Giving kids food as a reward can lead to emotional eating: dietitian

Click to play video: 'Can rewarding children’s goals with treats lead to unhealthy habits?'
Can rewarding children’s goals with treats lead to unhealthy habits?
WATCH ABOVE: Dessert for finishing supper; a slush for hitting a goal; Smarties during potty training. These are all common examples of how parents celebrate life’s small and big milestones with treats. But research shows it comes at a cost. Laurel Gregory explains – Jun 15, 2017

I consider myself a fairly healthy, clean eater. And yet, old patterns around food die hard.

Hard day with a terrible two? Glass of wine, please.

Stressful day at work? Chocolate, please.

Big win at soccer? Beer and nachos for everyone!

For some reason, the peaks and valleys in life have food associations for many of us. Lalitha Taylor, the national spokesperson for Dietitians of Canada, says these types of behaviours around food are learned very early in life (Thanks Mom and Dad! I’m kidding, of course).

Taylor says parents can set their kids up for a healthy relationship with food by avoiding certain habits.

“When we start to use food for other purposes other than nourishment, it can teach our children to associate food with certain behaviours,” she said. “So for example, if I do good at something – whether it be cleaning off my plate of food at suppertime, whether it be potty training or maybe getting good grades – I associate that with getting ice cream or something else. Also, maybe if I’m feeling sad or upset or disappointed about something, I deserve chocolate! And so as kids, when we start to associate certain behaviours with getting certain things, we start to feel that food can make us happy and that food can also be a reward for being good.”

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Taylor says this moves children away from intuitive eating, or eating when they’re hungry. It also sets them up to want to eat emotionally.

READ MORE: Canadian kids bombarded with more than 25M junk food and drink ads online every year

Aston University psychology researchers studied different feeding practices of parents with children aged three to five to explore the influence of using food as a reward. They followed up two years later.

“The results showed that children were much more likely to emotionally eat at ages five to seven if their parents had reported using more food as a reward and were overtly controlling with foods when the children were younger,” the university concluded in a 2016 news release.

Taylor recommends replacing food rewards with other treats: stickers, a trip to the zoo or Monopoly money that can be turned in for a toy.

I’m going to try it in our house although I think the transition will be hardest for the adults!

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