30/01/2018 11:18 SAST | Updated 30/01/2018 11:27 SAST

Your Child's Relationship With Food Starts With You

Healthy and unhealthy habits are learnt from parents: certain food behaviours in the home may inform "terrible ideas around body and weight".

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Parents have a big influence on how their children's relationship with food develops over the years.

"Food is more than nutrition for kids," said dietician Monique Piderit. "How parents model the food and body relationship sets the scene for how children, as they grow older, view food in relation to their body and even identity."

She believes that certain food behaviours from parents may inform "terrible ideas around body and weight".

Restrictive dieting

Some studies have shown that people's perception of weight would be healthier if they never dieted in the first place.

If children grow up in an environment that "hates fat", or one where dieting is the norm, the impression that fat or any bit of extra weight is unforgivable can stick with them as they grow older, or turn them into severely picky eaters.

On the other hand, kids whose parents encourage them to exercise and eat well, and model those healthy behaviours themselves, are more likely to be active and healthy eaters, according to research.

How parents model the food and body relationship sets the scene for how children, as they grow older, view food in relation to their body and even identity.

"Parents must remember that kids are impressionable. They watch and learn from the behaviour of their parents, whether good or bad," says Piderit.

"Eat everything on your plate"

Some adults believe in finishing food on their plates, even when they're full, because that is how they were taught. They may have been cajoled with statements like: "There are many people who don't have what you have, so eat up!" or: "In this house, we don't waste food."

Children subjected to this conditioning may grow up not being able to recognise when they are full, and so stop eating. Over time, they learn to ignore "I'm full" signals in the body. Similarly, when they eat calorie-laden fast food, they may finish the serving all at once – even when they're full.

The unnecessary extra calories can lead to weight gain, Piderit points out.

Food as reward or punishment

If food is restricted because children have not done well, they may later emulate this in their own lives – and this may lead to undereating. Conversely, if they are rewarded with food when they've done well, this may lead lead to overeating.

This approach risks children growing up linking food with behaviour and emotions.

This extends to comfort eating – which can also lead to overeating.

READ: Are You An Emotional Eater? How To Know And Where To Get Help

Piderit believes mothers have an important role to play here. "Moms play a pivotal role in this, as they are often the primary caregivers or the ones who deal with food matters at home. So our challenge is not only educating kids about nutrition, but educating moms and dads too about healthy food behaviour."