Two teenage girls and their mother set the dining tableShare on Pinterest
Experts say parents can have children get involved in meal planning to help develop healthy dietary habits. Ivan Gener/Stocksy
  • Two new studies are stressing the important role parents have on their children’s eating habits.
  • One 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 around the house.
  • They add that food should never be used as a reward or a punishment.

Two recent studies on teen eating habits stress the importance of parents setting good examples and boundaries 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-driven emotions – is associated with an unhealthy diet and weight gain.

The researchers say eating to deal 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 was previously found to be more learned than inherited,” said Joanna Klosowska, a study lead author and a doctoral researcher in the Department of Public Health and Primary Care at Ghent University in Belgium. “This study examined not only 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 for celebration or withholding as punishment – parents should never do this – or as a reward when we ought to develop better coping mechanisms for the challenging times, and non-food celebration/rewards for the good times,” Dana Ellis Hunnes, PhD, a senior clinical dietitian at UCLA Medical Center, told Healthline.

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

“Emotional regulation is another good behavior to model,” Hunnes added. “Teaching our children it’s OK to feel sad or angry or upset and to talk about your emotions or go for a walk around the block rather than burying them in food is a good coping strategy.”

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

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

Ultra-processed foods – such as bread, cereals, desserts, sodas, and processed meats – comprise more than 60 percent of daily calories in the United States and are linked to hypertension, weight gain, increased risk of heart disease, and premature death.

“Ultra-processed foods are designed to be hyper-palatable, or engineered to be as addictive as possible,” said Maria Balhara, the study’s lead researcher and a student at Broward College in Florida. “They’re also cheap and convenient, which makes them hard to resist. Most people are eating too many of these foods without realizing it.”

Balhara recorded how frequently adolescents consumed ultra-processed food products during an 8-week period. The foods included prepackaged cookies, candy, chips, chocolate, energy drinks, frozen desserts, soda, store-bought pastries, store-bought smoothies, syrup-sweetened coffee or tea, white bread, and processed meat.

Study participants included 315 teens, ages 13 to 19 who were recruited from 12 high schools in South Florida between February and April 2022. The average body mass index among participants was 22.8 (indicating normal body weight).

Candy, prepackaged pastries, and frozen desserts were found to act as a possible “gateway” to drive increased (or decreased) consumption of other processed food products. Researchers said teenagers who changed their consumption of these gateway foods were more likely to change their consumption of all other ultra-processed foods.

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

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

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

Dr. Gina Posner, a pediatrician 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 so themselves.

“But that isn’t always easy,” Posner said. “Honestly, the most important thing is to try together to change eating habits. Not having the junk foods or processed foods in the house to eliminate temptation is important. Having easy-to-grab healthy foods is also important. Really working on themselves and what they say is important as well.”

“If you are a stress eater, don’t verbalize that you are eating because you are stressed so your child thinks that is what you do when you are stressed,” she said.

Marisa Silver, a registered dietician and founder of Vivrant Nutrition, told Healthline highlighting the right foods early is key.

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

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

Silver said parents can’t always control what kids eat once they become teens and trying to make them only backfires.

“Focus more on what options you offer to your teens in your household,” she said. “Have fresh food available for them to snack on. At family meals, consistently offer options you know your kids will like, plus the addition of a new healthy option. Even if you know your kids won’t eat the new option, consistent exposure over time may lead to them trying it and enjoying it.”

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

“Increasingly these days, there is less time to eat and your teenager may be more likely to select foods with lower nutritional value, especially when it comes to accessibility and availability,” Lees said. “There is no one best way to eat, but when it comes to ensuring your children are getting proper nutrition, encourage a variety of foods groups throughout the day from whole grains, fruits, vegetables, high-quality protein sources, omega-3 rich fats, and dairy.

Lees said it’s important to stress to teens the effect of nutrition on their brains.

“The brain consumes 20 percent of one’s daily energy intake,” Lees said. “So if your teenager is not meeting their total energy needs or missing nutrients that play a key role in brain function, that will have a direct impact on cognition, emotional processing, mood management, and more.”

“How your teen nourishes their body now could benefit or worsen their mental and physical health into adulthood,” she added. “Remember that if your child is making food choices that nourish their body, they are also making choices that will support mental well-being.”