Parents be warned - rewarding your little ones with food may lead to them becoming emotional eaters.
According to UK researchers, parents who use very controlling feeding practices, such as using food for treats or rewards, could be unintentionally teaching their children to turn to food when they are trying to deal with their emotions.
They looked at different feeding practices used by parents with children aged three-to-five years old. The children were then followed up when they were aged between five and seven to see if these early practices had led to the development of emotional eating.
The researchers did this by looking at how likely the children were to eat snack foods or play with toys when they were not hungry, but were mildly stressed.
The study found that children aged between five and seven were much more likely to ‘emotionally eat' if their parents had used food as a reward, or they were very controlling with food when the children were younger.
"As a parent, there is often a natural instinct to try and protect our young children from eating ‘bad' foods - those high in fat, sugar or salt. Instead we often use these food types as a treat or a reward, or even as a response to ease pain if children are upset.
"The evidence from our initial research shows that in doing this, we may be teaching children to use these foods to cope with their different emotions, and in turn unintentionally teaching them to emotionally eat later in life," explained Dr Claire Farrow of Aston University.
She pointed out that as obesity is such a worrying public health problem, understanding why some people turn to certain foods at certain times of anxiety or stress could encourage better eating practices.
"Eating patterns can usually be tracked across life, so those who learn to use food as a tool to deal with emotional distress early are much more likely to follow a similar pattern of eating later on in adult life," Dr Farrow said.
She noted that often when people ‘emotionally eat', they are consuming high calorie, high fat, energy dense foods that will not benefit their health.
"Learning more about how we can teach children to manage their food intake in a healthy way can help us to develop best practice advice and guidelines for families and those involved in feeding children.
"We know that in adults emotional eating is linked to eating disorders and obesity, so if we can learn more about the development of emotional eating in childhood, we can hopefully develop resources and advice to help prevent this," she added.