New research suggests the way a parent responds to their children’s emotional displays can influence the amount of food they provide to the child and also trigger binge eating by the parent.
The study of more than 440 parents and their preschoolers offers insight into why some parents who binge eat also may try to restrict their children’s food intake, placing their children at higher risk for unhealthy eating habits and weight problems.
University of Illinois researchers found that parents who reported feeling distress when their child was angry, crying or fearful were more likely to engage in episodes of binge eating and to limit the amounts or types of food they provided to their children.
In the three months preceding the study, 52 parents in the sample, or about 2 percent, reported episodes of binge eating, which ranged in frequency from one to five times per week.
Investigators explain that while numerous studies have examined the potentially detrimental effects of restrictive feeding practices on children, the current study was unique in that it focused on the interplay of the parent’s emotions with their controlling the child’s food intake.
“Previous research has linked restrictive feeding practices to children’s overeating, eating when they’re not hungry and to higher child body weight, so we know it’s a problem for children’s health,” said lead author Dr. Jaclyn A. Saltzman. Saltzman is a doctoral researcher in human development and family studies and scholar in the Illinois Transdisciplinary Obesity Prevention Program.
“We also know that parental binge eating is related to restrictive feeding, but it’s a counterintuitive relationship. Why is caloric excess in one individual related to caloric restriction in the family? We wanted to explore why that was happening,” Saltzman said.
Adults who binge eat — defined in the study as eating unusually large amounts of food in an uncontrolled manner without compensatory behaviors such as purging — often struggle with feelings of shame and guilt about their behavior and have difficulty regulating their emotions, studies have found.
“Parents are people, too, and we knew that parents who binge are going to experience a lot of distress because of those behaviors, so we tried to take a sympathetic approach,” Saltzman said.
“We hypothesized that this emotional overload was going to bleed out into the parent-child relationship, and that’s exactly what we found. Binge eating did affect restrictive feeding practices through parents’ distress about their children’s negative emotions.”
Parents in the study completed a survey indicating how they would likely respond to their child’s anger, fear or crying in various hypothetical situations. Parents’ responses were then scored as being supportive — behaviors that were emotion- and problem-focused — or unsupportive, which included feeling distress, minimizing the problem, or punishing the child.
Upon analysis of the data, the researchers found that parental binge eating was correlated with feeling distress in response to children’s negative emotions and was associated with restricting the child’s food intake for health reasons or to control the child’s weight.
“We think there are two possible reasons why that was happening: Parents who binge eat may be so focused on trying to control their own distress that they might struggle to respond sensitively to their children’s emotions and to their cues of hunger or satiety,” Saltzman said.
“Having trouble in sensitivity to the children’s emotions was leading to trouble with sensitivity to the children’s hunger in the feeding environment. It also could have been possible that parents who binge eat were trying to help their children avoid engaging in the same type of behavior. As a result, they may have restricted the children’s intake in an effort to curb excessive overeating behavior,” Saltzman said.
Researchers conceded that the study format — a cross-sectional analysis of the data — does not allow them to make a statistical inference that parental binge eating is caused by parents’ responses to their children’s emotions.
However, from a theoretically grounded perspective, that explanation makes the most sense, Saltzman said.
“We want researchers and practitioners working with problems around eating and weight to consider how parents’ emotions are being brought to the dining table,” Saltzman said.
“Self-regulation is important for emotions, but it’s also important for eating behavior. Many researchers have looked at the interplay of children’s emotions with their eating behaviors.
However, parents control the amounts and types of food they feed their children, so you really want to focus on what’s happening with parents’ emotions, not just what’s happening with the kids.”
Source: University of Illinois