Eating as a reward: why do we do it?

Hope you all had a merry Christmas!

A rough Christmas for my family and I, a stomach virus got us a couple of days before Christmas and is just starting to clear up. I guess I’ll have to find a way back home in the next few weeks so I can have a proper visit; I’m now on a train back to my home up north. Either way, I enjoyed having my sisters and parents, sick or not, around for the holidays :)

Also, I just wanted to thank you all for all of the support you`ve given me! I am astonished to have so much positive feedback from you guys, definitely positive reinforcement for me to continue blogging so often! I never expected to have so many followers, so again, thank you!

Oh and p.s., you can now follow me on facebook :D

Here’s a picture of me climbing in Ontario while it was still hot outside :)


Why do some people have no problems keeping their weight at a healthy range while for others it’s constant struggle? This post will be on eating as a reward and for pleasure, hope you enjoy!

There are strong regulatory mechanisms that maintain our body weight; we eat when our body needs the calories. In modern times though, many people eat not because they’re hungry but because of a hedonic drive; eating, when not hungry and despite large fat reserves, for pleasure. There’s a lot of controversy on whether food can be considered addictive with the neural component being a main argument in favor of food addictions. Readily accessible foods and sedentary lifestyles are major factors for obesity but the interactions between these factors and genetic predispositions are what are really important in the occurrence of obesity.

Food is often used as a reward or as a response to emotions or pain. This response is exaggerated through a lifetime of using food as a reward; when we give kids food for good behaviour we teach them bad behaviours for the future. The reward system will motivate us to eat tasty treats while the hedonic (pleasure) system will encourage us to keep eating. With our current surroundings with an increase in accessibility, advertisement and palatability, our brains react the way any animal’s brains would react due to our reward and hedonic systems. Many of our attitudes we have towards food comes from our childhoods, this makes it especially important for us to not reward kids with food.

So what do I mean by the reward system? In warm-blooded animals especially (like us), finding and eating food is a daily need that is high on our priority list even in a dangerous environment. Food as rewards is proposed to be the motivation needed to overcome difficult conditions. When seeking food, reward expectancy and effort as well as risk requirements will be accessed with the question ‘will I benefit overall?’ Seeing, smelling and finally tasting the first bite of food will give reward value feedback. Appetite is heightened by things like stomach acid and insulin secretion. Pleasure comes from olfactory (taste) sensations which drive consumption until satiety signals dominate (which can be down-regulated when we chronically over eat). Nutrient sensors in our digestive tract further enhance the reward interpretation after a meal (e.g. mice will learn to prefer sugar over water even when taste sensing is removed). Feelings of satisfaction linger after a meal; a number of sensory and emotional stimuli determine the rewarding experience derived from eating. Food as a reward is an adaptation in animals to enhance our survival.

Overeating can be explained by an over-activation of reward systems and decrease in satiety systems. There seems to be a reward deficiency with defective dopamine signalling in obese individuals (via genetics or non-genetic predispositions early in life or via diets high in sugar and fat or via obesity); increased food intake will occur in attempt to restore their set point for rewards. Obese individuals ‘like’ and ‘want’ palatable foods more than lean individuals (dependent on the effort necessary to get these foods). Obese individuals have a greater hedonic hunger along with a decreased perceived sweetness; ‘liking’ increases with increased sweetness as BMI increases. Clearly, overeating is multifactorial and hard to overcome especially in modern times.

Dieting has been shown to be difficult to adhere to by inducing strong feeling of hunger and cravings. Food deprivation will increase the reward value of foods. Higher-calorie foods will selectively increase the neural activity of the reward related areas of our brains and result in an increase in motivation to eat. A better method for weight loss would be not as restricting and therefore more prolonged; fast weight loss programs are definitely not the way to go when trying to achieve long term weight management.

So how can we overcome eating as a reward? Overeating can only be overcome by practicing self-control, which is hard in today’s day and age; allow yourself goodies every once in a while but limiting its amount. Creating healthy habits can be another powerful tool for reducing the use of food as a reward. Finding other rewards e.g. get a nice haircut or treat yourself to a spa day. Lastly, ensuring balanced meals and adequate calories throughout the day would help overcome overeating.

And some concluding thoughts; in normal circumstances, energy balance is tightly regulated but in modern times mental and emotional factors can overpower these regulations for energy balance. A greater understanding of these interactions can be a valuable tool in future therapies for obesity. Tasty foods are rewarding by the pleasure and satisfaction that is derived from them, which is an easy go-to relief from our increasingly stressful lifestyles. Hopefully this has been an eye opener for the reason we’re compelled to overeat!

Hope you all had a merry Christmas!


Avena NM, Rada P, Hoebel BG. (2009) Sugar and fat bingeing have notable differences in addictive-like behavior. J. Nutr.;139:623–628.

Berthoud H. (2002) Multiple neural systems controlling food intake and body weight. Neurosci. Biobehav. Rev.;26:393–428.

Berthoud H. (2011) Metabolic and hedonic drives in the neural control of appetite: Who’s the boss? Curr Opin Neurobiol.; 21(6): 888–896.

Berthoud H, Zheng H, and Shin A. (2012) Food reward in the obese and after weight loss induced by calorie restriction and bariatric surgery. Ann N Y Acad Sci.; 1264(1): 36–48.

Ravussin E, Bogardus C. (2000) Energy balance and weight regulation: genetics versus environment. Br. J. Nutr.;83(Suppl 1):S17–S20.

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33 comments on “Eating as a reward: why do we do it?

  1. Thanks for this insight. I also find that I overeat when I am exhausted and just need rest. No matter what, the temporary fuel still leaves me needing sleep and ultimately the project that I was struggling to complete must wait until I awaken. I rarely do caffeine but I have to get out of the habit of allowing sugar to take its place.

    • Thanks for the comment! It’s a battle for sure, I definitely find myself wanting to do the same during exam periods- I usually opt for green tea, usually makes a world of a difference for me (although it’s caffeinated)

  2. I liked your post and just wanted to say that (as a writer) I really appreciate your giving credit to the authors at the bottom of your post and wanted to thank you for that. I don’t think all bloggers know to do that. Have a great “day after” and sorry about your illness! That’s a bummer at Christmas but it sounds like you all made the best of it. Cheers.

  3. I appreciate the scientific insight and your references as well! Excellent post!

  4. Ruby says:

    Well when the food reward habit starts from the family, then it’s a bit harder to break that and move forward in a life we don’t use food as treat. I hope you recover soon and thank you for the great post!

  5. Dean Joseph says:

    I am liking this because you have citations at the end of your work. The mark of a true professional.. Awesome post!

  6. afracooking says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your ideas – they really set me to thinking: I adore food, continually reward myself with it and am healthy and thin. I was wondering what is different in my approach to food to someone how eats unhealthy amounts: maybe the fact that I truly reward myself with food. I appreciate it, I celebrate it. This means leaving a piece of cake, or not drinking soda are not a punishment to me. I see it as “saving calories” for things I really appreciate as a reward. It makes being disciplined a lot easier as I choose for something instead against something if that makes any sense.
    On that note I am now going to have a zucchini fritter with my leftover christmas lamb ;-) Merry Christmas and looking forward to reading more from you!

    • A healthy attitude to have :); it’s better to not restrict yourself like you said, that way we can keep long term healthy diets! Thank you for the comment and happy holidays to you as well! :D

  7. Dear Jen,
    As usual, a smart and thoughtful post! I never realized why it was that sweet things don’t taste sweet “enough” to my mom who is a diabetic. Do they not perceive sweetness the way the rest of us do? She finds everything “too bitter.”

  8. André says:

    To gain a sense of wellness, I feel the bio-feedback signals from my body after everything I consume. I become conscious of digestive processes and relate it to my knowledge of food and nutrition. You are right about feelings of satisfaction from a meal.

    Good food –> I feel healthful.
    Bad food –> I feel guilty unless I made room for this aberration.

    The satisfaction from eating a couple pounds of steamed veggies with wild salmon is one of a kind. Try ‘overeating’ steamed vegetables and see what happens!

  9. Clanmother says:

    Great timing on this post!! Christmas has come and gone and New Years resolutions are next. I understand the top resolution after the one about spending more time with family is to lose weight!!!

  10. good post, i relate to this because when i started to run long distance i got alil heavier then usual and was getting annoyed at why when i was running longer and harder then ever and realized i had a more mindset of “i ran far i can have a extra scoop of icecream” and it adds up easy! hope you had a good holiday!

    • I’m glad that you liked it :D. I had a similar problem when I was running a lot throughout high school, easy mistake to fall into! Thanks for the comment and have a happy new years! :D

  11. uberdish says:

    Great post! With my own children, I have really had to make an effort not to reward them with treats or give them treats when they are down. I have close family members that have weight issues and I have seen them struggle terribly with this.

  12. theveganseed says:

    This was wonderful and I think it was right on point. We really do eat as a reward and people often associate celebrations and gatherings with the food that will be served there. Being a vegan myself, it is yet another layer. Very interesting!

  13. Natalie says:

    Great post! I did indulge a lot over the Holidays just because well, its the holidays. I try to work out harder around these times to balance it all out. I wish I had more will-power to stay away from the sweets.

    • One step at a time :), if indulging over the holidays helps you keep on a healthy diet for the rest of the year then I say… w.e! Don’t feel bad at all :), use it as an extra motivation to be healthy during the non-holidays :).

  14. I have struggled with emotional eating all my life When I was a teenager, my metabolism was so high that it didn’t matter; but as I got older, it started to catch up with me

    I finally decided in my head that I was only going to eat when I was hungry- and sometimes not even then The Paleo Lifestyle encourages intermittent fasting, and so far I’ve taken off 10 pounds and kept it off for 30 days

  15. rnovak57 says:

    This is definitely something I do but will think twice about in the future. Thanks for the insight.

  16. [...] for hard work, an accomplishment, a celebration? While reading jennovafoodblog I found an amazing post that can explain some of these questions and shed some light on our body reward system. Do you [...]

  17. I never realized food deprivation could increase the reward value of foods, but my husband is always telling me diet’s don’t work, so in that sense he may be right. By the way, thanks for stopping by at

  18. Wonderful article! Yes, I don’t know anyone who is overweight who WANTS to be that way. I know many who eat extremely unhealthy foods and complain about various “mysterious” ailments.

    It’s an education and often a re-learning process moving away from a familiar habit that has sustained and comforted us.

    Change and the unfamiliar can cause discomfort. I suggest reading about and talking with individuals who understand the connection between food and health. What I do is immerse myself in the subject. I research the topic, read about it, discuss it, watch documentaries, etc.

    While I come to this issue from a psychological perspective I now understand that there are chemical and biological factors which further complicate it. I’m researching this aspect now.

    The human mind is a great resource and we will overcome!

    Thanks again!

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