Are You Teaching Dangerous Eating Behaviors To Your Children?

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In many ways, eating could be described as a learned behavior. Not the act of eating itself, but our eating behaviors and relationship with food are believed to be highly influenced by what we are taught at a young age.

While this normally translates into unique tastes and preferences, a new Norwegian-British study warns that learning dangerous habits like emotional eating at early ages can foster long-term eating behaviors linked to weight gain and even eating disorders.

“There is now even stronger evidence that parental feeding styles have a major influence on children’s dietary habits and how children relate to foods and beverages when it comes to addressing their own emotions,” professor Rafael Perez-Escamilla told CBS News. Perez-Escamilla is a professor of epidemiology and public health at Yale University’s School of Public Health, and was not involved with the study published in the journal Child Development.

“Emotional feeding” is “what parents do when they provide foods or beverages to their children to calm them down, such as when a child is having a tantrum,” added Perez-Escamilla.

This behavior can seem innocuous at first, but lead study author Silje Steinsbekk explains that teaching children to rely on junk food, desserts, and sugary foods for comfort can later lead to overeating, binge eating, and bulimia.

“You don’t feel like having a carrot if you’re sad,” said Steinsbekk, an associate professor of psychology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim.

To assess the risks of teaching emotional feeding to children, the researchers followed the feeding and eating habits of over 800 Norwegian children, starting at age 4. The team then followed up with the children every two years until the age of 10.

According to the results of questionnaires completed by the children’s parents, approximately two-thirds of the children showed signs of eating to comfort themselves at any age. Particularly, those offered food for comfort at ages 4 and 6 were more likely to report emotional eating by ages 8 and 10.

The researchers say children who relied on food for comfort were taught this by their parents.

“Emotional feeding increases emotional eating and vice versa,” Steinsbekk said.

The team also found that children who showed signs of anger problems at age 4 were more likely to use emotional eating for comfort and to be fed by parents for that purpose.

“This makes total sense as parents get very stressed out when their children are having a fit or crying non-stop,” said Perez-Escamilla.

As Steinsbekk explains, it is okay to relax with food from time to time, but it is important to watch to ensure it doesn’t become a pattern.

“There’s no reason to worry if you have a chocolate to feel better now and then. The problem is if this is your typical way of handling negative emotions.”

This is also true when handling children. 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,” Steinsbekk said.

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