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Experts say parents can involve kids in meal planning to help them develop healthy eating habits. Ivan Gener/Stocksy
  • Two new studies underline the important role of parents on the eating habits of their children.
  • A study reports that emotional eating can lead to unhealthy diets and weight gain.
  • Another study reports that ultra-processed foods can be a “gateway” to unhealthy eating habits.
  • Experts say parents can help their children develop healthy eating habits by eating healthy foods themselves and not having unhealthy foods at home.
  • They add that food should never be used as a reward or punishment.

Two recent studies on adolescent eating habits underscore the importance of parents setting a good example and setting limits when it comes to what their children eat.

The first study reports that emotional eating—eating as a coping mechanism for negative, positive, or stress-related emotions—is associated with poor diet and weight gain.

Researchers say eating to cope with stress is something we learn from our parents. They add that various feeding practices used by parents, such as restricting food or using it as a reward, also influence eating behavior.

“Emotional eating used to be more learned than inherited,” says Joanna Klosowska, lead author of the study and a doctoral researcher in the Department of Public Health and Primary Care at the University of Ghent in Belgium. “This study looked not only at the interaction between parents when feeding their children, but also what children learned from watching their parents eat.”

The study was conducted in 2017 with 218 families and also used longitudinal data collected in 2013.

“We rely too heavily on food to celebrate or hold back as punishment – parents should never do this – or as reward when we need to develop better coping mechanisms for the hard times, and non-food celebrations/rewards for the good times”, Dana Ellis Hunnes, PhD, senior clinical dietitian at UCLA Medical Center, told Healthline.

“However, in many cultures, food is used to celebrate, Hunnes noted. “On an individual level, it’s best to reward with emotional statements (like), ‘I’m so proud of your efforts, do you want a hug? ‘ Or another fun activity your child enjoys – maybe throwing a ball or playing a game, rather than saying “You’re so smart, you got an A, you want a cookie?”

“Emotion regulation is another good behavior to model,” Hunnes added. “Teaching our children that it’s okay to feel sad, angry, or upset and to talk about your feelings or walk around the neighborhood rather than burying them in food is a good coping strategy. ‘adaptation.”

The second study reports that ultra-processed foods — such as candy, pastries and frozen desserts — could be “gateway foods” for teens, leading them to eat more unhealthy foods as adults.

The research, which is being presented this week at the American Heart Association’s 2022 Hypertension Scientific Sessions, suggests that reducing intake of key foods may impact overall blood intake. ultra-processed foods high in sugar, salt, unhealthy trans fats and artificial flavors and colors.

Ultra-processed foods — such as breads, cereals, desserts, sodas, and processed meats — make up more than 60% of daily calories in the United States and are linked to high blood pressure, weight gain, increased risk of heart disease and premature death.

“Ultra-processed foods are either designed to be super-appetizing or designed to be as addictive as possible,” says Marie Balhara, principal investigator of the study and a student at Broward College in Florida. “They are also cheap and convenient, which makes them hard to resist. Most people eat too much of these foods without realizing it.

Balhara recorded how often teenagers consumed ultra-processed food products over an 8-week period. Foods included prepackaged cookies, candies, chips, chocolate, energy drinks, frozen desserts, sodas, store-bought pastries, store-bought smoothies, coffee or tea sweetened with syrup, bread white and processed meat.

Study participants included 315 adolescents ages 13 to 19 recruited from 12 South Florida high schools between February and April 2022. Participants’ mean body mass index was 22.8 (indicating normal body weight ).

Candy, pre-packaged pastries, and frozen desserts have been found to act as a possible “gateway” to drive an increase (or decrease) in the consumption of other processed food products. The researchers said teens who changed their intake of these gateway foods were more likely to change their intake of all other ultra-processed foods.

The analysis found that increased consumption of frozen desserts was associated with an 11% increase in consumption of all other ultra-processed foods.

Increased consumption of pastries was associated with a 12% increase in consumption of all other ultra-processed foods.

Increased candy consumption was associated with a 31% increase in consumption of all other ultra-processed foods.

Dr. Gina Posnerpediatrician at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in California, told Healthline the best thing parents can do to get kids to eat healthy is to do it themselves.

“But it’s not always easy,” Posner said. “Honestly, the most important thing is to try together to change eating habits. It is important not to have junk food or processed foods in the house to eliminate temptation. Having healthy foods that are easy to grasp is also important. Really working on themselves and what they say is also important.

“If you’re a stress eater, don’t verbalize that you’re eating because you’re stressed so your child will think that’s what you do when you’re stressed,” she said.

Marisa Silverdietitian and founder of Vivant Nutrition, told Healthline that highlighting the right foods early on is key.

“There is research to support the importance of healthy eating habits starting in the womb,” Silver said. “Studies show that what a mother eats during pregnancy can shape a child’s food preferences later in life. Another one study recently found that introducing solids with vegetables only during the first four weeks of consumption increased acceptance of vegetables thereafter.

“While it’s important to start early, it’s also essential to remember that it’s never too late to start building healthier habits,” she added.

Silver said parents can’t always control what children eat once they become teenagers and try to turn them against them.

“Focus more on the options you’re giving your teens in your home,” she said. “Have fresh food available for them to snack on. At family meals, always offer options that your children will like, in addition to adding a new healthy option. Even though you know your kids won’t eat the new option, consistent exposure over time can lead them to try it and like it.

Liz Lee, an eating disorder dietitian for Embark at Doorways Counseling Center, told Healthline that parents should avoid downplaying the problem and consider family activities such as gardening. They should also discuss meal planning and cooking more home-cooked meals.

“Nowadays there’s less and less time to eat, and your teen may be more likely to choose foods that are low in nutritional value, especially when it comes to accessibility and availability,” Lees said. “There’s no one best way to eat, but when it comes to making sure your kids get proper nutrition, encourage a variety of food groups throughout the day from grains whole, fruits, vegetables, high-quality protein sources, rich in omega-3 fats and dairy products.

Lees said it’s important to point out to teens the effect nutrition has on their brains.

“The brain consumes 20 percent of daily energy intake,” Lees said. “So if your teen is not meeting their total energy needs or lacking in nutrients that play a key role in brain function, it will have a direct impact on cognition, emotional processing, mood management, etc. “

“The way your teen nourishes their body now could benefit or worsen their mental and physical health as an adult,” she added. “Remember that while your child is making food choices that nourish their body, they are also making choices that will support their mental well-being.”