Written by Pamela K. Orgeron, M.A., Ed.S., BCCC, ACLC, Author
“Miller-Keane Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing, and Allied Health, Seventh Edition (2003) defines food as “a nourishing substance that is eaten or otherwise taken into the body to sustain life, provide energy, or promote growth”. (Food section, ¶ 1)” (Orgeron, 2019, p. xvii) God’s purpose for providing food has never been to be used as rewards and/or punishment.
“What does God say about food? Physical hunger is the only biblical reason for eating (Shamblin, 1997; Arterburn & Mintle, 2004).” (Orgeron, 2019, p. xvii) To try to manipulate children’s behaviors by using food as rewards and punishment is unhealthy and can set children up for disordered eating. I am a case in point. I recall my parents trying to bribe us children to behave during church services by promising ice cream later as a reward for behaving well. Little did my parents know that they were setting me up for an eating disorder later in life. I know this was not the intent of my parents but never the less, in my 20s I was diagnosed with bulimia. Not wanting other children to grow up to experience disordered eating in any form or fashion, my goal in writing this blog is to educate parents and other caregivers of children about the dangers of using food as rewards and/or punishment with children.
When food was used as a reward in our family, I learned to associate food with comfort and with “being or feeling good”. On the other hand, when food was denied me (e.g.: dessert at the dinner table) for misbehavior, I also subconsiously linked food to “being bad”. Thus, over the years, there have been times whenever I have both used food to comfort myself in stressful situations and also denied, starved myself in an effort to punish myself whenever I felt displeased with my attitudes and/or actions. Either way, I believe my use of food has been unhealthy, dysfunctional, and often idolatry; thus, sinful. “The most common term used in Scripture for having food as an idol is referred to as ‘gluttony’. According to Bowers (2015), gluttony is ‘food worship displayed in both excessive eating and in pharisaical avoidance.’ (p. 76)” (Orgeron, 2019, p. xvii)
Family environment plays a key role in the occurrence of eating disorders. Children learn false beliefs and emotional feelings about food from their parents and extended families. Parental commands such as “Clean up your plate,” and “you eat too much” cause children to mistrust their natural appetites (DeGoede & Drews, 1998). Orgeron herself often received the “Clean up your plate” message, as others reminded her of all the starving children in Africa.
Dysfunctional eating attitudes and behaviors also are learned when parents model chronic dieting, excessive exercising to lose weight, and eating too much without getting any exercise. Minirth et al. (1990) consider the environment around the dinner table important in determining whether an individual develops an eating disorder. Unhealthy emotional feelings learned from families of origin may stem from:
Experiencing family meals as a battleground. Is the atmosphere at the dinner table a shooting gallery? Do family members overeat? These are crucial questions to consider when assessing the etiology of an eating disorder.
“You must eat” syndrome. One case described by Minirth et al. involved a female adult who recalled her mother forcing her to sit at the table for hours when she failed to eat everything on her plate. When the woman as a young child wanted to rebel, she also received the powerful, hypnotic message: “You must eat.”
Using food as a comforter, as a reward or as part of celebration rituals. Most true food addicts, similar to the alcoholic, eat for comfort when they feel bad and overeat at celebrations. Every individual with an eating disorder has trigger foods and situations that may result in an uncontrollable “rush”. Minirth et al. report sugar and chocolate as the most popular trigger foods. Trigger situations may include family gatherings, parties, award banquets, grocery shopping, the smell of food, and for some individuals just driving past a fast food restaurant.
Overeating to please others. Dr. Meier shared his own experience here of how he grew up eating to please his mother:
I grew up in a German home. My mother was a wonderful cook, and still is, at age eighty, a wonderful cook. And, like good old-world eaters, we put butter on everything. Sometimes I used to food my butter rather than butter my food. (p. 32)
He added that his eating to please his mother became a type of codependency. (Orgeron, 2019, p. 37)
Solutions to the Problem
Since it has been established that using food as rewards and punishment is a problem, what are possible solutions to the problem? Here are the tips I offer:
- NEVER use food to manipulate the behavior of children. Healthier forms of discipline include using timeouts and denying privileges (e.g.: taking away a favorite toy or the privilege of watching television)
- Teach and model healthy, biblical attitudes towards food and eating.
- Teach children how to recognize physiological hunger and fullness. Teach them that they should only eat when they are physiologically hungry.
- Teach children it’s okay to say “No” when offered food by others, regardless of who the person is offering the food or the occasion.
- While family mealtimes together are important and encouraged, never force a child to eat just because it’s mealtime if he or she isn’t hungry. Allow him or her the freedom to sit at the dinner table without eating.
Once disordered eating has developed in an individual who had food used as rewards and punishment in his or her past, what are keys to overcoming the dysfunction? First, and foremost, any denial of the problem must be overcome. I believe that recognizing and admitting the problem is half the battle in overcoming the problem. Recognizing the sin nature of the problem and repentance are keys to recovery. Additionally, there are tools that can help in recovery. The following tools helped me:
- Positive self-talk
- Avoiding food triggers
- Finding a support person/group
- Establishing healthy attitudes and behaviors regarding exercise
- Asking the Holy Spirit to control my appetites and guide me in eating healthy.
Ultimately, I credit my relationship with God and the presence of the Holy Spirit as the most important keys that helped me to overcome disordered eating and to remain free from the bondage of food addiction. That’s not to say that I am not tempted at times to relapse, and still, on occasion, slip at times by not eating the right foods or by eating too much. When this happens, I repent and remember tomorrow is a new day to start fresh.
Know that recovering from disordered eating is never easy because a person has to eat to live. Unlike the alcoholic or drug addict who can practice total abstinence and adjust their environments to minimize temptations, the food addict constantly is bombarded with exposure to food messages through the media, from community events (e.g.: church fellowships centered around food) and often from family members and friends who do not understand the nature of food addiction. However, the benefits of recovery are worth the sacrifices and struggle to maintain optimum mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health and wellness. To those who struggle from food issues due to others using food as rewards and/or punishment in your earlier life, I encourage you not to give up the fight. Healing can be found through Jesus Christ, and Christ alone.
Arterburn, S. & Mintle, L. (2004, 2011). Lose it for life: The total solution—spiritual, emotional, physical—for permanent weight loss. Nashville: Integrity.
Bowers, J. (2015). Gluttony. In M. Segal (Ed.), Killjoys: The seven deadly sins (pp. 73-84). Minneapolis, MN: Desiring God.
DeGoede, D. L., & Drews, D. (1998). Belief therapy: A guide to enhancing everyday life. Lake Elsinore, CA: E. D. L.
Minirth, F., Meier, P., Hemfelt, R., Sneed, S., & Hawkins, D. (1990). Love hunger. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
Orgeron (aka, Owens), P. K. (2019). Food as an Idol: The Types, Causes, Consequences, Conquering, and Prevention of Disordered Eating. Nashville, TN: ABC’s Ministries.
Shamblin, G. (1997). The weigh down diet. New York: Doubleday.