How parents eat has a massive influence - and Sophie Morris wants it to be a healthy one
I don’t need a neuroscientist to tell me that I can get excited by food just by watching someone else eat it. Reading recipe books and food magazines and scrolling through social media feeds plump with pies is work as well as pleasure for me. I’d struggle to trust anyone not turned on by the sight of a wibbling custard tart.
However, my appreciation for cooking and eating well follows a lifetime of dieting and disordered eating. I’d like my young daughter (inset, with Sophie) to get as excited as I do stirring onions until they melt into their buttery bath, but she can skip the starvation and selfesteem issues that go hand in hand with any attempt to control your body with food.
We know that the influence a parent or primary caregiver has on a child is deep and enduring and I want to be the best role model I can for my daughter. But I also worry that my own fetishisation of food may cause her to overeat or, much worse, reject its pleasures entirely.
Is there anything I can do to avoid this? Plenty, it turns out, but I need to try much harder. I need to show my daughter how to eat well, to “model” it for her, not just think healthy thoughts and hope for this best.
“The impact of parental role modelling is massively influential in the way children behave in terms of their eating,” says the psychologist Fiona Murden. “There are significant correlations between parent and children for reported snack intake, eating motivations and body dissatisfaction.”
Research shows that babies may begin modelling their parents’ behaviour from as early as 41 minutes after birth. This means that it is entirely possible that my daughter, while only a few hours old, witnessed the glee with which I ate the cakes my husband had left the hospital to buy for me with strict instructions on where to go (a small Middle Eastern bakery) and what to buy (strawberry ricotta and plum crumble cake). For me, the details of food really matter, and I know others can find this behaviour annoying, if not obsessive.
Murden is the author of a book about the mirror neuron, the part of our brain which, arguably, makes us human. While the motor neuron governs action, the mirror neuron makes us social and enables us to copy and share behaviours, whether that’s with a child or onwards through a whole country or culture. It’s even been said that the investigation of the mirror neuron promises to do for psychology what DNA did for biology.
Mirror Thinking: How Role Models Make Us Human uncovers how intensely we are influenced by our families but also by everyone else we come into contact with, which could be up to 80,000 others over the course of a lifetime.
“Mirroring is powerful and nowhere more so than in the concentrated environment that is our childhood home, with those we love and need to love us most - our parents,” Murden writes. “[There are] massive implications for how we operate as a society - from how we break cycles of obesity, through to building social economic strength.”
At home I already have a few strict rules. No foods are to be demonised. We don’t eat diet foods. We don’t use the words fat or greedy. But I spend so much time nagging my daughter to eat that I’ve forgotten that what I do is much more important than what I say. I know she is more likely to try new foods and enjoy them if I eat with her, and family teatimes have been one of the silver linings of lockdown. Of most concern to me are Murden’s insights on snacks and treats.
“Those children whose parents indicated a greater use of food as a means to control their child’s behaviour reported higher levels of body dissatisfaction,” she says. In other words: “You can have the sweets if you stop messing about and finish your peas,” is an early way in which food is used to manage or reward behaviour. Your children will see your efforts to use the power of sugar to control them, and possibly mirror them later on.
Should I avoid the word “treat” entirely? “Any association with food in that sort of context isn’t helpful for a child,” she explains. “Food becomes something that’s prohibitive and reward-specific, and they can start seeing foods as good and bad.” If we don’t want to eat something we could say we don’t fancy it or that it’s not good for our teeth, not because it’s full of calories.
Food is a necessity but it is also one of life’s great joys. But copycat eating extends well beyond childhood. A study has found that we are 171 per cent more likely to gain weight if a close friend has done so. “We absorb the behaviour of those around us,” writes Murden. “If we can be more conscious of this, then we’re able make a decision on whether we take on that behaviour or not. That can make a massive difference to how we live our life.”
‘Mirror Thinking: How Role Models Make Us Human’ (Bloomsbury, £16.99) is out now