Food rewards may create unhealthy eating habits in kids: Study

By Will Chu

- Last updated on GMT

Overall, the results of this study suggest that the type of maternal feeding goal (i.e., health vs. convenience) determines children's eating behavior. ©iStock
Overall, the results of this study suggest that the type of maternal feeding goal (i.e., health vs. convenience) determines children's eating behavior. ©iStock

Related tags Nutrition

Negative feeding practices such as using food as a reward or to regulate emotions could be setting up children with unhealthy eating habits that could impact on health in later life, a study predicts.

Results from this study suggested that this type of eating practice, which the team classed as convenience, was strongly associated with unhealthy eating patterns and choice of food.

On the other hand, children whose mothers emphasised eating practices that promote health, such as the consumption of fruits and vegetables, established health eating practices even if negative feeding practices were used.

Although gains have been made in making children the focus of obesity prevention strategies, there is still much work to be done.  

Obesity rates have remained somewhat stable over the past ten years, but a unequal number of children are still overweight or obese​ (nearly a third of 2-11 year olds are overweight or obese, of which almost half are obese.)

Parents are gatekeepers

parents women children stressed
The study acknowledged that parents were on the front line when it came to deciding how best to feed their children. ©iStock

The study, performed by researchers from Bowling Green State University in Ohio, were careful in not demonising parents, especially mothers, during their investigations.

In total 192 mothers of children were asked to take part in the study.

Mothers were mostly Caucasian (76%) and had some college education or a Bachelor's degree (72%). Around half (43%) were employed and around a third (36%) were homemakers or unemployed.

The Food Choice Questionnaire (FCQ), a 36- item measure that assesses nine factors underlying food motives (e.g., health, mood, convenience, etc.), was then used to assess maternal feeding goals.

Maternal feeding behaviours were then evaluated using the Comprehensive Feeding Practices Questionnaire (CFPQ), a 49-item measure assess parental feeding practices.

Of primary interest was the negative feeding practices for emotion regulation. Examples of questions asked include: “When this child gets fussy, is giving him/her something to eat or drink the first thing you do?”​ or “I offer sweets (candy, ice cream, cake, pastries) to my child as a reward for good behaviour.”

The food frequency questionnaire (FFQ) was also used to measure children’s food consumption.

Mothers reported the frequency of their child's consumption of fruit (juice not included), vegetables, whole grains, sweet snacks/desserts, chips, and soft drinks.

These foods were divided into healthy eating behaviours (i.e., fruit, vegetables, and whole grains) and unhealthy eating behaviors (i.e., desserts, chips, and soft drinks.)

“In our study, convenience feeding goals were more distal in determining children's eating behaviours, as negative feeding practices fully mediated the relationship between goals and children's food intake,”​ the study explained.  

“Health feeding goals were more proximal, as children consumed more healthy food and less unhealthy food, regardless of mothers' engagement in negative feeding practices.”

Age a factor

children kids school
The age of the child was a factor in determining what they ate and when. ©iStock

The study’s results contradict those of a similar study​ in which the authors found that negative feeding practices fully assisted the relationship between health goals and unhealthy eating behaviours.

The difference the children’s ages in both studies (preschool vs. school-age) might explain the findings.

Older children, who make more independent decisions about their food intake than preschool equivalent are not only swayed by parents' feeding habits, but also by their attitudes toward health.

Another study​ found that school-age children reported similar eating behaviours and motivations as their parents.

The team here thought that parents not only influence children's eating-related behaviours, but their attitudes as well.

“Additional research is still needed to understand how variables interact,” ​the study said in closing. “Little is known about fathers' goals and feeding practices in relation to their children's food intake.”

“Furthermore, research with larger samples that incorporate additional parental variables (e.g., employment status, time pressure, and eating habits), as well as child variables (e.g., pickiness and weight status), and which measures the relationships over time would help unravel this issue.”

Source: Appetite

Published online ahead of print,

“Influence of maternal feeding goals and practices on children's eating behaviors”

Authors: Debra Hoffmann

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