Eating Habits and Childhood Food Demons
Eating Habits

If you have problems with food and your weight it could be that the eating habits you picked up as a child are proving to be your downfall. Understanding how food and behaviour are linked could help you on your weight loss journey.

Eating Habits Learned in Childhood are Not All Good

By WLR guest writer, Cara Frost-Sharratt

If you often reward yourself with chocolate, find it hard to leave food on your plate at the end of a meal, or feel guilty about uneaten leftovers, chances are you're simply echoing habits that were formed in early childhood.

Whilst parents are generally well meaning in their intentions towards their children's eating habits, they can inadvertently create problems that will remain with the child into adulthood.

Enforced rules at family mealtimes can lead to lifelong food phobias and it's far more difficult to reverse the trend when you're older.

Food and Behaviour

Food and behaviour are so inextricably linked during infancy and early childhood that it's no surprise that adults often repeat the same things to their children at the dinner table that their parents said to them.

In fact, it's incredibly difficult to avoid falling into the 'threat or reward' trap, particularly when mealtimes become fraught and toddlers refuse to eat. Many people remember a parent saying 'you'll sit at the table until you finish your food', followed by the inevitable stand off to see who would give in first.

It's hard to see the logical reasoning behind this and how it could result in anything but a lifelong aversion to the particular food. However, when you've spent an hour preparing a meal only to have your child push it away or spit it out, it's all too easy to fall into the food demon scenario. The key is not to take it personally.

In the adult world, leaving all of your meal, or declaring that it's disgusting, would be seen as the height of bad manners. However, children can often be brutal in their honesty and, if they don't like something, they simply won't eat it. If you force a child to eat something they really don't want to you are obviously going to create unpleasant memories that are linked to food.

Many adults continue to believe they don't like particular foods as a result of being made to eat them as a child. Stone cold sprouts, waterlogged broccoli and tough, overcooked meat still feel as fresh to the palate as this morning's breakfast and nothing can persuade people to give them another go.

Problems with Food

As early eating habits are formed, anything that becomes 'normal' behaviour is likely to remain with you as you grow up. So it is that people who were encouraged to clear their plates at every meal often continue to do so.

In reality, this can lead to overeating and, whilst it's important to have a healthy appetite and a varied diet, overeating has a large part to play with regards to weight issues. There is absolutely nothing wrong with clearing your plate as long as that plate contains a regular portion of food.

The problem arises when people aren't aware of correct portion sizes and they put far too much food on the plate. If you always clear the plate then you will inevitably end up eating food when you are no longer hungry.

There has now been some scientific research that links 'clearing the plate' with obesity. Researchers at Temple University in Philadelphia found that if children are presented with a larger portion than they actually require, they will eat that amount. A child has no concept of portion size so if an adult serves them a plate of food that is more than a child's serving, they will believe that is the correct amount of food.

As children are generally praised for finishing a meal, a child will naturally make positive connections between eating a lot of food and being praised by a parent. It's easy to see how this is continued into adult eating patterns. Many people use their eyes rather than the kitchen scales to measure food and this can be very deceptive.

Therefore, if you're trying to lose weight, the first thing to do is accurately measure your food. That way you can clear your plate safe in the knowledge that you have eaten the right amount.

Bribed With Dessert

'You can only have pudding when you've cleared your plate', is another saying many of us are familiar with from our childhood. Dessert is so often used as bait to persuade children to finish a meal that it detracts from the main meal itself.

It can work in two ways: either children are encouraged to overeat, as they shovel all of the main meal down so they can move on to pudding or, alternatively, they won't eat much of their main meal, as they lose interest and want to get straight to the treat. By using pudding as a bribe to eat dinner, there's a certain suggestion that treats are the best bit about a meal and you're just going through the motions in order to reach your reward.

In reality, it's far better to build up some anticipation of the meal itself. Children should be encouraged to enjoy healthy foods and not see them as a chore to be waded through on the road to ice cream. By making savoury food more inspiring and delicious, you can cut down on the emphasis on the pudding being the treat.

This association between clearing your plate and getting dessert is another demon that can come back to haunt us in adulthood. In reality, there's no need to finish every dinner with a dessert.

If you're full then it's time to stop eating but it's often difficult to ignore ingrained habits and people will often lick the plate clean and declare themselves full but then go on to have a rich dessert. If it's difficult to break the habit, at least change the ending: far better to choose a lighter option such as a piece of fruit or a yogurt.

The same goes for kids' meals: don't automatically present them with a dessert every day. If they're still hungry give them a piece of fruit for dessert and don't use pudding as a bribe.

Food Rewards

It's not just at the dinner table where food demons can first take hold. From infancy to adulthood food is used as a reward.

The difference is that when we're young other people reward us with food; when we're older we reward ourselves. From the first time that a parent promises to give their child a biscuit if they behave themselves, the child is beginning to make associations between food and positive behaviour.

This pattern is very easy to form and difficult to break. The problem is that it's generally unhealthy food that is used as the reward - biscuits, crisps, chocolates and cakes are all seen as treats suitable for good behaviour.

Once this link becomes ingrained we use it to excuse all kinds of eating mishaps and it can create havoc for anyone who is trying to break the cycle and lose weight. Unhealthy food is so often associated with 'reward' that we probably don't realise we're doing it: a nice cake from the supermarket to enjoy once the shopping has been unpacked; a cup of tea and a biscuit after the school run; a box of doughnuts when a work objective has been achieved.

The answer is to try and avoid using food as a reward. Although initially this might seem easier said than done, it's all about slowly adjusting your perceptions of food and trying to break down some of the links that you have with childhood behaviour.

There are plenty of other ways to give yourself a little treat and, if you're trying to lose weight, it's essential that you swap food treats for other indulgences. If you usually buy a bar of chocolate on your way home from work, buy a magazine instead - no calories there and it will last a lot longer.

If you tuck into biscuits at break time, try making a fruit smoothie instead. Weight loss goals could be rewarded with a relaxing massage or a trip to the cinema. It's all about getting creative and not using food as a fallback for certain situations.

From relationship break-ups to getting a promotion, food is seen as a socially acceptable way to commiserate and celebrate. It's only when you make a conscious decision to look elsewhere for comfort and reward that you can break the cycle of association and develop a healthier attitude towards food and your lifestyle.

Parents can be guilty of using bribery, guilt and incentive when it comes to encouraging children to eat. There is a very delicate balance to be struck between instilling a healthy attitude towards food, and creating issues that can have repercussions in adulthood. There will obviously be differences between people, with some being more susceptible to food demons than others. However, by understanding where some of these food and weight issues might stem from, we can work towards addressing them.

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