Finding: Sweet treats damage kids

July 25, 2003

Using food treats to reward children's good behaviour or withholding them to punish bad behaviour may encourage eating habits in adulthood that could lead to obesity, new research reports, writes Natasha Gilbert.

Marlene Schwartz and Rebecca Puhl from the department of psychology at Yale University, US, found that adults whose parents had used food to control their childhood behaviour, for example offering sweets to encourage good behaviour, had higher rates of binge eating.

"Food is a powerful tool with which parents can reinforce ideas in children," Dr Schwartz told The THES . "But, parents are not teaching children a healthy lesson when they use food to control their behaviour."

According to the study, which looked at the reports of 122 adults describing their childhood memories of food rules, using food to control behaviour may play a role in establishing children's preferences for unhealthy foods and send them mixed messages about the role food should play in their lives.

The study states: "Parents who reward their children's good behaviour with unhealthy foods teach them that these foods can be earned by being good."

The study warns that these children could grow into adults who feel like bingeing on sweets after "behaving themselves" during a challenging day.

Previous studies have found preliminary evidence to suggest that food rules may impact on children's future eating behaviours. However, unlike the present research, these studies have been unable to distinguish between different types of rules or the relationships between the types of rules and specific eating problems.

Dr Schwartz said that the use of food rules to control childhood behaviour could be a small but possibly significant factor leading to obesity.

She suggested that parents use non-food treats, such as a small toy, to reinforce desired behaviours in children.

These findings are published in the journal Eating Behaviours .

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