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The Big Benefits Of Little Treats

Why it’s okay to reward yourself with food when you want to.

It's January, which means all my targeted ads display "it's not a diet!" programs, exercise studios, and similarly shame-based incentives to make me feel like I'm doing something wrong and need to fix it. I'm not here for it. Bring on the "little treats."

I'm not a burn-and-shred gal—not anymore. Now I'm bringing out my old annotated copy of The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff, which teaches us how to live our most balanced life using the lessons of Winnie the Pooh, one of which is the importance of a "little smackerel." And just as important as the food itself is the way we think about how it fits into our lives.

Far from diet-based language that positions certain foods as "cheats" or "being bad," the notion of a "little treat" has a positive connotation. Little Treat Culture positions us in a healthier mindset, and enjoying a small snack of your choosing really can brighten your mood and help your overall productivity. No one should be denying themselves. Here's why.

Food can be a dopamine hit

Sugar doesn't make you hyper. However, sugar can give you a dopamine hit, which, in turn, increases motivation. Anything that makes you happy gives you a dopamine hit, though, including snacks that aren't sugar-rich. Other dopamine contenders: Getting the answer right on Jeopardy! Kissing your dog on the head. Drugs. All capable of increasing both dopamine and thus motivation.


A little treat, then, is an opportunity for renewal. Let's say you have to do a task that you find stressful or boring, like studying for the Bar Exam. You're already suffering. It's hard to motivate yourself to sit around all day thinking about property law and the Constitution. However, strategic little treats, whether it's a fun snack to enjoy while you're cramming, 15 minutes playing your favorite mindless cell phone game, or self-care routines like a pedicure or even a walk around the block, all help you be more successful, so long as you actually enjoy the time you spend doing them.

Shame, meanwhile, which forms the basis of all diets and most of our culture in general, does not "work." Admonishing yourself for "bad" choices does not help you in the long run because it can make you feel farther than ever from your goals.


You are a good dog

Treat yourself like a puppy. My dog is not the most trained mutt you've ever met, but she will always say yes to hanging in her crate—because treats. She gets a little (really little!) treat every time she goes in her crate. When left to roam the house alone, she tends to panic and eats part of the banister. But the reliable comfort of a little treat in a safe place means that she knows I'm coming back, that I'm taking care of her, and that she is the goodest girl.


You, too, can be the goodest girl. You are an animal, after all. Train yourself with positive reinforcement. You did your taxes? Ice cream with your best friend. You have to drive to the bank? Chew some gum on the way and listen to your favorite song. Depend on the treat. If you know you can have a treat for a job well done or for following directions or for making it through some assorted drudgery, there's no telling what you're capable of.

“Everything in moderation”?

The thing people say when they want you to go on a diet is that you don't have to give up your favorite foods, you just need to have "everything in moderation." This is still a scarcity mindset and does not, in fact, lead to better health outcomes. Worrying about the number of gummy bears you consume while dissociating out the window is not going to help your mood or your health. The likelier scenario is that you'll eat all the gummies so that they'll "go away" and no longer tempt you with their brightly colored charms.


Instead, listen to your dang body. How many gummy bears makes you feel your best? Does it feel good to scoop up a handful, organize them based on color and flavor preference, and eat them in an order that carries logic only for you? If so, do that. Eating vegetables also feels good, especially if you're not punishing yourself with them. See also: exercise in some form or another. Consider trying out Winnie the Pooh's mindful snacking and gentle exercise routine.

It’s the little things

You can't control for hurricanes, illness, or other people. You can, however, reach for an IKEA children's bowl full of popcorn. The New York Times says that in a post-pandemic society, it's important to give ourselves "tiny wins." Life is full of disappointments, so in between the failures and the letdowns, boost yourself up when you can by incrementally rewarding yourself for getting through each moment.