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Reward with Food, Punish with Food: 11 Tips to Prevent Childhood Obesity

Reward with food, punish with food: 11 Tips to Prevent Childhood Obesity - Overweight kids are an epidemic in the US, and parents are largely to blame for unknowingly teaching their children unhealthy food habits. It's sad but true. This article gives 11 concrete ways we can shape up and teach our children better habits starting today.

Childhood obesity has reached epidemic proportions in this country. Meanwhile, unhealthy eating behaviors that lead to adult obesity – such as bingeing, dieting, skipping meals, self-medicating with food, and making poor nutritional choices – develop in childhood. Parents need to use creative strategies to change these behaviors.

I want my kids to avoid the weight issues I've suffered my entire life, but we have not done a good job of helping them to develop good habits to achieve that end.

As parents, we can all do better about shaping the role of food in our kids' lives. Next week, I'm going to share a post with some helpful tips from a nutritionist on encouraging children to eat healthier foods, but before that, I wanted to reshare the tips below.

I originally published this post on February 17, 2010, and I have fallen into most of these bad habits as time has passed. I needed to reread them as a fresh reminder to get my act together where my kids are concerned. I hope they are as helpful to you as they were to me.

Reward with Food, Punish with Food: 11 Tips to Prevent Childhood Obesity

By Freeman Michaels

Working with overweight and obese adults, I have come to understand that many people have lost touch with what their body truly needs. Because food has become a replacement for love and affection, often a source of comfort, and even a place to channel anxiety and stress, overweight people come to me to help them find their way out of the patterns they have developed.

Eating patterns are learned behaviors developed, in large part, during childhood. As the father of three children, I am personally concerned with how patterns of behavior around food are formed and reinforced in my own children's lives.

Behaviors center on needs. Many people have learned to try and meet their needs in ways that are not healthy – namely with food – and those behaviors start to form in childhood. If you are a parent interested in interrupting patterns of behavior in your children that might lead to obesity, here are some effective tools that encourage healthy eating patterns.

Kids need hugs, not candy.

Food should not mean “I love you” or “You did a good job.” Rather, food should represent fuel and nourishment for your child's body. An encouraging or celebratory hug can mean a lot more to a child in the long run than a treat.

Differentiate between praise and rewards.

Praise is important for both parents and adults. Studies have shown that positive feedback (praise) ranks higher than pay or bonuses (rewards) when it comes to retaining employees, for example. Apply the same principle with your kids. Give them positive feedback rather than rewarding them with ice cream.

Don't punish by withholding food.

Many people grew up with the threat of going to bed without supper. Besides reinforcing the notion that food is something other than a vital part of human health, the practice of punishing a child by withholding food is both physically and psychologically harmful. Physically, withholding food puts your child into starvation mode and this can cause a metabolic imbalance that contributes to weight gain. Psychologically, a child may overeat when she thinks she may be in trouble, as a preemptive measure. Later in life, people who developed this pattern in childhood often unconsciously gorge themselves when they feel as if they have done something wrong.

Quit the “clean plate club.”

“Clean your plate” teaches children to ignore their bodies. One of the reasons nutritionists often give for the astonishing rate of obesity in America, compared with obesity rates in other countries, relates to portion size. Studies suggest that portion sizes in America are directly related to obesity levels.

Don't encourage emotional eating.

The other day I was picking my son up from kindergarten and I overheard a parent say to her little girl, “Did you have a hard day? Let's go for an ice cream, would that cheer you up?” I did everything in my power to contain myself as I flashed back on the many overweight and obese clients I have coached who report being comforted with food as a child. Using food to cheer up a child can create a dangerous dynamic. Later in life, this pattern of eating as a means of dealing with emotional upset can lead to significant weight issues.

Help kids eat consciously.

During Super Bowl 2007, I totally lost track of my behavior and consumed an entire bowl of Doritos by myself. Watching a tense football game and unconsciously snacking on crunchy and salty foods is a wonderful illustration of an unhealthy pattern of behavior. Two things are going on – one is the distraction of watching the game, and the second is the anxiety I am feeling – that contribute to this behavior. Letting children eat in front of the television can create similar unhealthy patterns.

Use food to enhance, not dominate, celebrations.

Celebrations should revolve around special time spent with family and friends. Activities that are fun and uplifting should be the showcase of any child-centered get-together or party. When children learn that expressing joy and excitement involves overeating or eating unhealthy foods it can lead to life-long weight issues.

Make snacking a healthy activity.

Rewarding kids with unhealthy foods at the end of a long day may create a habit that lasts a lifetime. Even juice and crackers can undermine a primary meal–kids who have sweet snacks don't eat dinner. Rethink snacks as nutritious mini-meals. Try celery, carrots, and apples.

Don't lead your child into junk-food addiction.

Every parent I know is terrified of their child becoming an addict. Typically we don't think of food as addictive, but research is starting to link certain types of food coupled with certain behaviors around food with addictive patterns. Dopamine, a chemical released in the brain that's associated with drug and alcohol addiction, is also released in association with certain types of food. Research has shown that rewarding with junk food (foods high in sugar and fat with little nutritional value) may be directly related to the circuits in the brain associated with addiction.

Use strategic dining.

Dinner in my household used to be a bit of a disaster. My wife and I served our children a plate full of food, including a protein, starch, and vegetable. My hungry children would go straight for the starch, leaving the protein and vegetable untouched. Now we serve the vegetable first, followed by a protein. Once those have been consumed we bring out a moderate portion of starch.

Encourage outdoor playtime.

The number one reward in our house is additional outdoor play time. Interestingly, scientists say that exercise also stimulates dopamine release and raises the number of dopamine receptors in the brain.

Finding ways to meet our children's needs in healthy and positive ways will have lifelong implications. We must help our children to listen to and respect their body signals, so that food is only associated with physical hunger. This is the best way I know of to curb the obesity crisis in America.

* * * * *
Freeman Michaels, who played Drake Belson on The Young and the Restless in the mid-1990s, is now a nationally known weight-release coach and seminar leader, and author of a book about his successful approach, called Weight Release: A Liberating Journey

* * * * *

When you know better, you do better.

We all know better now.

Reward with food, punish with food: 11 Tips to Prevent Childhood Obesity - Overweight kids are an epidemic in the US, and parents are largely to blame for unknowingly teaching their children unhealthy food habits. It's sad but true. This article gives 11 concrete ways we can shape up and teach our children better habits starting today.

© 2017 – 2018, Tara Ziegmont. All rights reserved.

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31 thoughts on “Reward with Food, Punish with Food: 11 Tips to Prevent Childhood Obesity”

  1. Is there middle ground here? I grew up not being allowed to have chocolate AT ALL. I turned into something of an addict when I hit high school and they had vending machines. Honestly, that's what I want to know. My kid will eat a banana for lunch one day and then eat a piece (1 piece) of chocolate after dinner that night.

  2. I think there has to be middle ground. There has to be some teaching of how to deal with junk food in a healthy, responsible way because (if we're honest) we like junk food because it tastes good.

    I'll definitely bring this up with Freeman and get his opinion.

  3. Wonderfully said. I hate how candy is doled out at school as rewards anymore. Totally contradictory to how we parent here at home. Drives me crazy!

    I'd be interested to find out how the author feels about what we can do to help schools get in on feeding children healthier (by way of school lunches) and how to keep teachers and administrators from handing out candy as rewards. It isn't a class-by-class thing here at this military post, it's practically an epidemic with this school district.

  4. I know! My school district has a policy that teachers can't pass out food that's non-nutritive, but I wonder how many teachers comply. Kids sometimes get upset because I don't hand out candy. ?!?! Crazy.

    I'll add that to my list of questions!

  5. I believe in letting my kids have a variety of different foods, which includes a predominantly healthy diet, along with some treats. However, the treats are not used as rewards. The treats are for special occasions or just because, but are not given for good behaviour, taken away for bad behaviour, or increased as a comfort.

  6. Another thank you so much! I've been struggling lately with how to break all the bad habits I helped my kids form over the years in an effort to get everyone in our family eating healthy. Reading this I realized that I am overlooking the emotional aspect of eating and will change that asap!

  7. In regards to the school lunches and candy rewards, could you also ask how to address the schools teaching the kids inhale their food? I was appalled when I visited my son during lunch and within 10 minutes they were being asked to start cleaning up to head outside for recess. There's no time for their bodies to register how much they've eaten at warp speed.

  8. Hi Juliefbt,
    This is Freeman, the author of the article. First, I want to say thank you for being honest – primarily with yourself. Just recognizing that you have habits (what I call “patterns of behavior”) around food that do not serve you is so important. My personal weight issues (I was 175lbs when I was acting and modeling and over 275lbs at my peak weight) were primarily emotional – I used food to cope with stress, anxiety, fear, grief, and any other emotion that came up in my life. There is more to my personal story than I can share in this short space, but like you I didn’t want to pass on my unhealthy relationship with food to my children.

    I really respect your resolve to want to change the emotional eating “asap” – but what I want you to consider is making incremental changes. In my process, I call these “self-honoring choices” – and you need to make them one at a time. I strongly recommend that you don’t announce tomorrow a new plan to completely overhaul your family eating patterns.

    Again, I work with adults who come to me when they are tired of dieting and beating themselves up. Many of them have tried to fix the “problem” – they are being driven by a negative perception of themselves. From my perspective, negative motivation doesn’t work. Every time you recognize a negative pattern you must begin to COMPASSIONATELY interrupt the pattern. With compassion and a sincere desire to understand your behavior you will come to recognize what the behavior is really about – then you can find a healthy way to meet your needs that don’t involve food. However, when you judge the behavior your perception will be skewed and you won’t be able to make self-honoring choices.

    I have more to say – but for now, I just want you to know that I understand the struggle you face and I want to support you in making a bunch of small changes that lead to a healthy and happy family.

    Warm Regards,
    Freeman Michaels

  9. I completely hear you. We use food to celebrate (hey! you used stayed dry and used the potty two days in a row! Let's go for ice cream to celebrate!), and she loves it. I never connected that with a lifetime of emotional eating. I feel sort of stupid about not making the connection.

  10. Wow. Thanks for stopping by, Freeman! Whether you call them baby steps or incremental changes or self honoring choices, it's becoming clear to me that they are the way to go. Obviously, the “let's change everything about my life and get healthy” plan doesn't work. If it did, none of us would have any bad habits. 🙂 I'm looking forward to interviewing you soon!

  11. Oh yikes. Thank you. I am doing some of those things as well and didn’t even think about it this way. Time to make some changes for the better!

  12. Hey Lisa,

    Freeman here (the author of the article) – I want to spend some time on your question. I wrote an answer to Julieftb's question about a similar issue. I don't want to repeat that piece of my answer to you, but I do want to expand on it. I know that the blog host is going to be interviewing me, so hopefully between my answer to the other comment and some additional ideas and thoughts that I have, we can give you some valuable strategies to consider.

    Warm Regards,

  13. Annie,
    Freeman here – yes, yes, yes – treats are important. We NEVER want to deprive our children. A moderate, balanced approach is the best way (in my opinion) to address this issue.

    Warm Regards,
    Freeman Michaels

  14. Beth,

    Freeman here – yes, balance is best. You are SO right about restricing kids – don't deprive them. When kids feel deprived they “act out” (also known as binge eating) when “forbidden foods” are around.

    Warm Regards,

  15. There are times when our kids (ages 5 and almost 3) are acting out or upset because they are hungry. So there are times when I do meet a crying or out of control child with a snack to calm them down – and I worry that I'm sending a bad message about food and comfort – but I try to offer nutritious snacks, and assess whether I really think they are hungry or if something else is more likely the problem. I also talk to them about listening to their bodies and ask them to ask me for a snack if they are getting hungry, rather than getting to the point where it's affecting their behavior.

    I am trying to encourage eating well at meal times – not just eating healthful foods, but eating without distraction and eating what we need in one sitting – because I find that when they pick at their foods at meal time they get hungrier more often throughout the day, and tend to crave less nutritious or less varied foods for snacks than they would get for meals. But I also don't want to push them past their hunger cues and make them clean their plates – I'm just tired of offering healthful, kid-friendly meals only to have them eat two bites and then ask for a banana 20 minutes later. In the opposite sense, I have been finding I need to cut off their snacking in the late afternoon so they aren't too full to eat dinner-maybe this is a sign they need an earlier dinner? Or I just need to offer healthier snacks and not worry about dinner? Typical snacks around here are bread/crackers, cheese, yogurt and fruit. Meal times are when they're more likely to have legumes and vegetables, but I could change that!

    I've struggled with my weight – and a thyroid condition (coincidence? ummm, don't think so!) – since adolescence, and I hope for my kids that they will avoid that – I know it's not all under our control, but so far they are very healthy and I hope to continue to help them build good habits.

  16. The things I struggle with are that I make healthy dinners and my children don't want to eat them and throw fits to which my husband responds with putting them in their room until they are ready to come out and eat or putting them to bed without dinner. What is this doing to my children? The other thing is that my children will eat and then say they are full and because I don't want them to finish their dinner if they are full, I let them be done but then shortly after that they come to me and say they are hungry and my reply is usually that if they would've eaten more, they wouldn't be hungry. How do I deal with these situations?

  17. That's tough. When Grace doesn't want to eat dinner but later asks for something to eat, I pull her dinner plate out of the fridge. 🙂 I'll share this with Freeman and see if he'll give us some advice.

  18. This is for Meaganmittvalsky – Freeman here. I may be reading between the lines – but I have a hunch that your husband and you may be on a different page when it comes to dinner/discipline. When kids recognize a weakness or breakdown between parents they tend to get right in the middle and exacerbate the issue. I call my kids my “master teachers” – because they truly test me and my wife, which I interpret as an opportunity. My wife and I must be a team with a clear vision of the quality of experience we want for our family. We must be intentional and strategic.

    I am going to introduce you to one of my main concepts – this may be a little bit of a stretch but try it. Get intentional – an intention is a positive held thought. Focusing on what you want rather than focusing on what you don’t want can be very powerful. Live in the solution not the problem. When you claim what it is that you want then every choice that you make is either in alignment with what you say that you want or it is not. I am going to recommend that you create an “ideal vision” for dinner. You and your husband read it every night for a week – just before you serve the meal. Trust me you will make different choices. If you need to devise strategies – do it as a team after dinner is over and the kids are in bed – then implement the strategies the next day and evaluate them after the kids are in bed.

    Here is my wife and my ideal vision for our family dinners:
    The Michaels’ Family Vision for Meal Time:

    • Meal time is peaceful.
    • We view mealtime as important and demonstrate respect for this significant family time.
    • We feel relaxed and calm.
    • We are grateful for the food that we have to eat.
    • We are grateful for the time and energy that was put into preparing the meal – and we express our gratitude openly.
    • We feel comfortable sharing the experiences from our day.
    • We support each other with words of encouragement and affirmation.
    • Everyone’s opinion and experience is respected.
    • We cooperate and help each other – using words such as “please & thank you”
    • We all have foods that we enjoy.
    • We experiment with foods and are open to trying new things.
    • We eat slowly.
    • We respect one another and wait patiently for the next course.
    • We all help with the clean up.

    I hope this helps.

  19. Wouldn't it be great to make that Family Vision for Meal Time into some kind of display? Maybe a small painting or a menu-style folder on a table or on a shelf? It would be a constant reminder for the whole family about the expectations for the family dinner.

  20. I love it – especially the painting (or art project) piece. I am going to try this. Right now it is on the fridge. But I think I will do a family art project where we talk about family meals and create some type of display to represent the quality of experience we want for mealtimes. My little kids are a bit young (4 and 6) for family meetings, but we did them with my older son (now 20) – getting the kids to contribute their ideas, express their “wants” and help build the vision is very important.

  21. My husband is a firm believer in not allowing the children to have sugar- no candy, cupcakes/cookies only on special occasions. My 3 yr old sees candy and goes crazy. She doesn't eat it yet- but I think we have already created a binge eating habit to come…She was at a b-day party and founda piece of chocolate in someone's room and ate it before anyone could take it. I hate that she is being sneaky already. We are also Gluten Free so that compounds the issue- she can't have the same food as the other kids. How do I turn this around before it gets worse?

  22. My husband is a firm believer in not allowing the children to have sugar- no candy, cupcakes/cookies only on special occasions. My 3 yr old sees candy and goes crazy. She doesn't eat it yet- but I think we have already created a binge eating habit to come…She was at a b-day party and founda piece of chocolate in someone's room and ate it before anyone could take it. I hate that she is being sneaky already. We are also Gluten Free so that compounds the issue- she can't have the same food as the other kids. How do I turn this around before it gets worse?

  23. Pingback: Weekly Roundup #4

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