The key to willpower is teaching it young

How to curb mindless eating ...
How to curb mindless eating ... Photo: Getty Images

Everyone is guilty of mindless snacking. At the movies, you munch on popcorn. After dinner, out comes the ice cream. But how much of your behaviour is passed onto your kids and what can you do to strengthen their willpower muscle?

The University of California’s School of Medicine recently conducted a six-month study with children between the ages of 8-12 with the aim to ‘train the brains of overweight and obese children to reduce the desire to eat when they’re not actually hungry.’ Participants were given a favourite food (in the unhealthy/’junk food’ category) and were asked to rate their current craving level from a 1-5.

Children were then asked to put the item down, wait 30 seconds and then rate their craving again. Following that, they were instructed to sniff the item, take a small bite and stare at it for 5 minutes. Lastly, they were instructed to throw the item away.  Cravings were recorded after each activity.   

Head of the study and professor of psychology and pediatrics at the school; Kerri Boutelle found that children were capable of being taught to subdue their food cravings (however her findings also stated that further testing was needed to ascertain how long they were able to sustain their willpower after the experiment concluded).

“We are teaching kids to tolerate their cravings and not eat when they’re not physically hungry,” she says of the study. Her research focused on training the brains of young children with an inability to resist temptation when wired to respond emotionally to food cues, however this is a practice that can be adopted by all parents at home.

“We all too often ignore reasons why we eat,” says nutritionist Dr Joanna McMillan, “This study is important for showing that people have different desires to eat and are affected by food cues at varying degrees. This starts at a young age”. 

The question is, are you teaching your children to distinguish between eating for hunger, or simply as an emotional food craving? “Watch any child eating popcorn or chips in front of the TV. Are they really enjoying them or monitoring how much they are eating? Almost always, they are on autopilot until the pack or bowl is finished,” Joanna continues. “Kids learn very early that food can cheer them up, at least in the short term.”

Food psychologist Denise Greenaway agrees that the comfort foods you choose to eat as an adult register with children. “They’re usually high in sugar or fat. No surprise then that later in life, emotional eating is associated with sugary, fatty ‘treats’,” she explains. “The responsibility for food choices lies with parents for the first four years of a child’s life, when adult eating behaviors are laid down.”

Teach your children that it is okay to be a little hungry and wait for the next meal. “Children need to learn to wait between meals, rather than just snacking the minute they feel like it,” says Joanna. “Keep food and mealtimes as pleasurable times of the day. Sit down and enjoy the time so that nutritious food is seen as a priority in life. Encourage your kids to taste the food, enjoy it and eat slowly at the table. And eat with them as often as possible ... they learn by example.”