Throughout childhood our brains are trained to associate happy feelings with unhealthy foods.
- When young children visit the doctor and get a shot, lollipops are given.
- When you celebrate a birthday, cake and ice cream are served.
- When children do well in school, pizza parties are thrown.
Parents effectively bribe children with desserts and candy in return for good behavior. This is pavlovian conditioning in its purest form. Moreover, tasty but unhealthy treats can also serve as a punishment.
- “If you keep talking back, you won’t get your icecream.”
- “If you clean your room, you can have a piece of candy.”
Most parents don’t realize that there are fostering an emotional dependency on food within their children. This is often an early pattern that contributes to overeating and weight gain.
Food was designed to be fuel for your body, similar to gas for your car. If you put the wrong gas into your car, it can ruin the engine. If your body does not receive the proper food/fuel, it can also break down in the form of fatigue or even illness. The foremost purpose of food is to enable your body function, not to alter behavioral response.
Think about how you feel when you indulge in unhealthy eating. Are you stressed out, tired, sad, bored, or are you feeling discouraged? What triggers you to eat? Why do you think eating is a natural response to comfort you through those emotions? The reason is that almost every happy experience or celebration that you have ever had in life, has most likely had some sort of food involved. Food is so strongly associated with happiness that it comforts you and triggers happy emotions.
It is important to have a healthy relationship with food. Learning to acknowledge your current emotion and show yourself compassion can help shift the need to feed. Positive affirmations during a time of stress/aggravation as well as learning how to reduce your focus on things that are out of your control are helpful cognitive strategies to divert comfort eating.
If you are a parent, try offering your child a fun activity, sticker, or a toy as a reward. Another reward you can offer is a playdate or sleepover with friends or new school supplies. You can find tons of related ideas online and on YouTube. Such activities are fun, and they keep kids learning at the same time!