Rewards and Punishment: Breaking the Cycle of Unhealthy Eating Habits

This confusion can undo any skills that parent present to their children when it comes to healthy eating. Healthy eating skills will change into overeating and unable to regulate their eating, leading to childhood obesity that can potentially follow them into adulthood.

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Growing up in a lower-class household, I quickly realized how much food plays a part in many American families. I did not grow up being extremely privileged, nor did I grow up impoverished. There were times when I had to eat what I did not want because my mother could not afford anything else. My mother did a fantastic job making sure that my younger brother and I had everything that we needed, and growing up, I did not notice that we lived on the edge of being poor to the working poor. As I got older, I concluded from childhood memories that I am very grateful for my childhood because my relationship with food has always been a good one. Besides being a picky eater, I did not form any bad habits, which has led me to any significant health issues regarding food.

Now that I am a nutrition coach and personal trainer, I have observed some habits formed through someone’s childhood and how it affects them to the point where their relationship with food is unhealthy. It has now led me to wonder if we are unknowingly affecting our future generations by demonstrating the types of relationships we have with food ourselves. I recently came across a post on Facebook about how unhealthy relationships with food start with our parents and teachers and how food can be a reward and punishment tool. The post explained a couple of excellent points of how food is not viewed as a usual nourishment tool but as a reward and punishment system for children and how we can turn that curve to help promote healthy relationships with food in the future. I want to reiterate that I am writing this from my personal experience and observations to promote healthy eating practices from an early age.

It is not uncommon for parents to use food as a special “offer” to their children. As a child, if I brought home a good grade from school, I was given money to go to the store and purchase candy. Alternatively, a parent can withhold food from the child as a punishment for not doing chores or bringing home a “bad” grade. These practices start to build confusion between the child and food. The child begins to question whether food is viewed as fuel or deemed good or bad by their parents. This confusion can undo any skills that parent present to their children when it comes to healthy eating. Healthy eating skills will change into overeating and unable to regulate their eating, leading to childhood obesity that can potentially follow them into adulthood. Skills learned during childhood are hard to break if it is continued for years.

Whether you have children or not, being a mirror for children reminds us that children display habits that we present to them. So what can we do to help show better behavior to break the cycle of unhealthy eating skills? Instead of using food as a reward and punishment system, parents should create a plan with tangible things or a trip somewhere. Some options are taking them on a playdate with their best friend or taking them to the zoo. For those of us who are not parents but still have an influence on children and their eating skills, we can do our part with a few simple changes. If a child is not hungry, do not force them to eat. Serve a variety of kid-friendly foods that are packed in nutrients. Utilizing portion control is a great practice that will follow them for the rest of their lives.

Most importantly, eating meals together should be something to remember. Food plays a significant role in every American household, and that’s where the relationship between food starts. My earliest and happiest memories have been around the dining room table. Let’s give our children the same chance to experience the same.

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