You’ve heard it before. “If you don’t behave, you’re not getting any ice cream!” Or “you won’t leave this table until you finish everything on your plate!” And the ever-growing “no, we never let Jimmy eat any sugar.”
These words often escape the mouths of parents who are trying to teach their children healthy eating habits, maintain some sense of control, or who are just trying to survive dinner. But what types of long-term unconscious impacts might these statements, if called upon regularly, have on the child’s relationship with food as they grow into an adult?
From the handful of studies conducted on how childhood food rules impact adult eating behaviors, we’ve learned that children forced to eat beyond the point of fullness and those who were rewarded with food for good behavior or achievement were more likely to overeat or binge in adulthood. Additionally, children whose parents restricted junk food were antithetically more inclined consume those foods when they became available.
In their article, aptly named If you are good you can have a cookie: How memories of childhood food rules link to adult eating behaviors, Rebecca M. Puhl and Marlene B. Schwartz, who run the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, expanded upon these findings by analyzing specific types of food rules. Against a sample of 122 adults (56% female, 44% male) aged 19–85 years, with a mean age of 46.06 years, they measured the impacts of restriction rules, encouraging rules, and control rules.
Restriction rules are rules limiting food access, e.g. you’re not allowed to eat any sweets. Encouraging rules promote food intake, e.g. you must finish everything on your plate. Control rules included using food to reinforce preferred behavior, e.g. bring home a good report card and I’ll take you out for ice cream.
Through the retrospective self-reporting of food rule memories as they compared to the participants’ adult eating behaviors, the study indicated that adults who recalled food being used to control their behavior through punishment and reward displayed higher rates of binge eating and dietary restraint. These control rules also include utilizing food to help children feel better when they’re upset or hurt.
Control rules tend to introject messages of morality, leading adults to feel they’ve earned dessert after a long day at work. As children, those who were offered ice cream after they fell down and got hurt were more likely to grow up to use food as a mechanism of self-soothing. The higher rates of bingeing and dietary restraint in adulthood become their own manifestation of the punishment/reward cycle.
To maintain a desirable weight and adhere to an acceptable diet, a person may restrict their food intake throughout the day. When they finally eat a typical portion of a meal, they feel they’ve “blown the diet” which serves as justification to keep eating, leading into a binge. The next day, as punishment for the previous binge, the person may restrict even more severely, but, as you might expect, deprivation eventually leads to another, greater binge. And this makes sense when we consider that these adults were taught to add or subtract food based on whether or not they’ve “earned it” when they were growing up.
This isn’t the fault of parents. Our culture encourages using food as punishment, reward, and self-soothing with children. Parenting books and psychologists alike have been found to echo the images found in advertisements which can imply love is shown to children by way of food. And positive reinforcement has proven to be an effective intervention for behavior modification shared among the same crowds.
Additionally, social and emotional uses of food have already permeated our culture, resting deep in our collective unconscious, able to direct our consumption beyond our knowing (See: A culture obsessed with consumption but not compassion).
And while using food for emotional containment and positive reinforcement may be effective in the moment, long-term impacts aren’t typically explored. These impacts are especially important when we consider that the food being used as a reward is typically high in sugar, which creates a spike in dopamine, our brain’s own reward chemical. In that sense, sugar is addictive, so not only are we unconsciously sending the message to our children that food carries some morality and should be used for punishment or reward, often leading to restrictive or bingeing behaviors, using food as positive reinforcement also creates a chemical shift in the body that doubles down on the psychological message.
So while some parenting guidelines might suggest using food as a means to curb behavior or soothe upset, remember that moralizing food increases your child’s chances of continuing that emotional relationship into adulthood. And while other parenting guidelines might suggest heavy restrictions on certain types of foods for health reasons, remember that your kid will, someday, get access to sugar, and extremes almost always lead to more extremes.