According to the English NHS, one in three children leaving primary school will be obese or overweight. In the United States, the CDC reports that childhood obesity affects 13.7 million children, meaning almost 20% of the population between 2-19.
Psychologist Emma Haycraft at the world-renowned center for sports science at Loughborough University, England, has just had a paper published in the journal Appetite, regarding how the mental health of mothers can have negative impacts on the eating habits of their children.
“Stress and anxiety are very real for parents and despite having good intentions the pressure to encourage a child to eat a healthy balanced diet every day can be overwhelming,” says Haycraft.
“If you’re stressed or anxious, you might be more likely to give in to a child’s demands for unhealthy food. Alternatively, you might find feeding to be challenging and feel the need to withdraw from the situation”.
415 UK women whose age averaged out to 32 were asked to fill out a questionnaire regarding their levels of mental stress and anxiety and the degree to which they relied on or used several different feeding tactics. This included things like eating the same healthy food as the child to reassure them, or using food as a way to encourage good behavior.
Haycraft described these as controlling, or responsive feeding practices.
Controlling feeding practices were more self-reported in mothers who also self-reported symptoms of anxiety or depression. These habits might include restricting certain foods for weight control and using food as a reward.
Anxiety and depression were also found to increase the chance that consumption of unhealthy food options went unmonitored.
Responsive and generally preferable feeding practices between mother and child were reported by those who didn’t report the presence of anxiety or depression. This includes modeling behavior such as encouraging balance and variety in food choices, involvement, and teaching about nutrition.
“Helping children to eat well is a goal for many parents and so these findings are important as they suggest that some mothers, who are experiencing low mood or anxiety, might find it more difficult to use some of the feeding practices that we know can help to promote healthy eating habits in children,” Dr Haycraft said.
“This evidence provides further information to inform the development of tailored family-based interventions and is likely to be beneficial for professionals, researchers, policymakers and practitioners working with families to identify areas to target in efforts to improve caregiver-child interactions around food and eating and to support childhood obesity prevention efforts”.