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Rewarding children with food could lead to emotional eating

EMOTIONAL EATING: Parents who reward good behaviour with food are being criticised

PARENTS WHO use overly controlling feeding practices, such as using food as a reward or a treat, could be unintentionally teaching their children to rely on food to deal with their emotions, a new study says.

These children may then be more likely to ‘emotionally eat’ later in childhood.

These are the conclusions of a longitudinal study of parents and their children carried out by Dr Claire Farrow from Aston University and her colleagues at Loughborough and Birmingham University.

The study looked at how parents used food and the different feeding practices that they regularly used with children when they were aged three-five.

The researchers then followed the children up when they were aged five-seven to explore whether earlier feeding practices influenced the development of emotional eating in the children.

The researchers assessed how likely the children were to eat snack foods, or play with toys, when they were not hungry but were mildly stressed. The results showed that children were much more likely to emotionally eat at ages five-seven if their parents had reported using more food as a reward and were overtly controlling with foods when the children were younger.

With the high levels of obesity in children, 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.

Dr Farrow, senior lecturer in psychology at Aston University, said: “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.

"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.”

More research needs to be done to identify the significance of these findings on eating patterns long-term, but early indications are that the relationship children have with food is often formed early in life, and in part is informed by the ways that children are fed and taught to use food.

Dr Farrow continued: “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. 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."

She added: "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.”

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