If you give a crying child a cookie, could you be setting her up for a lifelong weight problem? New research out of Norway suggests that may be happening when well-meaning parents offer food to children as a means of soothing them.
The study, published in April in the journal Child Development, found that children who were offered food to calm them at age 4 were more likely to be comforted by food at ages 6, 8 and 10, creating a potentially damaging habit that could follow them through adolescence and adulthood.
Moreover, parents of children who were easily soothed by food were more likely to employ that strategy again in the future, creating a self-perpetuating cycle, the researchers said.
“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,” said the study’s lead author, Silje Steinsbekk, an associate professor of psychology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.
Researcher Silje Steinsbekk. Photo courtesy of the Society for Research in Child Development | Photo courtesy of the Society for Research in Child Development
Children who engage in emotional eating are more likely to be overweight and to develop eating disorders later in life, the researchers said.
Since parents provide most of the food young children eat, they play an outsized role in the eating habits that children develop. One British columnist has even gone so far as to say, "If your child is fat, then you are a bad parent."
While that statement horrifies many obesity specialists in the U.S., it's true that the habits, attitudes and actions of parents can inadvertently contribute to children developing poor eating habits, which can lead to obesity.
About 20 percent of American teens are obese; among 6- to 11-year-olds, 17.4 percent are, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention | Aaron Thorup, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Here are some ways that loving parents may be unwittingly setting their children up for weight problems, and tips from experts about how to avoid these traps.
Comforting your child with food
It's one of the first things that parents learn after coming home from the hospital with a new baby: A bottle or breast milk usually quiets a crying infant. The idea that food equals comfort seems to take hold before humans sprout teeth.
But in fact, emotional eating is a behavior we learn, not something our bodies naturally want to do as a response to stress, Steinsbekk said.
“Gut activity decreases in the presence of emotional arousal, normally suppressing hunger and eating,” she said.
In their study, Steinsbekk and her colleagues analyzed the eating habits of 801 children at ages 4, 6, 8 and 10. Parents filled out questionnaires describing their children's emotional eating, as well as their own propensity to offer food for emotional reasons.
About 65 percent of the children showed some patterns of emotional eating. Children who were the most easily upset were at highest risk for becoming emotional eaters, Steinbekk said.
She suggests that parents develop other ways to calm their children, such as offering them a hug instead of a cookie.
Eating for three when pregnant
It seems horribly unfair, but how much weight a mother gains during pregnancy influences how much a baby weighs at birth. And research has found that a high birth weight is associated with a greater risk of obesity in childhood and later in life, especially among girls.
This means that moms who attain a normal weight before getting pregnant, and those who limit weight gain during pregnancy, are helping their children even before they are born.
But that doesn't mean you dads can eat all you want.
Numerous studies have found that a child's risk of being obese increases if the father is overweight or obese.
TVs in the bedroom
Marlene B. Schwartz, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut, says marketing plays a role in the obesity crisis — which is why she says parents shouldn't allow children to have televisions in their bedrooms. "And if it's already there, find a way to get it out," she says.
Schwartz, a mother of three, remembers a time she was shopping with her oldest daughter, who was then about 4. They were on an aisle with sugary cereals and the child saw a box with a picture of a Disney character and told her mother she wanted it.
"What is it?" Schwartz asked her daughter, who memorably replied, "I don't know, but I want it."
Restricting access to TV not only raises the likelihood that your child will be active (activity levels decline as a child's weight rises, research has shown), but fewer hours in front of the screen will keep your child from being exposed to relentless marketing of unhealthy foods, Schwartz said. And once children are exposed, the parents have to resolve to withstand the discomfort of saying "no."
"Part of a parent's job is to protect their child from a terrible food environment," she said.
A study out this month from the University of Michigan confirms that position. Researchers there found that young children who could easily identify food brands such as Lucky Charms, Pringles and Hamburger Helper had a higher body mass index than children who couldn't.
Allowing siblings to tease
Being overweight or obese presents not only health problems for children, putting them at risk for early puberty, diabetes and other conditions, it also has a profound effect on a child's mental health.
Weight is the No. 1 reason for bullying, more than race, sexual orientation or religion, according to a 2015 study published in Pediatric Obesity.
Within the home, family teasing can be just as wounding, if not more so, than barbs from a stranger or peer on the playground. "Weight-based teasing by family members is extremely common," writes Michelle Maidenberg, a therapist in Westchester County, New York, in her 2016 book "Free Your Child from Overeating." "About half of overweight females and a third of overweight males report being teased by family members, and most often, it's brothers who tease sisters."
When a girl is teased about her weight, the humiliation increases the risk that she will be obese 15 years later, one study found. Other research has shown that shaming an overweight person does not motivate them to adopt more healthy habits, but can drive them to eat more and exercise less.
Maidenberg said parents should establish a zero-tolerance policy and step in immediately if it's violated.
Going to extremes
In an effort to keep their children thin, some parents shun all desserts; others keep the candy dish full, thinking that their children will become obsessed with food they're not allowed to have.
A survey of dietary practices in families published in the Clinical Journal of Nutrition in 2011 found that severe restriction to sweets and fatty snacks most often backfired.
"Despite the good intentions of parents, these practices are associated with negative outcomes," the Italian study said.
The more healthy, effective strategy is to allow children regular treats, perhaps involving them in calculating the nutritional values in the sweets that they have.
Schwartz, who also has 17-year-old twins, has allowed her children to have one dessert every day, but they keep it to about 200 calories, which could be an ice-cream sandwich or two cookies, preferably homemade.
"If you look at the (USDA) dietary guidelines, everyone has some discretionary calories," Schwartz said. "I felt like this was a fair compromise to make."
Maidenberg also allows her children — ages 8, 11, 13 and 17 — to be involved in choosing their limited sweets. At Starbucks, for example, she'll allow her two youngest to decide together on a treat they will share. "They learn moderation and they learn decision-making. You'd be surprised how quickly they work it out," she said.
Obsessing about weight
While pediatricians — and many schools — will check your child's weight, Maidenberg said parents shouldn't, and instead should only talk about being healthy and feeling comfortable in your body.
"I don't believe in getting on scales or talking about weight or even referencing weight at all," she said.
Likewise, Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, an obesity specialist in Canada, says that unless children have a serious health issue related to their weight (such as diabetes), "children should be spared the pressure of trying to manage their weights."
"Instead I think the onus is on their parents to live the very lives they want their children to live," Freedhoff wrote in his 2014 book "The Diet Fix."
Having dinner together
In his medical practice in Ottawa, Freedhoff works with the parents of overweight children, not the children themselves, similar to the advice of a 2011 study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, which said, "Parents should be the target of prevention programs because children model themselves on their parents’ eating behaviors, lifestyles, eating-related attitudes and dissatisfaction regarding body image."
Parents who have erratic eating styles and practices of their own are more likely to have children who are "disinhibited" eaters, the authors said, whereas one particular habit — the regular family dinner, overseen by at least one parent — is associated with healthier eating patterns.
And at that family meal, parents should expose their children to an array of healthy foods, even if their children initially don't like them.
Freedhoff insists that his children eat at least one bite of everything at the table because research has shown that exposure to different tastes before age 8 has an effect on what children will like when they're adults. But don't fault them for preferring ice cream to broccoli when they're young; children all around the world show an innate preference for sweet tastes, and this doesn't start to change until adolescence.
Finding the comfort zone
American culture is steeped in celebratory food, from the pizza party at the end of a soccer season to holidays built around food.
Food is also commonly used as a reward for both children and adults — a lollipop after a shot, ice cream after a stressful day.
On occasion, there's nothing wrong with that; it's the pattern of behavior that leads to problems, Steinsbekk said, adding that she sometimes indulges a craving for chocolate when she's distressed.
"It's no big deal as long as you usually apply more adaptive strategies to handle your negative emotions," Steinsbekk said. "The problem is when eating is the only way you know to sooth yourself, and if you apply this strategy so often that it negatively affects your weight."