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Insecure attachments and emotional eating: Childhood obesity and unhealthy foods

There's an association between the parents' insecure attachment and their child's consumption of unhealthy foods. Could your relationship with your mom increase your child's chances of obesity? Perhaps the quality of your attachment to both or either of your parents affected your own child's risk for obesity, say researchers in a recent study, "Associations Between Adult Attachment Style, Emotion Regulation, and Preschool Children's Food Consumption." That study is available online in the January 2014 issue of the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics. The University of Illinois study says such an association can increase a child's chances of obesity by eating unhealthy foods.

Emotional eating and childhood obesity.
Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

"If your mother regularly punished or dismissed your anger, anxiety, or sadness instead of being sensitive to your distress and giving you strategies for handling those feelings, you may be insecurely attached and parenting your children in the same way. A child who doesn't learn to regulate his emotions may in turn develop eating patterns that put him at risk for obesity," said Kelly Bost, according to the January 30, 2014 news release, "Could your relationship with your mom increase your child's chances of obesity?" Bost is a University of Illinois professor of human development and family studies.

The University of Illinois study documents the association between a parent's insecure attachment and their child's consumption of unhealthy foods, leading to weight gain, she said, according to the news release

"We wanted to discover the steps that connect attachment and obesity. Scientists know that a person's attachment style is consistently related to the way he responds to negative emotions, and we thought that response might be related to three practices that we know are related to obesity: emotion-related feeding styles, including feeding to comfort or soothe; mealtime routine; and television viewing," she said, according to the news release.

According to Bost, children form secure attachments when their caregiver is available and responsive. That attachment gives the child a secure base to explore his environment, protection in times of distress or uncertainty, and a source of joy in everyday interactions.

Children who feel insecurely attached may feel anxious and uncertain

When that secure base isn't there, an insecure attachment can result, and children who are insecurely attached often experience feelings of anxiety and uncertainty in close relationships. As adults, they are especially at risk for ineffective parenting surrounding some of the factors that are implicated in pediatric obesity, she said, according to the news release.

In the study, 497 primary caregivers of 2½- to 3½-year-old children completed a widely used questionnaire to determine adult attachment, answering 32 questions about the nature of their close relationships. They also rated themselves on a scale that measured depression and anxiety.

Parents then responded to questions about how they handled their children's negative emotions; whether they engaged in emotion-related, pressuring feeding styles known to predict obesity; frequency, planning of, and communication during family mealtimes; and estimated hours of television viewing per day.

The families are part of the university's STRONG (Synergistic Theory and Research on Obesity and Nutrition Group) Kids program, a cells-to-society approach to the study of childhood obesity. The children are enrolled full-time in 32 child-care centers. You also may wish to see the article, "Study identifies risk factors for child obesity."

Parents feeling insecure may respond to their children's distress by becoming upset and punishing or dismissing the child's emotions, which may lead to the children's unhealthy eating

"The study found that insecure parents were significantly more likely to respond to their children's distress by becoming distressed themselves or dismissing their child's emotion. For example, if a child went to a birthday party and was upset because of a friend's comment there, a dismissive parent might tell the child not to be sad, to forget about it. Or the parent might even say: Stop crying and acting like a baby or you're never going over again," she said.

That pattern of punishing or dismissing a child's sad or angry emotions was significantly related not only to comfort feeding but also to fewer family mealtimes and more TV viewing, which led to children's unhealthy eating, including self-reported sugary drinks, fast foods, and salty snacks, Bost said, according to the news release.

Fewer family mealtimes together, more TV viewing, increased unhealthy eating patterns

"One explanation might be that insecure moms are more easily overwhelmed with stress, find it more difficult to organize family mealtimes, and allow their children to watch more television as a coping strategy," she suggested.

The study's findings provide valuable information for health professionals who are working with parents and children, she noted. "Clinicians can help address children's obesity by giving parents practical strategies to help kids deal with negative emotions like anger, sadness, and boredom. That means helping them describe what they're feeling and working on problem-solving strategies with them," she said, according to the news release.

Also, telling a child to "clean your plate" or "eat just three more bites and you can have dessert" sends the wrong message, she said

"In fighting childhood obesity, one of the most important lessons we can teach children is to eat when they're hungry and recognize when they're full. We want to encourage children to respond to their internal cues and encourage parents not to promote eating under stress or eating to soothe," she added, according to the news release.

It's also useful to give busy working parents practical plans for establishing a routine for mealtime planning, she explained in the news release. Co-authors of the study are the University of Illinois' Angela Wiley, Barbara Fiese, Brent McBride, and its STRONG Kids team as well as Amber Hammons of Fresno State University, formerly a University of Illinois postdoctoral researcher.

Funding for the research in part came by grants from the Illinois Council for Agricultural Research (C-FAR) to Kristin Harrison (principal investigator) and the University of Illinois Health and Wellness Initiative. The project was also supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Hatch projects to K. Bost (Project #ILLU-793-343), A. Wiley (Project #ILLU-793-321-0205791), and B. Fiese (Project #ILLU-793-328).

The STRONG Kids team includes Kristen Harrison, Kelly Bost, Brent McBride, Sharon Donovan, Diana Grigsby-Toussaint, Juhee Kim, Janet Liechty, Angela Wiley, Margarita Teran-Garcia, and Barbara Fiese. You also may wish to see the website of the University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.

Healthier food consumers will stick to their routine when under stress and continue to eat what they prefer

Habits are more important than willpower, another recent study reports. Healthy habits die hard: In times of stress, people lean on established routines -- even healthy ones. Developing good habits is more important than self-control in meeting goals. Stress and exhaustion may turn us into zombies, but a novel study shows that mindless behavior doesn't just lead to overeating and shopping sprees — it can also cause us to stick with behaviors that are good for us.

Across five experiments appearing in the June 2013 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology®, published by the American Psychological Association, the researchers provide an important new twist to the established idea that we have finite resources for self-regulation, meaning it's harder to take control of our actions when we're already stressed or tired.

Turns out we're just as likely to default to positive habits, such as eating a healthy breakfast or going to the gym, as we are to self-sabotage. Led by Wendy Wood and David Neal of the University of Southern California (USC), this research shows that lack of control doesn't automatically mean indulgence or hedonism – it's the underlying routine that matters, for better or worse.

"When we try to change our behavior, we strategize about our motivation and self-control. But what we should be thinking about instead is how to set up new habits. Habits persist even when we're tired and don't have the energy to exert self-control," says Wood, in the May 27, 2013 news release, "Healthy habits die hard: In times of stress, people lean on established routines -- even healthy ones." Wood is the Provost Professor of Psychology and Business at the University of Southern California (USC), who holds joint appointments in the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and the USC Marshall School of Business.

Wood, who serves as vice dean for social sciences at USC Dornsife, is one of the world's leading experts on habit, the automatic behaviors that make it possible for us to function everyday (imagine if we had to relearn every morning how to brush our teeth or what route to take to work).

In the latest study, the same was true of oatmeal eaters. Those in the habit of eating a healthy breakfast were also more likely to stick to routine and ate especially well in the morning when under pressure, the new study says. Not all people believe oatmeal is healthy for breakfast.

Some prefer whole oat groats, eggs and prawns, or gluten-free quinoa. And others don't eat grains at all for breakfast. For example, those with hypoglycemia may choose a high-protein breakfast that doesn't pair animal protein with starches and sugary fruit, which may cause flatulence later. Some people eat a small amount of fish for breakfast with a side dish of bok choy, onions, carrots, and collards soup, for example. And others eat blueberries and almond milk with a dash of protein powder.

During exams, students eat more pastries and doughnuts or various types of 'junk' food. Under stress, you're more likely to stick to old habits because old habits don't require a lot of willpower, deliberation, or too much thought. Students who ate unhealthy breakfasts during the semester – such as pastries or doughnuts – ate even more of the junk food during exams.

Obesity and smoking are the two primary reasons Americans die before people in other high-income countries

Learned habits also play a big role in our health. Research has shown that exercise, overeating and smoking are significant risk factors for major diseases. Indeed, obesity and smoking are the two primary reasons Americans die before people in other high-income countries, according to a recent National Academy of Sciences report led by Eileen Crimmins of the USC Davis School of Gerontology.

But while most disease prevention efforts focus on self-control, the latest research from Wood shows that the best way to prevent disease might be knowing how to let go: "Everybody gets stressed. The whole focus on controlling your behavior may not actually be the best way to get people to meet goals," she explained in the May 27, 2013 news release, Healthy habits die hard: In times of stress, people lean on established routines -- even healthy ones. "If you are somebody who doesn't have a lot of willpower, our study showed that habits are even more important." Also, Aimee Drolet of UCLA co-authored the study.

Habits are more important than willpower, and under stress people revert to the familiar way of doing a task or eating a preferred food

For example, in one experiment Wood and her co-investigators followed students for a semester, including during exams. They found that during testing periods, when students were stressed and sleep-deprived, they were even more likely to stick to old habits. It was as if they didn't have the energy to do something new, Wood explains in the news release.

Similarly, students who had a habit of reading the editorial pages in the newspaper everyday during the semester were more likely to perform this habit during exams – even when they were limited in time. And regular gym-goers were even more likely to go to the gym when stressed.

"You might expect that, when students were stressed and had little time, they wouldn't read the paper at all, but instead they fell back on their reading habits," Wood says in the news release. "Habits don't require much willpower and thought and deliberation."

Wood continues: "So, the central question for behavior change efforts should be, how can you form healthy, productive habits? What we know about habit formation is that you want to make the behavior easy to perform, so that people repeat it often and it becomes part of their daily routine."

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