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How Does Food Parenting Affect Children’s Snacking Habits?

In a recently published review, researchers examine the relationship between parenting behaviours and childhood snacking.

Childhood overweight and obesity have drastically increased over the past several decades. There are many factors that have likely contributed to this pattern, including activity levels, food availability, parenting practices and others. Research has shown that snacking can be a driver for increased total calories, leading to weight gain.

Previous studies examining the interaction of the factors that influence snacking behaviour have used a wide variety of methods and have yielded inconsistent results. Some studies have defined snacking as any foods consumed between meals, while other studies have defined snacking as the consumption of unhealthy “snack foods” such as chips, candy, cookies, or sugary drinks.

We do know that snacking in between meals can contribute to between a quarter and a third of the total energy consumed by children and therefore warrants thorough research. Although there is an abundance of studies on parental influence over children’s overall eating behaviour, there are fewer studies on snacking specifically.

Food Parenting

The term ”food parenting” includes both feeding practices—the specific strategies used to feed a child, such as pressuring a child to eat or providing choices, and feeding styles, which are more generalized attitudes and relationships to food. The current literature suggests that parents must strike a delicate balance between setting limits, providing healthy foods and structured eating occasions, and supporting child’s unique food preferences and regulation of appetite.

Food parenting can be divided into four main types:

  1. Coercive Control: Coercive control includes restricting food or rewarding children with food. This type of food parenting is linked to increased energy intake, and lower overall diet quality. Parents of young children often use snack foods as tools to manage children’s behaviour; this is an example of coercive control.
  2. Permissive Practices: Include behaviours such as feeding children to provide comfort, and having few rules or limits on food or snack intake. This type of food parenting is associated with excessive energy intake and elevated body mass index in children.
  3. Structure: Includes having routines and making healthy foods available.
  4. Autonomy Support: Describes behaviours such as role modeling and praise.

Scientists theorize that these food parenting practices will help children to establish healthy eating habits but there is, of yet, limited research.

Evaluating Food Parenting Practices and Child Snacking

A recent review published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity evaluates the extent of research in this area to date, identifies gaps in the literature, and gives guidance for future studies. This systematic review of literature from 1980 to 2017 evaluates the association between food parenting practices and childhood snacking.  This is the first systematic review to assess food parenting practices within the context of child snacking behaviour.

Forty-seven studies were included in the study, which measured snacking or snack related behaviours in children aged 2 to 18 years and also measured general parenting style, feeding style, or parenting choices in the context of child snacking. They included studies that assessed children eating in the absence of hunger. The studies defined snacking behaviour as consuming foods and beverages between meals.  Snack foods were defined as energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods and beverages.

Nearly half of all studies were published in the past 5 years, and 90% of them occurred in one of four western nations: US, Netherlands, Australia, or the UK. The majority of the participants were white college educated female parents who self-reported their parenting styles and their children’s snacking behaviour.

Restrictive Feeding and Unhealthy Foods Associated with Increase in Snacking

The results showed no universal trends based on feeding practices and parenting styles. Restrictive feeding and access to unhealthy foods were the factors most consistently associated with increases in children’s snack intake. There were few studies examining autonomy support, or permissive food parenting behaviours.

Studies have found that food restriction is associated with higher body mass, however, this relationship is likely complicated and bidirectional.  In other words, it is likely that the parents of children with an elevated body mass will attempt to restrict their food intake in an effort to increase their overall health.  Home availability of unhealthy foods was positively associated with snack intake in 10 out of 11 studies. There were not enough studies regarding role modeling to properly assess its impact on childhood snacking.

There were several common limitations in the research to date. There is no universal acceptance of definitions and an overall lack of consensus regarding methodology. Snacks could be defined alternatively as a “food type” or “food timing”. Most studies defined snacking using a definition of snack food that many parents would attribute alternately to “junk food”.  Consequently, few studies examined the difference between or accounted for healthy and unhealthy snacking.

Recommendations for Future Research

The authors of this comprehensive review gave several recommendations for future research:

  1. Investigate parenting specific to child snacking.

In general, the literature presents food parenting practices that are beneficial and detrimental but there in insufficient evidence for snacking specifically. Future research should examine how positive parenting behaviours can be supported and translated into public health interventions.

  1. Increase diversity in caregiver perspectives.

Most studies did not even mention fathers or other male caregivers. This represents a huge gap in the literature as men are taking on an increasing role in parenting. More research is required to examine these relationships in other countries around the world. Additionally, more research is needed in other diverse situations including in lower socioeconomic areas, different ethnicities, rural vs urban areas etc.

  1. Describe child snacking context and purposes.

There is no accepted definition at this time, and many feel that snacking is currently poorly defined. Additionally, it would be worthwhile to evaluate the purpose of providing snacks? How much of a difference does it make if the snack to provide a reward, increase health, or satisfy hunger? Timing may be important as well, and this relationship has been little understood. Additionally, some preliminary studies have indicated the importance of context on the impact of snacking behaviour. For example, are the snacks being offered while grocery shopping, while watching tv, or when the ice cream truck drives by?

  1. More consistent terminology is needed to standardize language and understanding between studies.

The authors propose that “snack foods” be defined as any foods that are consumed between meals.  This could include either nutrient-rich or poor foods. This would include all foods eaten outside of mealtimes and exclude junk food included with meals.

This review is the first of its kind to provide a comprehensive overview of the relationship between food parenting and snacking behaviour. Snacking among children is universal and with the rise of childhood obesity, understanding how parents influence this behaviour is paramount. There are many gaps in the literature that can be addressed with future research.

Written by Lisa Borsellino, B.Sc.

Reference: Blaine, Rachel E., et al. “Food parenting and child snacking: a systematic review.” International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity 14.1 (2017): 146.



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