Mary is a chronic dieter. She is always on the newest diet or a quick detox to magically negate all the indulgences of another holiday season. Sometimes she throws all restrictions out of the window and eats as much as she wants, vowing to be “good” again tomorrow.
Her 7-year-old daughter is allowed to have only one slice of cake at her friends’ birthday parties. There is a strict “no-candy” policy at home and some days she cannot have a second helping of rice or pasta if she does not finish her vegetables first.
Recently Mary found a secret place where her daughter has been hiding candy and cookies that she managed to hide before her mother threw them out. The girl confessed that she was eating sweets from her secret stash first thing in the morning when everyone at home was still asleep.
We teach our children what and how to eat when we sit down for breakfast, lunch or dinner together.
They also learn from us every minute in between meals.
Research shows that the mother’s attitude to food affects the child’s relationship with eating for many years.
One of the most important things I learned in my private practice is that it very important to consider parents’ eating habits before handling nutritional issues of the children.
We know now that all children are born with an innate ability to regulate the number of calories they need depending on their activity levels or growth velocity.
This connection with their bodies weakens gradually int he first few years of life and, in some cases, disappears completely. This happens because children become influenced more by the outside factors such as the food environment and parental feeding strategies.
Such feeding strategies include restricting certain foods or its amounts, using food as rewards and offering food to kids when they are bored or upset.
Girls are especially affected by their parents’ feeding tactics. If they experience food restriction in childhood, they are more likely to be overweight later in life, binge on “forbidden” foods when no one is looking and use eating to deal with emotions.
But parental influence on children is not limited only to mealtimes.
Your relationship with food affects them as well. Research shows that mothers who constantly restrict themselves, or diet, are more likely to limit the amount of food their daughters are allowed to eat.
Mothers who eat to control their feelings are more likely to create a strong link between food and emotions for their children.
In families where grown-ups are emotional eaters, foods are often divided into “bad” and “good”, dessert is served only to those who “deserve” it and food become a common tool to deal with stress, anxiety or boredom.
The first negative results of such food parenting do not take long to come through.
For example, toddlers who are pressured to eat are more likely to become picky eaters, eat more slowly and become what researchers call “emotional undereaters”. This means that they are so busy dealing with (often negative) emotions while eating that they stop being aware of their hunger.
Here is how you can help your child outgrow picky eating, build a healthy relationship with food for life and limit their chances for overweight and emotional eating in the future.
1/ Be an authoritative parent. Set limits on eating, stick to structure, eliminate grazing and offer a lot of support and positive interactions during mealtimes. Allow your child decide what and how much to eat.
2/ Avoid food rewards. Offer a small serving of dessert alongside the main meal in order to avoid negotiations. Expect your child to eat the dessert first. As they learn to trust you more, they will start leaving it for the end of the meal.
3/ Allow all foods. Forbidden foods become more enticing and children will overeat them when they get access. Teach them about balanced eating and make sure to serve their favorite foods from time to time. Instead of restricting and banning foods, spend your time developing your children’s palates, and helping them learn and appreciate a variety of foods.Here are some strategies to manage seasonal candy overload and desserts.
4/ Be mindful aofwhat you say in front of your child. Avoid negative remarks about your body or describing foods as “fattening” or “bad”. Instead of discussing other people’s bodies or eating habits, focus on building your child’s self-esteem. Assure him of your unconditional love, regardless of what he eats or his body shape.
5/ Instead of dieting to lose weight, explore mindful eating. Diets do not work. Mindful eaters are able to choose the foods they enjoy and eat them until they are satisfied. They are aware of their bodies and are able to stay away from eating to deal with stress.
Birch, L. L., & Fisher, J. O. (2000). Mothers’ child-feeding practices influence daughters’ eating and weight. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 71, 1054–1061.
Birch, L. L., Fisher, J. O., & Davison, K. K. (2003). Learning to overeat. Maternal use of restrictive feeding practices promotes girls’ eating in the absence of hunger. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 78, 215–220.
Wardle, J., Sanderson, S., Guthrie, C. A., Rapoport, L., & Plomin, R. (2002). Parental feeding style and the inter-generational transmission of obesity risk. Obesity Research, 10, 453–462.
Farrow, C. V., Galloway, A. T., & Fraser, K. (2009). Sibling eating behaviours and differential child feeding practices reported by parents. Appetite, 52, 307–312.
Morrison, H., Power, T., Nicklas, T., Hughes, S. (2013) Exploring the effects of maternal eating patterns on maternal feeding and child eating. Appetite, 63, 77-83