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Food as a pacifier

We have developed a parenting method that could be considered as creating the conditions to support obesity and being overweight.

Obesity is at an all-time high. Worldwide, obesity has more than doubled[1] since 1980. What has happened to our relationship with food? If we look at how we develop our relationship with food from infancy, we might pause and consider that there is a disturbing trend that has come of age.

Food is now parenting our children

All too often we can observe that as soon as a baby cries he/she is pacified with the breast or bottle, and when a young child grizzles, his or her parents pop a biscuit, cracker or some other item of food into the child’s mouth. This can occur whether the child was hungry or not, or simply may have needed some closeness and reassurance of touch. Once that is eaten and the next grizzle arises, in goes another food item and so it goes on. Are we missing a key observation?

There may be an underlying reason for a child’s crying or grizzling and when food or drink is used as the pacifier, children are being primed to not feel their emotional or physical discomfort.

Any discomfort is fed with food, which soothes in the short-term, but in the long-term does nothing to resolve the root cause of the grizzle. Instead it numbs the capacity to feel.

Overeating also has that numbing impact on our bodies. Children are learning this effect from birth. They are learning that eating is a go-to solution for uncomfortable feelings or sensations.

This pattern quite literally supports us to keep dumb about our feelings. Instead of feeling what is going on and dealing with how we feel and then learning to move through life to the next thing, we just pacify by eating and staying stuck in our chairs, all too literally. This is learnt very effectively from early on, so consideration needs to be given to how this might be impacting upon the ever-increasing obesity epidemic and being overweight.

After childhood

What happens when we get older, going through our teens and into adulthood? How do we use food as a pacifier in life?

In 2014, more than 1.9 billion adults, 18 years and older, were overweight. Of these, over 600 million were obese[1] and the figures are increasing exponentially each year. Statistics indicate that food can be the first thing we go to when we feel uncomfortable, when we feel a tension in our bodies or when we are upset about what we feel, see or hear.

It used to be that if we had a stressful day at work we often treated ourselves when we got home with comfort food, sugary drinks and/or alcohol (with its high sugar content). Nowadays many of us often start eating in the morning and continue to eat all through the day. When food is not enough, we can add alcohol and maybe drugs as well – anything that can satisfy our mouth and numb our body and therefore dull our awareness of what we are feeling.

How much food are we talking about?

In 2011, world daily calorie consumption was 2870 calories[2] (12,008 kJ) per person, which is on average about 30% more than most people need.[3] Our sugar intake has gone through the roof – in 1700 it was only 4 lbs (1.8 kgs) per year, by 1800 it had increased to 18 lbs (8.2 kgs) and by 1900 it was 60 lbs (27.2 kgs) per year.[4]

Today it is estimated that the average American consumes a shocking 150 lbs (68 kgs)[5] of sugar per year, with similar amounts consumed in Europe and the United Kingdom, and Australia exceeding all those countries in their love affair with sugar.[6][7]

All too many of us are locked in this self-destructive cycle with food.

How can this be changed?

At some point we need to get rid of the pacifiers.

If we do not, we will end up making ourselves, and our children, very sick. For example, being morbidly obese means we are at risk of premature death and chronic lifestyle-related diseases[8] such as diabetes, some cancers, osteoarthritis or heart disease – and the number of people who are eating their way to this outcome is increasing alarmingly.

Getting rid of the ‘soother’ may not be as difficult as we think

When we are using food to pacify our kids as a way to deal with them when they’re upset, we are teaching them that is the way to cope with being upset and that we avoid dealing with or looking at the real issues. What is being offered does not provide our children with the skills to navigate life well.

Food can never replace parenting our children and ourselves from connection and love – there will never be enough chocolate bars, pies, cakes or chips in the world to replace love.

As adults, if we have learnt to use food as our pacifier and are suffering being overweight as a consequence and all that this brings, then can we consider that we can learn to parent ourselves with love and understanding instead of using food as a pacifier?

If we are to change our relationship with food, we have to accept that dealing with stress and tension in our bodies is not always easy – however, using food to pacify is not the answer, as the obesity figures confirm. Food is there to sustain us and provide us with energy, to keep us fit, healthy and active. It was never meant to be used to numb and cope with the tensions of life.

What if we were to be aware of and honest about our hurts and the consequent emotions we feel that cause stress and tension in our bodies? The hurt we felt at the office one day will be the same hurt we will feel another day – unless we stop to realise why we have this hurt. Our favourite food or dinner in a restaurant may feel like comfort to us, but this is not dealing with why we feel the hurt in the first place.

The next time your child is crying, what if, instead of reaching for food as the pacifier, you were to stop and consider if the child is truly hungry or is trying to tell you something else?

When we use food to quell anxiety, guilt, fear, a hurt or worry, we create a cycle that begins for many when we are children as a learned behaviour and it seems that many of us keep it for the rest of our lives.

Obesity is a world-wide killer. It disables our ability to live well and be vital. We can set ourselves free from the prison it makes for us if we parent ourselves with love and understanding, instead of using food as a pacifier.

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References:

  • [1]

    World Health Organisation. Obesity and Overweight Fact Sheet. Online http://www.who.int/en . Available at: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs311/en/

  • [2]

    National Geographic. Online http://www.nationalgeographic.com Available at: http://www.nationalgeographic.com/what-the-world-eats/

  • [3]

    https://www.eatforhealth.gov.au/food-essentials/frequently-asked-questions

  • [4]

    http://www.sugar-and-sweetener-guide.com/consumption-of-sugar.html

  • [5]

    https://www.dhhs.nh.gov/dphs/nhp/documents/sugar.pdf

  • [6]

    http://www.bodyandsoul.com.au/nutrition/nutrition-tips/could-you-cut-your-sugar-intake-to-6-teaspoons-a-day/news-story/449e92b2a0c459d4bd02b5dda4f2ef82

  • [7]

    http://www.news.com.au/lifestyle/health/diet/the-shocking-truth-about-how-much-sugar-youre-eating/news-story/db7bb699d3ea766188fc6d5b1f0db3bf

  • [8]

    Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. 2017. Impact of overweight and obesity as a risk factor for chronic conditions, Australian burden of disease study. pp 16-17. Retrieved from https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/burden-of-disease/impact-of-overweight-and-obesity-as-a-risk-factor-for-chronic-conditions/contents/table-of-contents

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    Photography: James Tolich