Why is childhood such an important time for shaping food relationships?
When it comes to feeding a child, there’s a lot more to it than simply filling them up. Whilst, of course, that is important, many other considerations influence a child’s future health, habits, cravings and emotional attachments to food. Feeding a child in the early years is also shaping their adult relationship with food.
We all know that our relationship with food is a strong one, for some people it’s a life-long love-hate relationship, largely perpetuated by the diet and weight loss industry which has many confusing and contradictory messages. For many, the habits and attachments around food stem back to the early years; we may not realise just how important our actions are around food, but children in the formative years are picking up on subtle food cues and patterns that can play an important role in future health.
Early taste preferences
In the years between 0 and 3, we have a real window of opportunity to influence and shape taste preferences, habits and food behaviours, as it is at this time that we can consider the child’s palate to be a blank canvas, receptive to whatever you introduce them to.
It isn’t just the food…it’s the way we introduce food which can have a bearing on the way it is received. If we are very excited to introduce a young child to cake, they will pick up on our excitement before they even taste the food. Likewise, if we are apologetic about vegetables as we feel they should be eaten, our body language will reflect this, and the food will not be as well received – before it is even tasted!
Food language & emotional connections
One of the easiest ways to make this link is via the language we use around food; how we can emphasise certain foods and create positive or negative associations. One example is when trying to get children to eat vegetables, often people will offer a food incentive to get the child to eat the vegetable.
For example: “Eat your broccoli and you can have the chocolate.”
“You’re not having a ‘treat’ until you have eaten your carrots.”
In this scenario, the vegetable becomes the ‘bad guy’ – the obstacle which needs to be overcome to get to the ‘good stuff’. The unhealthy food, often labelled as a ‘treat’ becomes the goal, the reward, and the positive association is aimed at the unhealthy food, therefore the healthy food is portrayed negatively. This may be said innocently, but it creates associations with foods and where possible, we want the associations created to be those which view healthy foods in a good light!
As we know, many people turn to food in times of sadness, stress, fatigue, illness, and celebration – together we group this as ‘emotional eating’. We are not born with emotional eating tendencies, they are taught. Once again, innocent phrases and eating patterns can create associations in our brains that link certain foods with attempts to fix emotional issues. Sadly, biology will never support this and emotional eating leads to many metabolic and neurological issues.
Below are some examples of common phrases and situations where food is used with children that can potentially lead to ‘emotional-eating’ adults.
Child falls over and hurts themselves, not seriously, but enough to make them feel upset. The grown-up naturally goes to comfort the child. They pick them up, cuddle them and say:
“Let’s sit down for a minute and have a biscuit/piece of chocolate/sweet. That’ll make you feel better”.
It may seem a perfectly innocuous thing to do and say, but the child on a deep subconscious level creates an association with the unhealthy food offered and comfort, even though the act that calms the child down is the cuddle and the nice words, not the food. For adults, the association remains (via our neural pathways which, on a biological level remember these connections, the strongest connections are formed before the age of 3). But for the grown-up, it could be any prolonged situation that causes them upset and stress and eating biscuits is certainly not going to fix the issues, it’s more than likely to cause more.
The biology of emotional eating
As with every aspect of eating, our biology plays a big part and not just with the physical digestion but with our mind too. When it comes to emotional eating, food will never fix things – and here’s why: –
- Body craves serotonin (a mood-calming and stabilising neurotransmitter)
- A shortcut to this (especially prevalent if habits have been taught) is to eat something high in sugar and high fat
- This temporarily releases a hit of dopamine (a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward)
- Due to the nature of the food, the effect is temporary, resulting in blood sugar and mood drop – even though the blood sugar rapidly drops, the hunger hormone, ghrelin, has been activated – you want more of the food so cravings increase to consume more (these foods don’t produce leptin, the hormone that tells you that you are full)
None of this is helping your mood, the nature of the sugary foods consumed is making it worse.
Another aspect that often has strong links to childhood food memories is habitual eating – ‘we always have this’ or ‘we always did that’. Here are some examples:
“I’ve got to finish a meal with something sweet, it doesn’t feel right, we always had a pudding!”
“I remember being ill when I was young and being given cake as a treat to make me feel better, it was great. Now when I feel poorly, it cheers me up”.
“I’ve always had a drink and biscuit before bed, have done since I was little – it feels like a bedtime cuddle, and I can’t sleep if I don’t have it”
Whilst these may seem harmless, here’s why they may not be:
Always needing to finish a meal on something sweet often means consuming too much sugar or eating when already full, which can cause digestive disturbances.
When we are ill, our immunity is compromised, and sugar further depletes this. Having cake when we are poorly will not help to make us feel healthier! Having something rich in antioxidants will support the immune system, especially when poorly.
Many adult eating habits are formed in childhood, yet many adults have a very unhappy and unhealthy relationship with food. The terminology used around ‘dieting and weight loss’ is very detrimental to health and self-esteem, yet many children start to pick this up from a young age – ‘treat foods’ and ‘naughty foods’ being ‘good and bad’ None of this language is helpful to physical or mental health, yet it is perpetuated by diet industries, and with a growing obesity crisis, is something children are very exposed to. Food is not a reward, treat, punishment, comfort, or bribe. Food is fuel, food is nourishment and food is amazing. Children can be aware of the links between food and biology, children do not need to be comforted or bribed with food. We need to remember that food is a very emotive subject with deep-rooted neural connections that shape future memories, habits and patterns that can support or hinder future health.