Reward Eating

Many of my patients struggle with the desire to eat in the evenings – typically a few hours after dinner, usually while watching T.V.  There seem to be two very distinct reasons that people do this.

For many people, this is a version of what we call “reward eating.”  In other words, it’s eating because you feel like you deserve a treat for some reason or another.  Sometimes you deserve it for working all day.  Sometimes you deserve it for putting up with your annoying spouse or your demanding children.  Sometimes you deserve it for being such a healthy eater during the day.  Regardless, this desire to reward eat can be very powerful.  We’ve talked about this one before, so I won’t dive too deeply into the subject but realize that we use the reward system with kids and animals to teach them how to do something they may not otherwise want to do.  

I use it several times every day with my dog – every time he goes outside to do his business, he gets a little bitty gross dog bone thing.  But it works – as soon as he comes in that front door, he sits nicely, staring at the treat bowl, knowing his reward is coming.  Although I hate it, my kids’ teachers bribe them with candy to get them to turn in their homework and participate in class.  I have worked really hard not to enforce this idea – I don’t reward them for doing what they are expected to do – like brush their teeth, do their laundry, and do the dishes – those are things that are expected of them – and their reward (if you want to call it that) is continuing to have a house with a washing machine and a dishwasher!  And yes, they think I’m the world’s worst mother for refusing to conform to this practice.  

If you are in the mindset of having to reward yourself for going to work each day or for tolerating someone in your household that you would rather not deal with, maybe there is a bigger underlying problem – one that food won’t really fix.  I’m not going to say we should all jump up and down and clap our hands, excited to go to work every day and sad to come home, but if you hate your job that badly that you have to punish your body every night with a bag of chips to make it better, it’s probably time to address that problem.  Beating yourself up for eating chips isn’t going to solve it.  

The second version of evening eating is simply eating as part of a paired behavior.  Many people munch on salty, crunchy things while they watch T.V.  Others indulge in a bowl of ice cream or a bowl of cereal.  Regardless of the food, the intake isn’t driven by hunger – but by habit.  Ever tried going to a movie without getting popcorn and a drink?   You almost feel incomplete – and I bet you instinctively reach to find something in the drink holder several times.  Ever tried backing down your driveway without your seatbelt on?  It feels incomplete – like something is missing.  Because it is.  Because most of us have paired the act of getting in a car with the act of putting on a seat belt.  Doing one without the other feels off.  

For many people, the act of watching T.V. in the evenings – with or without someone else – has been done so many times before with a snack in hand that watching T.V. without the snack feels incomplete.  

One of the things we talk about is unpairing the habits.  Simply trying to talk yourself out of the behavior while leaving everything else the same can be torture – and often fails.  Most of the time, you have to change it up more.  Watch T.V. in another room.  If there isn’t another T.V., watch it on a phone or an iPad.  Play Yahtzee while you are watching.  Put the T.V. on but sit in the other room and do a puzzle.  Work on uncoupling those behaviors so that the act of T.V. watching is mentally paired with a whole host of other behaviors.  

Just some things to think about.  It’s difficult to change behaviors until you can objectively analyze them and consciously work to do things differently.

If you need more help with this, let us know – we love talking about this stuff!

Courtney Youngove, M.D.