Parents who use food as reward could unintentionally be creating a generation of ‘emotional eaters’, a new study has concluded.

Dr Claire Farrow from Aston University, along with her colleagues at Loughborough and Birmingham University, found that children who see snacks as ‘treats’ or rewards are more likely to use food to deal with their emotions in later life.

Creating emotional eaters

The long-term study looked at how parents fed their children between the ages of three to five years. The researchers then followed the same children until they were five to seven years old to see how different feeding habits affected their relationship with food.

The results found that children whose food had been overtly controlled and used as a treat were more likely to ‘comfort eat’ in mildly stressful situations. While other kids reached for a toy to help them de-stress, the emotional eaters turned to snack foods to help them boost their mood.

Junk food cravings

With record levels of obesity in children in the UK, and the associated health risks of being overweight at a very young age, the results of this study could help us to understanding why certain people crave particular types of food at times of stress or worry.

Dr Claire Farrow, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Aston University, comments: “As a parent, there is often a natural instinct to try and protect our young children from eating ‘bad’ foods: those high in fat, sugar or salt.  Instead we often use these food types as a treat or a reward, or even as a response to ease pain if children are upset.

“The evidence from our initial research shows that in doing this, we may be teaching children to use these foods to cope with their different emotions, and in turn unintentionally teaching them to emotionally eat later in life.”

Food education

Although more research needs to be done before we can understand the effect of early childhood eating on adult behaviours, these early finding show that our lifelong relationship with food could be formed in our earliest years.

Dr Farrow adds that teaching kids to view food in a healthy way is the key to preventing children from becoming emotional eaters.

She said: “Often when people “emotionally eat” they are using high calorie, high fat, energy dense foods which are not conducive to health. Learning more about how we can teach children to manage their food intake in a healthy way can help us to develop best practice advice and guidelines for families and those involved in feeding children.

“We know that in adults emotional eating is linked to eating disorders and obesity, so if we can learn more about the development of emotional eating in childhood, we can hopefully develop resources and advice to help prevent the development of emotional eating in children.”