Understanding the emotional eating habits of children and their mothers

Understanding the emotional eating habits of children and their mothers

New research, published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, looks at the emotional eating habits of children and their mothers.

Emotional eating is using food to make yourself feel better, such as for comfort, to relieve stress or as an award. The food typically consumed is unhealthy items such as chocolate or cake. New research by Rebecca Stone, a PhD student at Aston University, aimed to see whether emotional eating by children correlates with the way mothers use food as part of their parenting practices and the children’s attitudes to food more generally.

Surveying 185 mothers of young children

Children pick up behaviours by copying their parents and this mimicking extends to emotional eating and other various eating habits.

The research team surveyed 185 mothers of young children aged between three and five to identify whether there was an association between their eating habits and their children’s. The survey included questions for mothers about much they and their children ate in response to emotional states. It also asked about how much children were motivated by food and driven to eat or ask for food throughout the day, which is known as ‘food approach’ behaviour.

The survey also comprised questions that cover feeding practices used with children, specifically whether the mothers used food to reward children for good behaviour or visibly restricted their child’s access to food. These practices induce more interest in food and have been linked to greater emotional eating in children.

Analysing emotional eating habits

When Stone analysed the responses, she found that children who were very motivated by food were more likely to pick up eating behaviour from their parents. The researchers used a complex statistical method, known as moderated mediation analysis, to interpret how the different aspects of the relationship interacted: emotional eating in the mother, how she parented the child around food, the child’s approach tendencies and emotional eating.

Professor Claire Farrow, who was one of Stone’s PhD supervisors at Aston University, said: “This study demonstrates that the way that children develop eating behaviours is very complex and that emotional eating appears to be shaped in part by an innate drive towards food. In this study, we found that parenting practices interact with children’s eating tendencies and that children who are the most driven to approach food are the most influenced by feeding practices that can lead to emotional eating. These findings suggest that a ‘one size fits all’ approach to child feeding isn’t always appropriate and that some children are more susceptible to the influence of behaviours that can lead to emotional eating.”

Stone agreed: “Our findings suggest that children who were more motivated to eat were more predisposed to associate food with emotions. Our research supports the idea that emotional eating is a learned behaviour which children often develop in pre-school years, but that some children are more vulnerable to developing emotional eating than others.”

The research highlights that using food as a reward or restricting children’s access to certain foods, even in children as young as three, can cause complications. Giving a piece of chocolate as a reward or telling children they can only have one biscuit as a ‘treat’ is likely to create an emotional response in the child, which they then connect to those foods.

Stone concluded: “The research suggests that restricting food in front of children who are already more motivated by food tends to backfire and makes children crave restricted foods even more. What seems to work best is known as ‘covert restriction’ — not letting children know that some foods are restricted (for example, not buying foods that you do not want your child to eat) and avoiding instances where you have to tell children that they are not allowed certain foods.”

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