Why children grow up having unhealthy relationships with food and how to avoid them

Why children grow up having unhealthy relationships with food and how to avoid them

A collaboratively written blog by Gabriella Goodchild RD, The Healthful Dietitian
and Sarah Almond Bushell RD, The Children’s Nutritionist.

If you would like a PDF version of this blog delivered directly to your inbox, pop your details below.

In this blog we’re going to give you an overview of what unhealthy relationships with food actually are, how they develop and what we can do to help our children grow up to have a healthy relationship with food. 

We’ve written this to support The Happy Healthy Eaters Club
which Sarah created to empower mums and dads to do the very best for their children when it comes to food and feeding. 

This is for those who want to know how to nourish their child completely. We’ll provide you with food and nutrition knowledge but also equip you with skills on how to manage feeding problems like fussy eating or over-eating. You’ll also learn all about food parenting, which is what this blog is all about. Ultimately, it’s about giving you the tools to grow a Happy Healthy Eater.

What are unhealthy relationships with food?

An unhealthy relationship with food includes eating when you’re not hungry, perhaps to deal with negative emotions. It also includes having food rules and restrictions or changing the way you eat to manage your weight. At the extreme end it includes eating disorders such as bingeing which can lead to feelings of guilt and shame.

Unfortunately, all of these unhealthy behaviours can rub off on our children and they can repeat them. We don’t want this. We want our children to become Happy Healthy Eaters.

What do we mean by food relationships?

Food relationships are our connection and relationship with food. Everyone has them. Our childhood experiences of food and eating can shape our adult food relationships and the way we think and feel about food (1)

Why children grow up having unhealthy relationships with food and how to avoid them by Sarah Almond Bushell - the Children's Nutritionist

How do our childhood experiences of food shape our food relationships?

Our relationship with food begins in childhood. We can all probably recall the part food played in our lives when we were growing up, whether this was positive or negative and we all have different experiences. 

Think back to your own childhood, what foods did your parents offer you? Were you told to clean your plate or were certain foods restricted? Think about how this may shape how you feel about food now. 

Our parents or other people we grew up with, influence our behaviours and attitudes towards food (1)

Learned behaviour and repeating patterns from our own childhood

As adults we can find ourselves adopting similar ‘food habits’ to our parents, some of these can be unconscious and we don’t always make the connection to our childhood experiences. 

These early food experiences can have a huge impact on our adult food relationships.

It’s not just our immediate family who influence us but also wider family members such as grandparents or friends.

Language used around food

If our ‘eating style’ and eating behaviours as a child were commented on, this can have a big impact on us in childhood and beyond. Whilst we may remember being praised for eating something as a child, we may also remember being criticised for not eating something or eating too much. 

Food as a reward

If food was used as a reward in childhood, we may still have the same attitude as adults, ‘rewarding ourselves’ with certain foods after a difficult day, (glass of wine on a Friday night anyone?) or only feeling we deserve certain foods if we have worked hard enough and earned them. We can feel guilty about eating certain things if we are labelling them as a ‘treat’ or reward. 

If we are still restricting particular foods as adults, this can lead to cravings and binge eating (1)
.

Why children grow up having unhealthy relationships with food and how to avoid them by Sarah Almond Bushell - the Children's Nutritionist

Parents concern around their child’s weight

Many adults can remember their parents trying to restrict or change the way they ate as a child. You may have experienced comments on your body size or were told you were greedy. You may even have been put on a diet to lose weight. 

This can have a huge impact on how we feel about ourselves and influenced our eating behaviour when we were children and continued into adulthood (1)

Thinking back

Our exposure to food, encouragement and pressures around food can shape our food preferences as adults. Take a moment to think back and remember your childhood food experiences?

Many of us may remember positive experiences of food such as happy family meals, baking or cooking at home or celebrations around food. Interestingly the brain tends to focus on the detail of negative experience and so positive memories may be vague or distant.

Unfortunately, others may have had negative experiences which are a lot clearer and more distinct. Food may have been associated with negative emotions such as stress, fear, anxiety or feeling deprived. 

The purpose of this exercise is not to make you feel bad or blame or shame you. It’s to raise awareness. As adults we are role models for our children in so many ways, and so thinking about which childhood food experiences we have brought into our parenting is useful to consider.

What are healthy food relationships?

In a healthy food relationship food is allowed to be enjoyable, there are no strict rules and restrictions (with the exception of foods that need to be avoided for medical reasons such as allergies) and you have a good connection with your body’s appetite cues.

You honour your hunger and don’t ignore it and respect your fullness. Healthy food relationships allow for flexibility in the foods you eat and when you eat them, a good balance of different foods and relaxed thinking towards food, with no strict food rules (8)

What are unhealthy food relationships?

Unhealthy food relationships generally cause negative feelings around food and body image. There is often rigidity around food and a lack of freedom and flexibility. Food may be connected to negative emotions such as shame and judgement (8)

Adults and children can struggle with a number of different issues around food. These include;

Eating in the absence of hunger

Eating in the absence of hunger means eating when you’re not physically hungry.

This could be eating past comfortable fullness or eating triggered by emotions such as boredom, unhappiness or stress.

Eating in the absence of hunger can of course encourage us to eat more than we actually need, which may lead to weight gain (3)
. This can also occur when we heavily restrict foods, often foods we deem as ‘bad’. This restriction leads us to craving the foods and often eventually bingeing on the particular food. 

Restriction

Research has shown that parents who try to control their children’s intake too heavily, such as having a very strict meal and snack structure, might actually encourage children to rebel against this (2)
. A 2018 research study found that young children who had restricted access to food, were more likely to eat when they weren’t hungry, if given the opportunity.

This may be because a strict eating schedule does not take into account children’s hunger signals or varying hunger on different days. Sticking to the eating schedule, regardless of hunger levels, may teach children to regularly ignore hunger. This does not encourage children to connect and engage with their body and to understand when they’re hungry and when they’re not. 

Why children grow up having unhealthy relationships with food and how to avoid them by Sarah Almond Bushell - the Children's Nutritionist

Routine

However, children do thrive on having a routine around meals and snacks. They benefit from the knowledge that the next eating occasion is coming soon. Because of the demands of growth children will need to eat regularly and in between meals snacks are often a necessity. But do allow flexibility within the routine, it’s your role as the parent to note your child’s varying intake and adjust your meals and snacks appropriately to make up for missing nutrients.

Clean your plate

In the same way, forcing or prompting children to finish a meal, even if they are full, encourages children to override their own fullness signals. 

If we consistently ignore our hunger or fullness signals, we can become very ‘out of tune’ with our bodies, making it challenging to feel our more subtle hunger of fullness signals (12)
. This can lead to problems in adulthood, with many adults cleaning their plate even if they are full because this is what they have been conditioned to do. What this means is that they don’t have a good connection with their own bodies.

There are exceptions when eating when not hungry may be outweighed by other benefits gained. For example, being offered a slice of birthday cake to celebrate mum’s birthday at the end of their meal. If we told our children only to eat the cake if they were actually physically hungry, such as “you’ve just eaten a meal, you don’t need some cake too”, could lead to feelings of ‘missing out’ or being deprived (11)
.

Eating to deal with emotions

Emotional eating often refers to using food as a way to deal with feelings, instead of addressing those feelings. Many adults, children and teens describe patterns of emotional eating. 

However, emotional eating is not always prompted by negative feelings (4)
. Although it can be triggered by feelings such as boredom, loneliness or stress, we can also eat emotionally in response to positive feelings such as happiness or celebrations (4)

In this sense the term ‘emotional eating’ may be unfairly judged. 

Celebrating with family and friends and enjoying a slice of birthday cake together (even if not physically hungry in that moment), could be classified as ‘emotionally eating’. However a shared eating experience such as a celebration, can bring many other positive benefits and shouldn’t be judged negatively.

However when eating is triggered by negative emotions, this can often mean that these emotions aren’t being dealt with and instead we are turning to food to try and make ourselves feel better (4)
. This is often called our ‘emotional hunger’ (4)
and can be confused with physical hunger. Often, we eat emotionally to distract ourselves or because food makes us feel good. 

The best way to know if your children are eating to deal with emotions is to discover what’s triggering their eating outside of your scheduled meal times. Helping children identify what types of emotions are triggering eating is the first step. If you feel your child may be emotionally eating, then you can try;

  • Asking them how they feel at the time they are eating?

  • Asking them later on that day (when they are calmer), how they felt earlier?

  • If your children are older, discuss how sometimes emotions (good or bad) can make us feel like we want to eat. 

  • Make sure your child doesn’t feel any judgement from you. 

  • Explain how ‘emotionally eating’ isn’t always bad and is very common.

  • However it can be a concern if it means certain emotions keep coming up and are being ignored.

Once it is clear what the type of emotions consistently leading to emotional eating are, we can then help support our children to put other strategies into place to help them address those emotions. For example if your child is getting stressed regularly and then turning to food, what can you both put in place to help them manage stress. 

Seek to find a Registered Dietitian with expertise in Intuitive Eating to help you with this.

Why children grow up having unhealthy relationships with food and how to avoid them by Sarah Almond Bushell - the Children's Nutritionist

Fixation on sweet and high fat foods

Thinking back to childhood, for some of us sweet and high fat foods may have been freely available and for others these may have been restricted.

Sweet and high fat foods are desirable, right from birth and there is nothing we can do to change that. When babies are born they have an innate desire for sweet and fatty foods because breast milk is sweet and high in fat. It’s this drive that encourages them to seek out the breast. It’s survival.

By restricting those foods, we are making them even more desirable to children, we are ‘putting them on a pedestal’ so-to-speak generating feelings of them being very special (1)
(5)
.  This special treatment ensures they become ‘sought after’. Restriction increases our desire for sweet and high fat foods (6)
(5)

We’ve all seen that child at the birthday party who makes a bee line for the party food table. What’s happening here is the ‘door has been opened’ and desire has taken over. The child needs to eat as many of these sought after special foods as they can before the ‘door is closed’ and these are restricted again. This will be a highly enjoyable experience for the child as the reward value is very high.

However these ‘sought after’ foods such as chocolate, sweets, ice cream, biscuits, crisps or cake should be normalised. Food is food, full stop. Sweet and high fat foods should be valued in the same way as other foods like chicken, salad, fruit or cereal (11)
.

Children grow into adults who develop feelings of guilt around food, when they find themselves indulging in food they feel they should be restricting. 

Labelling foods as treats or rewards

As parents if we only allow certain foods as rewards or ‘treats’ this also makes these foods feel incredibly special and encourages us to desire them. Moreover if we use these foods as a reward for eating a meal, the meal becomes the disgusting ordeal that the child has to get through in order to receive the prize. This exacerbates fussy eating and leads to a limited nutrient intake.

If this carries on, as the child gets older this can lead the child to feel we only ‘deserve’ these foods as a reward (11)
.

There are no good or bad foods

Labelling certain foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ gives the food a great deal of power (5)

We know that due to their cognitive development children perceive good or healthy foods as not very tasty and just for adults.

Instead it’s important to avoid these labels. Normalise the foods you may perceive as ‘bad’ such as ice cream, biscuits or cake by offering them regularly as part of a balanced diet alongside all other foods.

If you join the Happy Healthy Eaters Club
you will see how we do this in each and every one of our weekly menus.

When you serve family style
, put these foods (in the appropriate serving size) on the table alongside the other components of the meal. As parents we may worry about allowing our children freedom to choose these foods, however if they want to eat them first, that’s fine. If they are still hungry (as they likely will be) they can fill up on all the other food that’s on offer for that meal. In the long term helps children to recognise all food as equal (12)
.

Encourage your child to ‘listen to their body’ and how different foods make them feel. Ice cream for breakfast may seem like a nice idea but it won’t make them feel full or as good as a more nutritious breakfast such as eggs or cereal.

Overeating

Why children grow up having unhealthy relationships with food and how to avoid them by Sarah Almond Bushell - the Children's Nutritionist

As parents we need to be careful with this term as children need different amounts of foods as their appetite fluctuates day to day (11)
. However due to their smaller body size, young children need much less than adults. 

Recognising what ‘getting’ full and being full feels like can be really helpful to support your child and help them avoid eating past their own comfortable fullness.

Encouraging children to finish their plate doesn’t teach children to connect with their fullness levels and can lead to over eating. 

Think about what getting full feels like as you eat and how you can explain this to your child.

A weight focus

Children can be regularly exposed to weight focused conversations from a very young age and this can lead to them becoming very focused on their weight and body size. These can come from parents, other family members, their own friends and peers, social media or television (12)

Being ‘weight focused’ has no direct relationship to actual body weight. Instead the weight focus controls food choices, eating patterns and leads to children creating rules around food. These choices may not be what’s best for your child’s body and can lead to disordered eating patterns developing (7)

Instead we should be encouraging relaxed thinking, balance and flexibility around food, weight and bodies. Being overly weight focused can encourage rigid habits and rules to develop (7)

These habits may have a negative impact on both of children’s physical and mental health.  

When they’re not able to ‘stick to’ these rigid habits, children can then develop feelings such as shame and guilt around food (1)
. This can lead to food becoming unenjoyable and stressful. 

Disordered eating patterns can turn into eating disorders (1)
(7)
.  

Research has found that comments children receive about their weight as a child, can go on to influence how they feel about themselves as they get older. Weight focused childhood comments can lead to body dissatisfaction into adulthood (8)

Body dissatisfaction

Body dissatisfaction can have a significant effect on a child’s self esteem and confidence. Parents are often concerned if they feel their child is overweight and this comes from wanting to ensure their child is healthy, which is understandable.

Often parents see diets for their children as a way to address concerns around weight. Although this often comes from the best intentions, this can have a very negative impact.

Food restrictive diets are inappropriate in childhood and can cause children to feel deprived and different to others and crave the foods they are being restricted from and rebel against the rules (12)

It’s important to realise that when we restrict a child from a particular food they enjoy, it doesn’t mean they will eat less of it. Instead it increases the desirability of that food and increases the dislike of the other foods. 

Why children grow up having unhealthy relationships with food and how to avoid them by Sarah Almond Bushell - the Children's Nutritionist

How can I support my children to have healthy food relationships?

The first thing to consider is how your parenting style may be influencing how you choose to feed your children. 

What is your parental feeding style? 

  • Controlling

An authoritarian style, where the parent makes the food decisions, not the child. There is likely to be restriction of certain foods and a pressure to eat. 

  • Indulgent

The ‘yes parent’. Providing food according to their children’s food preferences, often cooking separate meals for children or providing other options. There is often a lack of structure around meals. 

  • Diplomatic

Parents who are more tuned into their child’s needs and are more responsive to them as a result. They allow their children some control around food, allowing them the decision on how much they eat.

  • Uninvolved 

A hands off approach with little structure. Basic needs are met but parents are not interested in providing much more than this around food and are often disinterested in food or cooking. 

You can find more helpful info on your food parenting style
and how this influences your child’s relationship to food here. 

Research has shown that a more diplomatic feeding style where children’s needs are adequately considered, can have the most success in supporting children to have a balanced, positive food relationship (9)

How does my parenting style influence my child’s food relationships?

The diplomatic food parenting style is most similar to Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility in Feeding
(10)
. This describes the parents role and the child’s role in the feeding relationship and can be applied from birth.

This is where parents are in charge of the ‘what’ ‘where’ and ‘when’ of food and feeding but it’s the child who chooses ‘if to eat’ and ‘how much’ based on their own needs and hunger signals.

This encourages a good connection and trust with your child’s body that is essential for good food relationships. 

The Division of Responsibility in Feeding accepts that children know how much they need to eat due to their innate ability to self regulate and appreciate hunger and fullness cues. Children will eat a range of different foods according to their individual needs if regularly presented with a good variety at meals and snacks (10)

Temperament

Although parents can feel the need to encourage and push healthy foods, too much pressure on children will actually have the opposite effect and discourage them from liking these foods.

A strong will child will dig in their heels and refuse, a child who wants to please their parents will eat just to make mum and dad happy.

Although distrust of a particular food can be due to unfamiliarity, if children are exposed to those foods regularly and still avoid them, this may well be due to a genuine dislike. 

What can I do to support my child in developing a healthy relationship with food?

Why children grow up having unhealthy relationships with food and how to avoid them by Sarah Almond Bushell - the Children's Nutritionist

  1. Have a meal and snack structure but allow for some flexibility in this. Be responsive to your child’s hunger signals.

  2. Serve family style with the individual meal components in separate serving dishes.

  3. Present your child with a wide variety of food – always include some foods you know they will eat but also new foods or foods they appear to dislike.

  4. Allow them to decide if they are hungry and wish to eat and also how much to eat.

  5. Allow children to have control over which foods they choose to eat from what you provide and don’t prepare additional food or a rescue meal if they don’t eat. 

  6. Never pressure children to eat or finish a meal. 

  7. No foods should be off limit or restricted. 

  8. Have dessert on the table with dinner.

  9. If a child repeatedly refuses a food that is familiar to them, accept that it’s likely to be a genuine dislike. Don’t be afraid to try this again later on as food preferences do change.

  10. Remember you are a role model to your child, so show positive examples of you enjoying a range of foods, without any pressure or judgement. 

  11. Encourage your child to get involved with the shopping, preparing, and cooking of food. 

  12. Keep conversations about food neutral. Avoid labelling food as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy.’

  13. Avoid making comments and judgements on how yourself or other people eat. 

  14. Never use food as rewards.

  15. Avoid certain foods being seen as ‘treat foods’ and instead encourage food freedom, where every food has a place. 

  16. Talk about food in terms of their physical properties, where they come from or nutrition and never calories. (This is a carrot, the carrot is orange, it grows in the ground and it helps you see in the dark).

  17. Make sure children realise that food is allowed to be enjoyable and satisfying.  

What can I do to support my child with body relationships?

  • As your child’s role model avoid your child overhearing yourself making negative comments about your body or other people’s bodies.

  • Encourage children to be aware that bodies come in all shapes and sizes and everyone is different. There is no ‘right body’. Some people are meant to be bigger and some are meant to be smaller. Some people will need to eat more and some people less. 

  • Encourage a health focus instead of a weight focus. Demonstrate and explain to children that eating is for health and nutrition, not weight. 

  • Never make comments about your child’s body size.

  • Do not engage in any inappropriate food restriction diets for your child.

  • Don’t talk about dieting or losing weight to make you feel and look better in front of your child. 

What should I do if I feel I need more support with my children’s food relationships?

Why children grow up having unhealthy relationships with food and how to avoid them by Sarah Almond Bushell - the Children's Nutritionist

You can become a member of my Happy Healthy Eaters Club
where you’ll have access to the three pillars that I believe make for a healthy child:

Nourish – this is all about food and nutrition so you know what to feed your child.

Nurture – this is all about food parenting and developing positive feeding relationships.

Thrive – this is all about child development and how you adjust talking to your child and teaching them about food and feeding depending upon their developmental stage.

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