A new study finds that children whose parents use more controlling methods around food –including withholding “junk” food but then using it as a reward — may be more likely to develop habits of emotional eating. The findings show that when feeling stressed out (but not hungry), these children tended to reach for a snack rather than a toy.
“As a parent, there is often a natural instinct to try and protect our young children from eating bad foods: those high in fat, sugar or salt,” said Dr. Claire Farrow, senior lecturer in psychology at Aston University.
“Instead we often use these food types as a treat or a reward, or even as a response to ease pain if children are upset. The evidence from our initial research shows that in doing this, we may be teaching children to use these foods to cope with their different emotions, and in turn unintentionally teaching them to emotionally eat later in life.”
The study looked at the different feeding practices of parents with young children ages three to five. The researchers then did a follow-up when these children were ages five to seven to explore whether the earlier feeding practices influenced the development of emotional eating.
During the experiment, the researchers watched to see whether the children reached for snack foods or toys when they were feeling mildly stressed but not hungry.
The findings showed that children were significantly more likely to emotionally eat at ages five to seven if their parents had been previously overcontrolling with food and had been more likely to use food as a reward.
More research is needed to fully understand the significance of these results on eating patterns long-term, but the findings suggest that the relationship children have with food is often formed early in life, and in part is influenced by the ways that children are fed and taught to use food.
“Eating patterns can usually be tracked across life, so those who learn to use food as a tool to deal with emotional distress early are much more likely to follow a similar pattern of eating later on in adult life,” said Farrow.
“Often when people emotionally eat they are using high calorie, high fat, energy dense foods which are not conducive to health. Learning more about how we can teach children to manage their food intake in a healthy way can help us to develop best practice advice and guidelines for families and those involved in feeding children.”
Considering the high levels of childhood obesity and its associated health risks being increasingly evident at a younger age, understanding why certain people turn to particular types of food at times of stress or anxiety could help in encouraging healthier eating practices.
“We know that in adults emotional eating is linked to eating disorders and obesity, so if we can learn more about the development of emotional eating in childhood, we can hopefully develop resources and advice to help prevent the development of emotional eating in children,” Farrow said.
Source: Aston University