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When you hear the word “Christmas”, what are the first five words that instantly pop into your head? This was the question asked in a new study that led researchers to suggest that differences in food parenting styles for special occasions, may be a key driver of childhood obesity.
The Christmassy study in question asked if there any notable differences between overweight, obese and normal weight children in how they associate special events and festivities with food.
A sample of 111 children (10-13 year old) were weight categorized based on their body mass index as underweight, healthy weight, overweight or obese, and were asked play a word game.
Specifically, they had to try and not think too long about their answers, and spontaneously write down the first five things that came to their mind when prompted with 5=five special events, Christmas, holidays, birthday party, a carnival and the weekend.
Word association games have been used extensively in substance abuse research and have been shown to be reliable measures of alcohol intake, which addiction researchers such as the University of Amsterdam’s Professor of developmental psychopathology, Reinout Wiers, think:
“offer a glimpse at concept activation processes relevant to behaviour choices”
However, the researchers in the special events study were surprised with the results of their word association game. They had expected to find that a greater number of word associations between festive events and food would be predictive of a child being of greater weight as previous research would suggest.
Yet the exact opposite was true. A modest, but significant negative correlation was discovered between the childrens’ BMI and number of food-related associations they made with with special events. In other words, they observed that the higher a child’s BMI percentile category, the fewer food-related associations with festivities and special events were listed.
Although not tested in the study, the researchers looked to other published research to help suggest an evidence-based reason as to why leaner children reported more food-related associations with the five special events:
“A possible, but speculative explanation is that in leaner children specific foods are more exclusively tied to special occasions than in overweight children. For example, if lean children are permitted to eat ice cream at particular moments only (e.g., at Saturday evenings but never on normal weekdays), their association between weekend and ice cream is most likely stronger than for children who are allowed ice cream at multiple occasions.”
In contrast, this would mean that the food parenting style more generally used in overweight and obese children is more liberal when it comes to treats and snacks being exclusive to “special” and distinctive occasions, and so food is much more loosely related to special occasions.
Indeed, some evidence exists that parents that apply a consistently controlling food parenting style, where certain foods are forbidden or not purchased, are more successful in restricting their children’s caloric intake on a day to day basis.
Recalling a super fit and slim childhood friend with very sweet and treat restrictive parents, it seemed like the first thing she ever thought of at the mention of an special outing or party away from the vigilant eyes of her parents was…CHOCOLATE!
This is a mere personal and subjective observance. However, further research should indicate if having a permissive or restrictive food parenting style is what truly defines the observed differences between children’s weight and associations between food and special events.
If the results of such studies are as expected from aforementioned results, simply informing parents that good food parenting includes reserving unhealthy snacks, sweets and treats for special occasions only, could help keep special foods “special”, and therefore not consumed on a daily basis, thus helping prevent child obesity.
Martijn C, Pasch S, & Roefs A (2016). Sweet Christmas: Do overweight and obese children associate special events more frequently with food than normal weight children? Appetite, 96, 426-31 PMID: 26463017
R.W. Wiers, A.W. Stacy (Eds.), Handbook of implicit cognition and addiction, Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA (2006), pp. 75–90
Musher-Eizenman DR, Marx JM, & Taylor MB (2015). It’s always snack time: an investigation of event scripts in young children. Appetite, 85, 66-9 PMID: 25447019
Stacy AW, & Wiers RW (2010). Implicit cognition and addiction: a tool for explaining paradoxical behavior. Annual review of clinical psychology, 6, 551-75 PMID: 20192786
Larsen JK, Hermans RC, Sleddens EF, Engels RC, Fisher JO, & Kremers SP (2015). How parental dietary behavior and food parenting practices affect children’s dietary behavior. Interacting sources of influence? Appetite, 89, 246-57 PMID: 25681294
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