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Parents who use controlling feeding practices with their children, such as using food as a reward or a treat, could be unintentionally teaching their children to rely on food to deal with their emotions. According to a study conducted at Loughborough and Birmingham University, these children may then be more likely to ‘emotionally eat’ later in childhood. Dr Claire Farrow, senior lecturer in psychology at Aston University, said: “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.” The study looked at how parents used food and the different feeding practices that they regularly used with children when they were aged three-to-five. The researchers then followed the children until they reached age five-to-seven years to explore whether earlier feeding practices influenced the development of emotional eating in the children. Researchers assessed how likely the children were to eat snack foods, or play with toys, when they were not hungry but were mildly stressed. The results showed that children were more likely to emotionally eat at ages five-to-seven if their parents had reported using more food as a reward and were overtly controlling with foods when the children were younger. Similar research also revealed that children as young as five seek solace in food when anxious and stressed. Ghent University’s researcher Nathalie Michels suggested that levels of the hormone cortisol rose with stress. She believes this may stop the body reaction to leptin, a hormone that tells the body when it has had enough to eat. Dr Michels believes that parents and schools should teach children how to cope with life’s ups and downs, particularly at a young age. She said: “Parents and children should be made aware that stress can influence emotional eating behaviour, so they can pay attention to potential triggers and anticipate this behaviour. “Furthermore, children should be equipped with stress-coping skills, such as problem-solving or asking for help, instead of seeking solace in food.” The latest statistics from the National Child Measurement Programme (NCMP) reveal the prevalence of child obesity. Figures for 2014/15 showed that nine per cent of children aged four-to-five years were obese and another twelve per cent were identified as being overweight. With high levels of obesity in children and its associated health risks being increasingly evident at a younger age, understanding why certain individuals turn to particular types of food at times of stress or anxiety could help in encouraging healthier eating practices. Further research needs to be carried out to identify the significance of these findings on eating patterns long-term, but early indications are that the relationship children have with food is often formed early in life, and in part is informed by the ways that children are fed and taught to use food. Commenting on eating patterns and the effects of ‘emotional eating’, Dr Farrow concludes: “Eating patterns can usually be tracked across life, so those who learn to use food as a tool to deal with emotional distress early are much more likely to follow a similar pattern of eating later on in adult life. “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.” Our Day Nursery Liverpool offers a well balanced and nutritious eating plan. We can also cater for individual religious or dietary requirements. Please contact us to discuss your requirements.