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Feeding teens: everything in moderation.

Adolescence is a time for increasing autonomy, and this involves teenagers making more decisions about what they will or won't eat. Parents and primary caregivers (henceforth referred to as parents) have an important role in feeding children throughout childhood and adolescence. They are often keen to ensure that their child eats a healthy, balanced diet, but their child may well have other ideas!

Being faced with a child who refuses to eat vegetables or fruit, but who will happily eat chips, cookies and other "junk" foods, can be worrying for parents. Similarly, having a child who is concerned about his weight and tries to limit her intake of foods can also be concerning. Parents may then feel a need to pressure or force their child to eat food, believing that this is in their child's best interests. However, pressuring a child to eat a food, or to eat more than he wishes, can have unintended consequences.

Research has shown that foods that individuals are pressured to eat become less desirable, and so, if pressured, children are even less likely to want to eat their broccoli or mac and cheese.

There is also evidence from a number of studies that if parents repeatedly pressure their child to eat more than he wants to (e.g., at every mealtime) this can "teach" the child to ignore their internal cues about fullness and hunger and eat more than he wants to--a behaviour that will contribute to childhood overweight and obesity. Conversely, pressuring a child to eat has also been linked to the onset of disordered eating attitudes and behaviours, with some teens engaging in unhealthy eating behaviours (e.g., dieting, bingeing, purging), often in an effort to regain some control over their eating habits.

Another behaviour that parents might use is to limit or restrict their child's intake of unhealthy foods, in an attempt to get their child to eat a healthier diet. This "restriction" can also have unintended consequences. If foods are visible or accessible to the child but he is told that he cannot have them (overt restriction), this can make the foods even more appealing. So, for example, if you have cookies in the house but tell your child that he isn't allowed any, this is likely to make your child desire the cookies even more.

Research has shown that when a child has free access to those foods, such as when walking past a shop or fast food outlet on the way home from school, they're likely to eat lots more of these foods, which can contribute to being overweight. Alternatively, restricting certain foods may teach teens that they need to limit their intake of some foods, and they may subsequently restrict their intake of these--and similar foods--themselves, by engaging in dietary restraint in an effort to be healthy. However, restrained eating (dietary restraint) can be a risk factor for the onset of eating disorders.

We know from other research that eating meals as a family protects against the development of disordered eating in teens and family meals have been linked to better psychological health in teenagers. Eating family meals means that parents maintain a degree of responsibility for feeding their children, rather than leaving them to fend for themselves, which might make skipping meals or eating junk food much easier--both of which are unhealthy eating behaviours. It also provides an opportunity for family discussions and an arena for raising any concerns or worries.

Research has established links between parents' reported use of over-controlling feeding practices and their children's eating behaviours, but until now no research had examined children's perceptions of their parents' feeding behaviours, which may of course differ from parents' perceptions, and how this links to their eating.

We recently conducted a study to examine adolescents' perceptions of their parents' feeding practices and behaviours, and looked at how these might link to the adolescents' reports of disordered eating behaviours (e.g., dieting, bingeing, feeling dissatisfied with their body). Over 500 girls and boys aged 13-15 from the U.K. completed questionnaires during a lesson at school and we analysed their responses.

What we found was that girls who reported greater perceived pressure from parents to eat food also reported having more unhealthy eating-related attitudes. This suggests that girls who felt their parents strongly encouraged or forced them to eat food were also engaging in disordered eating behaviours.

For boys, we found that those who perceived that their parents restricted their intake of foods also reported more disordered eating behaviours. This indicates that boys who felt their parents limited their intake of certain foods reported more problematic eating behaviours.

For both girls and boys in the study, feeling that their parents weren't responsible for provision of food was linked to more unhealthy eating-related behaviours. This highlights that when parents are not as involved in their teens' mealtimes or food choices as they, this can be linked to the teens engaging in more problematic eating behaviours.

Taken together, these findings suggest that unhealthy eating behaviours in adolescents are related to adolescents' perceptions of both their parents' use of more controlling feeding practices and also to parental lack of responsibility for food/mealtimes. it appears that moderate levels of parental control over eating may be important during adolescence for promoting healthy relationships with food.

These findings are important as they highlight the links between adolescents' perceptions of their parents' food- and mealtime-related behaviours with their own levels of unhealthy eating behaviours and attitudes. They suggest that greater perceptions of parental over-control, and a lack of involvement in/responsibility for mealtimes, are associated with higher levels of disordered eating in these adolescents. Based on these findings, parents of teenagers would benefit from not pressuring their children to eat, not overtly restricting their intake of food, and continuing to be responsible for meals during the teenage years.

By Emma Haycraft, PhD

Emma Haycraft is a senior lecturer in psychology at Loughborough University, U.K. She conducts research into feeding practices and eating behaviours. She is a co-creator of the Child Feeding Guide, a website and free mobile app that offers evidence-based advice and information to parents about feeding children:
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Author:Haycraft, Emma
Publication:Pediatrics for Parents
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2013
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