join the feel good sisterhood, my group coaching program. If you’re interested in learning more about those, what you can do is go to and schedule some time to talk with me. And we can figure out how to make you most successful.

All right, that’s all I have for you this week. Have a great day, everyone. See you next time. Bye-bye.

Hey, Thanks for listening. If you’re done with dieting and would like to work with me as your coach, I’d like to invite you to reach out to myself and my team to ask about programs and pricing. Go to to get started today. I can’t wait to hear from you. See you next week.

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