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It’s no surprise — overweight children who don’t properly learn self-regulating habits likely become obese adults. What is surprising is that one of the most common ways to help — restricting children’s diets — actually compounds the problem. That’s the thrust of a new study by University of Illinois researchers who point to a disturbing pattern: Parents shame by withholding food due to weight gain, then children cope with the negative emotions by overeating.

Further exasperating the trend, overweight children are often rewarded with food by parents, and as they grow older, the children reward themselves with food.

Researchers who studied the pattern added a genetic component as well to better understand obesity. They reported that a child’s genetics, relating to cognition and emotion, likely play a key role. They found that when biological conditions were just right, a nudge by the social aspect sets kids on a path to obesity.

Kelly Bost, co-author of the study (published in Pediatric Obesity), and professor of child development at the University of Illinois, said: “When parents offer food to children whenever they are upset, children may learn to cope with their negative emotions by overeating, and they start to develop this relationship with food early in life; eating — especially comfort food — brings a temporary soothing. People intuitively understand that.”

The findings support the team’s hypothesis that a correlation exists between all factors: parenting approaches, combined with a child’s genetic make-up and restrictive feeding, and the child’s weight and the child’s propensity to be obese.

Bost said that children can effectively learn control for themselves: “Some of the things parents do, they may not think are related to how children are developing their eating habits. The ways parents respond or get stressed when children get upset are related in an indirect way. The way we respond to that emotion can help children…

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