If a mother reaches for cakes, chocolates or other snacks when she's feeling down, her children could become emotional eaters as well.
Kids' chances of becoming emotional eaters are shaped by both their natural eating tendencies and their parent's influence, according to a new British study.
Emotional eating refers to indulging in "comfort" foods when feeling sad or anxious, not because you're hungry.
"Our findings suggest that children who were more motivated to eat were more predisposed to associate food with emotions," said study co-author Rebecca Stone, a Ph.D. student at Aston University in Birmingham.
"Our research supports the idea that emotional eating is a learned behavior which children often develop in preschool years, but that some children are more vulnerable to developing emotional eating than others," Stone added in a university news release.
In this study, the researchers surveyed 185 U.K. mothers of young children, ages 3-5, about their eating habits and those of their children.
Questions included how much the mothers and their children ate in response to their emotions and how much children were motivated by food and ate or asked for food throughout the day.
Mothers were also asked whether they used food to reward children for good behavior or restricted children's access to certain foods -- having certain foods in the house but forbidding them to eat it. Both practices make children more interested in food and have been linked to greater emotional eating in children, the researchers pointed out.
Children who were very motivated by food were more likely to pick up emotional eating from their mothers, according to the study.
The problem with eating for comfort is it can lead to overeating, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians.
Study co-author Claire Farrow, a professor at the university's School of Psychology and one of Stone's supervisors, said the study demonstrates that the way that children develop eating behaviors is very complex, and that emotional eating appears to be shaped in part by an innate drive towards food.
"In this study we found that parenting practices interact with children's eating tendencies and that children who are the most driven to approach food are the most influenced by feeding practices that can lead to emotional eating," Farrow explained.
"These findings suggests that a 'one size fits all' approach to child feeding isn't always appropriate and that some children are more susceptible to the influence of behaviors that can lead to emotional eating," Farrow said in the release.
Withholding food isn't the solution for these kids, the researchers said. The findings also suggest "that restricting food in front of children who are already more motivated by food tends to backfire and makes children crave restricted foods even more," Stone said.
The results were recently published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Nemours has tips for promoting healthy eating habits in your kids.
SOURCE: Aston University, news release, April 13, 2022