Chloe Patel, MSc (PhD Candidate).
Chloe Patel is a Senior Outcomes Researcher at Sprout. She is about to complete her PhD in familial transmission of eating behaviours at the University of Warwick. Before starting at Sprout, Chloe worked in academic and industry settings in health research-based roles.
Food parenting practices (FPPs) can have unintended negative consequences for children
Anyone with exposure to children has probably witnessed the stress that can occur around feeding them – should you tell your fussy-eater they can’t leave the table until they’ve tried some broccoli? Should you make them finish the food on their plate? Should chocolate be restricted, or will children crave it less if they have more access?
Food parenting practices (FPPs) are behaviours used by parents to influence their child’s food intake and eating behaviours. Examples of FPPs are use of restriction, pressure to eat, food-based threats and bribes, and use of food to control negative emotions. Such FPPs can have harmful effects on children, including childhood obesity and problematic eating behaviours.
Online news outlets are important sources of information for parents about FPPs
One rich and easily accessible source of information for parents is the news media, with many online news outlets offering specialist webpages focused on parenting. The information conveyed in news articles can influence beliefs and social norms about FPPs, which in turn can affect how parents decide what their child should eat and how to encourage or discourage their child from consuming healthy and unhealthy foods. Therefore, it is important to establish how FPP-related information is portrayed by online news outlets. Considering the importance of news media in shaping parents’ decisions, it is necessary to evaluate how the most prominent advice on online platforms relates to the growing body of empirical research in this domain.
News outlets perpetuate unhelpful FPPs
I recently published a study examining the content of online news articles pertaining to FPPs through a large dataset of online media articles and evaluated whether the claims made in online media articles are substantiated by the scientific literature in this field.
My study identified ten claims from thirty-two online news articles published online in the UK between 2010 and 2017. Such claims included, “Parents teach their children emotional eating behaviours”; “Parents who pressure their children to finish the food on their plates are ‘Fuelling Obesity’”.
The findings show that claims made by online news articles covered an array of FPPs, including those that involve coercive parental control (such as restrictions, threats and bribes, pressure to eat, and use of food to control negative emotions) and structure (such as food availability, food preparation, and meal and snack routines). The results also demonstrate that a large amount of research evidence is disregarded in the reporting of FPPs. Concerningly, news articles frequently omitted detail and information to explain why and how the use of some FPPs can have a long-lasting and sometimes unintentional impacts on a child’s relationship with food, BMI, and other health outcomes.
Many of the news articles analysed in the current study frequently cited just one expert opinion and/or one source of study findings, with little to no explanation around the long-term impact that FPPs can have on child outcomes.
We found that news media reporting of FPPs rarely highlights the role of structure or techniques that aim to support child autonomy, such as parental role modelling of healthy food consumption, monitoring, nutrition education, and child involvement, all of which are shown to have positive, healthy child outcomes.
Suggestions for responsible journalism
This research was necessary due to the important role the news media has as a source of health and medical information for parents. We found that a large amount of research evidence is disregarded in news media articles.
Future portrayal of FPPs in news articles should acknowledge the difficulties and barriers that prevent the use of helpful and healthy FPPs and include practical strategies for overcoming barriers such as fussy or selective eating. While it is not the news media’s responsibility to provide health advice, it is important that researchers and practitioners are informed about what is published in the news around FPPs, as there may be an opportunity for interventions to address myths or parental misperceptions due to what they have read. The reporting on FPPs in news media should aim to provide a balanced view of the published scientific evidence. This is important because of the news media’s role as a powerful source of influence on social norms, beliefs, and health issues.