Diet is a 4-Letter Word

The psychology of eating

Are You Gonna Eat That?

Messages about Food Consumption & Food Choices from Parents, Siblings, & Peers

When Dylan walked into my office, I honestly wondered what he was doing there. I specialize in helping people who struggle with weight and body image issues. Dylan didn’t seem to fit into either of those categories. Yet, here he was - 6’4”, 230 pounds, with a fairly large, muscular build. Clearly he didn’t need to lose weight. But he thought he did – at least 30 pounds to be exact. And then he told me about the dietician his parents had hired when he was 8 years old and it all started to make sense.

Unfortunately, Dylan isn’t the only person who’s walked into my office with stories of family … issues, for lack of a better word. There was Brandy who dieted with her mother throughout her adolescence and who still periodically calls her mother for dieting advice. Lindsey, who didn’t want to be the “girl who let herself go” like her sister had. Karla, whose mother called her grandparents, with whom Karla was living, with instructions on what to feed her every day (Note: Karla was not a child). Tasha, who refused to visit her parents because she didn’t want them to see that she had gained weight. Kyle, who despite the fact that he sought me out, was afraid that I was judging him because his mother had an eating disorder, a fact I wasn’t even aware of until he blurted it out. Last but not least, Catherine, a concerned mother of a two-year-old who wanted to make sure she was feeding her daughter Kylie the “right” things so Kylie wouldn’t become overweight like Catherine’s mother had.

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Okay, confession time: I do not have children. So I cannot say what I would have done in any of the situations my clients and students have described. However, research suggests that: 1) you should never make a big deal about your child’s weight, and 2) trying to control your children’s eating habits will only backfire. Many parents don’t know these things, however, and so their children walk into my office as adults with some pretty interesting beliefs about food.

So let’s take a journey back in time to your childhood. There are three main factors from your childhood that affect your current eating habits:

  • The eating habits of your parents, siblings, and peers
  • Your parents’ perceptions of their own weight as well as their perceptions of your weight
  • How much autonomy you were given as a child to make your own food choices

This week we’ll cover the first topic. In the coming weeks, we’ll address the last two.

How many times did your parents tell you to eat your vegetables? If you’re like me, it was every day at every meal (well, except for breakfast). Of course the irony is that my Dad was a meat and potatoes kind of guy (translation: he’d only eat potatoes in the form of French fries or butter-laden mashed potatoes with gravy). Salads? Only if they were smothered in Thousand Island dressing and preferably not at all. He professed that he was allergic to tomatoes, although, interestingly, they were fine in spaghetti sauce with lots of cheese and meat or in the form of meatloaf. Do you see where I’m going with this? Guess who never ate vegetables as a child? That would be me. Ironic, since I am now a vegan.

Here’s what we know: eating habits are formed in childhood and our family is our earliest influence. Parents and siblings play an incredibly powerful role in children's eating habits – and it’s not just genetics we’re talking about here. If you want your children to eat healthy foods, you have to model that behavior. It’s not enough to have the fruit out on the counter; your kids need to see you eating that fruit – preferably several times a day. Parental modeling of healthy habits is the best way to ensure that your children eat healthily, even when you’re not there. Translation: The same is true of unhealthy eating habits, especially emotional eating. If you stuff for face with cookies every time you’re sad, guess who’s going to copy that behavior?

Then we go to school. As we get older, our family still matters, but we have new people in our lives to model our eating habits after – namely, our peers. I remember the day I had my first Snickers bar. I was in 7th grade and had never even heard of Snickers. My friends were shocked as that was their favorite snack. So what did I do? I marched over to the vending machine and bought myself a Snickers bar. I thought I had found heaven. Some brilliant soul discovered that if you mix peanuts, chocolate, and caramel together, it tastes very good – and it was even marketed as healthy (more on marketing later). Anyway, I and my friends were hooked. It was candy and it was good for you. Snickers bars became a favorite snack – all thanks to my friends.

Did you parents ever ask you that inane old question, “If your friends jumped off a bridge, would you?” Of course we wouldn’t, but in many ways, we adopt the habits of our friends – especially our eating habits. Simply stated, children eat what their friends eat. As a result, obese youth tend to be friends with other obese youth and they tend to eat more when they are together. Similarly, lean youth tend to befriend lean youth and they eat less when they are together. Why? Because we want to be liked by our peers and, to some extent, we think they will like us more if we model their behavior – especially when we are unsure of where we stand with them. So, would we jump off a bridge? No, but if we thought it would make us more popular, we just might try a Snickers bar.

Next week: Do What I Say, Not What I Do

Mary E. Pritchard, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Psychology at Boise State University.

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