why we eat

Understand Why We Eat

Why do we eat?
It might seem obvious why we eat. You might think: “We eat because we need to eat”, or “To stay alive”. But actually there are lots of different reasons why we eat. We also eat differently in different places, at different times, and with different people.
Sometimes we eat for reasons that don’t have anything to do with hunger or a need for food. Our reasons for eating can vary a lot depending on: how we feel, outside influences, what other people around us are doing, taste and our attempts to meet a whole lot of different needs.
Some of our reasons for eating have nothing to do with food or hunger. When we are aware why we are eating, and the needs we’re meeting with food, we can then choose whether we want to meet that need with food or with something else.

Our choices start to open up
There might be lots of other ways to meet that same need, and some of them won’t involve food at all. They may even meet that need better than food does. Now take a look at your own reasons for eating, and the kind of eating habits that go along with them.

Influences on the way children eat within the home:

Food as a reward
Giving positive rewards for desired behaviour can be a useful parenting tool. Rewards can be either tangible (e.g. toys, money), activity (e.g. trip to video arcade, choosing the next family meal), or social (e.g. praise, hugs).
When we give food as a reward, especially ‘occasional’ or ‘treat’ foods, it can help children in getting them to co-operate, but it can also lead to long-term eating problems. ‘Treat’ foods become associated with good feelings (parental approval and achievement), and so kids learn to make themselves feel better when they’re down by comfort eating, rather than by solving problems. This can lead to poor eating habits in the long-term, and even eating disorders (e.g. anorexia or bulimia). It teaches kids how to get treats out of their parents, and not much about becoming responsible adults.
So try to use other strategies for influencing your kids. When you do use rewards, try to choose non-food rewards (e.g. activity, social). Primary school aged kids actually tend to prefer praise and affection over food and toys as rewards anyway. If we change these patterns with our children while they are young, we can influence their life-long eating habits. This can help to prevent chronic diseases in adulthood like obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular problems, as well as eating disorders.

Reward vs bribery?
When is giving rewards just a fancy form of bribery? If the reward, and the behaviour needed to earn that reward, are agreed in advance, are given consistently, and are earned by doing what was agreed, then it’s a reward.
If treats are given in response to unwanted behaviour (e.g. tantrum in shopping centre), to stop that behaviour, then it’s a bribe.
Bribery really just teaches how to get treats out of parents, and encourages unwanted behaviour, not the desired behaviour.

Modelling from parents
Children are more influenced by what they see than what you say. What they see you do has more impact on their eating habits than the rules you make for them, or the instructions you give. It can be a problem if what you say and what you do seem to send conflicting messages. For instance, some so-called “fussy” eaters won’t eat vegetables despite a clear rule in the house that they must. At the same time, one of their parents may clearly not like vegetables, makes negative comments about them, and will serve themselves as few vegetables as possible. If you want to influence your kids to eat more vegetables, one of the best things you can do is learn to love them yourself.

As adults we make a lot of decisions for our children. Sometimes kids can wind up feeling like food is the only area of their life where they have control. It’s important not to get into a battle with your kids over food (unless it’s a medical emergency), partly because it can have the opposite effect than the one you might want.

Watching TV
Eating in front of the TV is associated with the worst eating habits in children. Kids who eat in front of the TV have been shown to eat more food, and have more fat in their diet. It seems to distract kids from feeling their normal body cues about when they are full and should stop eating. High use of TV (4 hours a day or more) has also been associated with sleep problems, behaviour problems (e.g. aggression), fearfulness, obesity, language delays, and possible attention problems or ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder).

Influences on the way children eat outside the home:

Peer influences
Peers have a huge influence over how children eat. As they move towards the teenage years, children increasingly want to do what their peers are doing, and they want to avoid being teased. This can have a huge impact on their eating habits, and can actually strongly predict disordered eating. It’s important to try to understand what influences your children are exposed to.

Media influences
While people of all ages can be influenced by the media, children are being directly targeted by advertising (particularly food and drink commercials) more than others. As they are more vulnerable to these influences because they don’t yet have the experience or ‘critical thinking’ needed to make good decisions about the information they are getting, especially at the younger ages. Being aware of what messages your children are exposed to can help to keep this consistent with the messages you are giving, and allow you to discuss with them those which are not.
Given that even small changes now will have a cumulative effect across a child’s lifespan, making changes in these areas, like reducing the amount of TV our kids watch at peak exercise times (e.g. early evening) and meal times, teaching them how to make good decisions about food, and improving their diet, can be very important contributors to their life-long eating patterns. This may help reduce their chances of chronic diseases such as obesity, Type 2 diabetes and heart disease later in life.

Some things to consider include:
• enjoying family dinners at the table without the TV on in the background
• trying to model the behaviours you want your kids to adopt by making sure what you say is consistent with what you do
• using praise and affection to reward your kids when they show behaviours you want to encourage (e.g. eating veggies, trying a new food), rather than giving an occasional food treat
• trying to change a food habit of your own by being aware of why you’re eating and meeting that need another way, and
• eating breakfast, if you don’t already.