Are you turning to pizza, cookies and ice cream when you’re sad? New research suggests that emotional eating has ties way back to childhood — and that parents may be to blame if you’re turning to food for comfort.
European scientists say that if parents turned to food to soothe their kids, they were more likely to grow up to be emotional eaters.
Their findings are important, they say, in helping parents steer their kids away from developing unhealthy eating habits.
“Understanding where emotional eating comes from is important because such behaviour can increase the risk for being overweight and developing eating disorders,” Dr. Silje Steinsbekk, the study’s lead author, said in a statement from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.
“If we can find out what influences the development of emotional eating in young children, parents can be given helpful advice about how to prevent it,” he said.
We’re all familiar with emotional eating — after a bad day or events gone wrong, we turn to food that’s often sugary-sweet or salty and high in fat and calories.
Steinsbekk warns that if kids often eat emotionally, they’re taking in more calories, and in turn are more likely to be overweight. Emotional eating can also be linked to the development of eating disorders later on in life, such as bulimia and binge eating.
For his study, Steinsbekk looked at the eating habits of 801 Norwegian kids at several points in their lives — at ages 4, 6, 8 and 10.
His team specifically focused on how often parents, especially moms, offered kids food to make them feel better, and whether parents of emotional eaters relied on food to comfort their kids at later times.
Parents completed questionnaires about their kids’ emotional eating and temperament, along with how well their kids could manage their emotions.
It turned out that about 65 per cent of kids displayed some level of emotional eating, from their parents’ accounts.
If kids were emotional eaters at ages 4 and 6, they were more likely to maintain the habit by ages 8 and 10.
And if parents conceded that food helped to comfort their kids, they were more likely to count on emotional eating to cheer them up.
So what should parents do instead? For starters, they should try to think of other coping mechanisms instead of food, experts say.
Try talking through problems with your child, offering a hug or going for a walk to clear their minds.
“Food may work to calm a child, but the downside is teaching children to rely on food to deal with negative emotions, which can have negative consequences in the long run,” Steinsbekk said.
This isn’t the first study to point a finger at parents for their kids’ bad eating habits. In 2014, University of North Carolina researchers warned that busy, multitasking parents could be contributing to obesity in their children later on in life.
Some of the habits that are allegedly linked to obesity later on included:
- Introducing solid food to babies at only four months old (12 per cent)
- Putting babies to bed with bottles (43 per cent)
- Propping bottles up to their babies’ mouths instead of holding the bottle by hand, which can lead to overfeeding (23 per cent)
- Giving a baby the bottle when they cry (20 per cent)
- Always getting their infants to finish their milk (38 per cent)
Some babies at only two months old spend long hours in front of the TV, sometimes watching the screen themselves or while being looked after by their parents. Some parents fed their babies while watching TV, a habit that could carry throughout the baby’s lifetime.
Steinsbekk’s full findings were published in the journal Child Development.