The way children are educated influences the risk of childhood obesity

The way children are educated influences the risk of childhood obesity

by | Mar 2, 2023

By Julio Basulto

Translated article retrieved from

Being too permissive or too authoritarian with children increases their risk of obesity.

Food is, without a doubt, a key factor for children’s health. But so is the way parents or caregivers approach mealtime. Numerous experts have evaluated the influence of various parenting styles in relation to child eating behaviors. Their research shows that parents should be sensitive to their children’s needs and respect their internal signals of hunger and satiety, without forgetting that the presence of unhealthy foods in the home should be scarce. Likewise, the parental role modeling can shape children’s diets as much or more than any other strategy. The following report analyzes three parenting styles and their influence on diet and childhood obesity. It also explains what the proper approach is.

Three parenting styles and their repercussions on the child eating behaviors

In September 2011, renowned doctors Jamie S. Stang and Katie Loth, from the University of Minnesota, defined parenting style as “the set of attributes, attitudes and ways of interacting with children by their parents or caregivers”, and studied its influence on children’s diet and childhood obesity. To do this, they divided parenting styles into three groups: authoritative, authoritarian, or permissive (indulgent or negligent). Here is a brief summary of the possible implications that each parenting style can have on the child’s emotional health, especially in relation with the dietary-nutritional aspects.

1. Authoritative parents, more effective prevention of obesity

The Royal Spanish Academy (RAE) defines “authoritative” as “that includes or implies authority”. It is necessary to differentiate this word from “authoritarian”, which refers to someone who is “an extreme supporter of the principle of authority.” Authoritative parents have control over their children, with kindness, support, and “responsiveness.” Responsiveness – a term not collected by the RAE, but widely used in psychology – refers to parents who respond regularly to their children’s demands. It is an attitude based on caring, acceptance and support. Responsive parents reason their actions and communicate with their children cordially.

Authoritative parenting, although it places high expectations on the child, establishes its guidelines in a respectful way. These expectations are concrete, especially in relation to the child’s behavior, and the rules at home are usually enforced through strategies such as the loss of privileges. It is associated, according to research published in 1996, 2002 and 2008, with greater independence and self-control on the part of the child.

In relation to dietary intake, it is considered that authoritative parents follow well-defined criteria, although adapted to the child’s age, and are sensitive to the child’s needs and behaviors, as well as to their internal signs of hunger or satiety. This approach is, for the Committee on Nutrition of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the most recommended.

As expected, it has been observed that authoritative parents try to find a balance between their idea of a healthy diet for the child and the child’s food preferences, focusing on creating agreements. This parenting style lowers the risk of childhood and youth obesity and is associated with increased consumption of healthy foods. A study recently published in Acta Paediatrica (2013) has confirmed that the attachment bonds characteristic of families in which there are authoritative parents can prevent childhood obesity.

2. Authoritarian parents, children at risk of obesity multiplied by five

Authoritarianism, as mentioned before, defines the attitude of those who use their authority excessively. A lot of control is applied and it is done critically, with little affection. Strict discipline is employed and may be insensitive to the child’s emotional needs. There are usually physical or verbal reprimands. The child’s motivation comes from an external control. Authoritarian practices are characterized by attempting to control the child’s food through strict restrictions on specific foods, or forcing the child to eat, with little regard for the child’s preferences. Children subjected to this parenting style multiply by five their chances of suffering from obesity. In addition, as they enter adulthood, they follow more unbalanced diets, which will increase their risk of chronic diseases.

O’Connor et al. observed in 2010 that family practices based on external control of fruit and vegetable intake (authoritarianism) were either ineffective or counterproductive. The opposite happened with parents or caregivers who provided structured and undirected control, but were responsive or authoritative.

3. Permissive parents, the risk of childhood obesity doubles

Lastly, permissive parents or caregivers exercise very little control over children. They do not trust the child’s self-control and do not convey clear expectations about her behavior. Their attitude can be both indulgent (inclination to forgive and hide mistakes, or reward) and negligent (careless or indifferent attitude towards the care of the child). According to several authors, children develop low self-regulation.

From a dietary point of view, these parents allow the child to be the one to decide and choose the foods that will be part of their diet. Despite the fact that the American Academy of Pediatrics advises that the child participate in the decision of what, how much and how to eat, it also states it is the adult’s responsibility to previously select the foods that will be consumed at home, and to offer the child a limited selection of choices. Permissiveness, leniency or negligence are not recommended. Children exposed to these parenting styles, in addition to making worse dietary choices, double their risk of obesity.

Child nutrition, the right approach

The American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association), proposed in 2008, in relation to children nutrition aged 2 to 11 years, that parents or caregivers should provide a positive structure, age-appropriate support and food and healthy drinks, while children will decide what and how much to eat of what adults offer. Two years later, the GREP-AEDN came up with the following tips and explanations that can help parents and caregivers to focus on healthy food habits.

Make mealtime enjoyableThe emotional atmosphere at mealtime is very important. These hours should not be used as an opportunity to scold the child. Don’t make your child feel bad about not eating
Lead by exampleParents, family members or caregivers are role models that the child will take as a reference when trying or not trying a new food, or when following a healthy diet
Expose your child to a variety of healthy foods (such as fruits and vegetables)This will increase the chances that she will want to try them. Make healthy foods available without nagging or forcing the child to eat them
Keep tryingPatiently, repeated exposure (without forcing, insisting, or forcing) can break resistance
Avoid restricting access to certain foodsThis increases the child’s preference for them. The key is to avoid them being at home
Do not force the child to eat any foodThis will decrease the child’s preference for that food
Neophobia is completely normalIt should not be taken as something negative, but as something frequent and expected
Avoid using food rich in energy as a reward, or fruits and vegetables as a punishment​It will alter the child’s food preferences

The most advisable thing is, in short, to provide the child with a structured but not “directed” control and to avoid both authoritarianism and permissiveness. Most importantly, the roles of parents and caregivers in influencing the development of healthy eating behaviors are crucial. As children of smoking parents are more prone to smoking, children of parents who eat unbalanced will be more likely to follow unhealthy diets. Some authors go further and suggest that improving romanticism between parents can lead to healthier eating patterns in children. It seems like a good starting point for improving the physical, emotional and even “nutritional” health of the whole family. As poet Gloria Fuertes affirmed, “the best food is that you are always satisfied; a morning ‘I love you’ is worth more than money”.


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