Messed-up eating habits? Don't blame yourself

A new study has bought up further evidence to suggest that a person's eating habits partly come down to their parents

Kashmira Gander
Friday 28 April 2017 10:07 BST
Parents can shape how their child acts towards food
Parents can shape how their child acts towards food (iStock/yulkapopkova)

If shoving spoonful after spoonful of choc-chip ice-cream into your mouth after a tough day at work (or just any day, really) or binge-eating a kebab at the bus stop because you're bored and a little sad sound familiar, your parents are to blame. At least, those are the findings of a new study by experts in the UK and Norway into emotional eating which is the latest piece of research to tie negative habits with parenting.

The study, which was published in the journal ‘Child Development’, found that when parents offered children aged between four and year years old food to comfort them, they developed emotional eating habits by the ages of eight and 10. And parents who ate to soothe their emotions were also likely to pass these traits on to their children.

To make their findings, the researchers studied 801 four-year-olds from Norway, and again at the ages of six, eight, and 10.

Lead author Silje Steinsbekk and associate professor of psychology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, explained to The Independent: “Emotional feeding triggers emotional eating and vice versa, possibly causing a vicious circle. We found that children who are more easily upset are more likely to emotionally overeat over time and their parents are more likely to offer them food for comfort as well.”

This is not the first time that parenting has been linked to emotional eating, which is not surprising considering the people who bring us up have control over what we eat in our formative years. A 2016 study published in the 'Archives of Disease in Childhood' suggests that children with anxious or depressed parents are more likely to develop fussy eating habits - before they are even born. And a separate study published in 'The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition' showed that behaviour learned at home trumps the influence of fast food firms when it comes to poor eating habits.

“Parents can be very influential in shaping the eating habits of a child,” Clare Thornton-Wood, a Paediatric Dietitian and British Dietetic Association Spokesperson, tells The Independent.

“In my career as a paediatric dietitian I have unfortunately come across many examples of unhealthy eating behaviours in young children. Possibly the worst cases has been a child who would only eat take away foods from one particular take away outlet as this was the only food eaten within the home and similarly a child who had tomato ketchup on absolutely everything, even breakfast cereal because this was how the rest of the family ate.”

Children don’t just learn what to eat from their parents, but how, and what is socially acceptable adds Thornton-Wood.

As such, Thornton-Wood warns parents against complaining about their weight or binge-eating in front of children.

“Parents should be very careful not to ‘demonise’ particular foods, even foods that are perceived as ‘treat’ foods as this can lead to children wanting more of these foods or unnecessary anxiety if they are worried they have eaten a food which their parents disapprove of.”

This is something that Arielle Jonestown, a 24-year-old from Bristol who works in advertising, believes moulded her emotional responses to food.

“I'm definitely an emotional eater,” she tells The Independent. “If I'm feeling a bit down or exhausted, I have no willpower and just think 'sod it, I'll eat the whole bar of chocolate or packet of Malteasers or tub of ice cream.' Equally, when I'm nervous or stressed I turn to food. And I celebrate with food too, and I'm not sure it's right that food should be the answer to everything in my life.

“When I was little, I was a fussy eater and although my mum made sure I ate my vegetables, she also let me have lots of sugary things, which I think has resulted in me having such an awful sweet tooth now.“

So, what exactly is an optimal diet for a child? "Dependent to some extent on the age of the child, small children need a more energy dense diet than older children and adults - more kcals and nutrients per mouthful as they are very active and growing and their stomachs and therefore food volume consumed is going to be lower,” says Thornton-Wood.

“The diet needs to be based on all of the food groups and higher in fat and lower in fibre than for an adult. The diet should be low in added sugars and low in salt.”

Luckily, for parents who fear they have irreparably damaged their children when it comes to food, it is never too late to undo harmful behaviour - but they should take a different approach depending on the child’s age.

“In very small children it is about reassurance and role modelling," says Thornton-Wood. "In slightly older children there can be more of a discussion and reasoning and they can be encouraged to help with food preparation and other small jobs associated with mealtimes such as laying the table. Children are very quick to pick up on anxiety so try not to display this. If you are spoon feeding a very small child a food you dislike your body language and facial expressions must be very carefully controlled or the child will pick up on these negative cues and reject the food,” she adds.

Around the age of 18 months toddlers can develop a neophobic response to food, or a generalised fear of trying new unfamiliar foods she goes on. "It is important to continue to offer these foods. It may be necessary to do so up to 10 times before they are accepted. This neophobia stems from a survival mechanism to prevent small children accidentally poisoning themselves as they explore their environment. The best way to counteract this is to let your child see you eat these foods to reassure them they are ‘safe’.”

Just like adults, children should eat three meals a day with a couple of healthy snacks, and dine with family and friends at a table away from technology in a relaxed environment.

"Allow a child to regulate the amount they eat, never force feed, remember they will, just like us, eat differing amounts on different days and as long as the overall balance of food offered is healthy all will be well. What goes into a child’s mouth is one of the very few things in their life they have control over."

Professor Steinsbekk advises against giving in if a child wants to eat when they are distressed. "If a child asks for a lolly or a biscuit when she or he is upset, parents should rather give the child a hug, put the child on his or her lap or try to calm it down by talking to him or her," she says. "Parents should aim to teach children how to handle their negative emotions by other strategies than eating."

But, she stresses that eating chocolate "now and then" to feel better isn't necessarily a problem. "The problem is if this is your typical way of handling negative emotions. The same applies to emotional feeding - parents are not supposed to be perfect, but good enough - randomly using food to soothe your child is no big deal as long as you usually rely on other strategies to calm him or her." And if all gets too much, at least hide when you stress-eat that tub of chocolate ice cream.

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