Food addiction, as currently understood by research, has behavioral and neurochemical expressions that can be attributed to the effects of parents, family, environment, and culture. My three previous blogs have focused respectively on parental, family, and environmental influences that may breed food addiction in children. This blog outlining the research on the influence of culture really emphasizes the concept of learned behaviors that become ingrained in children’s lives. As multiculturally trained counselors, we understand that body image development occurs within a cultural context, where attitudes about eating habits, food preparation, and dietary guidelines clearly influence the ways children learn to approach food and eating behaviors. Little research has been published on specific cultures, except for a few articles on Latina and Haitian mothers. However, socioeconomic status is presented as a serious demographic force that could be breeding food addiction in the pediatric population.
In low SES groups, low maternal health knowledge and low parental education levels are linked to the prevalence of childhood obesity. If we consider the struggles of families of low SES, we can see that they may have parents working longer hours who have less family time with their children and who may rely on providing them with more pre-prepared food or fast food outside of the home. These eating habits coupled with fewer safe areas for children to play outside in low SES areas creates a formula for potential obesity and for learned behaviors about food and physical activity that could plague children for a lifetime.
The influence of SES on children’s learned eating habits is yet another call out for community-wide obesity prevention programs that start in the home by educating parents and families about making healthful food choices and navigating the current food market with the resources they have. I have heard stories of local neighborhood corner stores and bodegas participating in programs that give them incentive to put healthful food choices on their shelves, such as fruits and vegetables and whole grains, not just the chips and processed foods that are cheap and convenient. I commend these store owners for taking a business risk in order to better the community in which they live and work. If fruits and vegetables do not sell in a week, they cannot sit on a shelf with an expiration date for next year. The store owner would have to take the loss. Still, many are willing to try the change because they see the ways families struggle and the ways children are affected. With better education about health and eating and physical activity and with healthful food available in local stores, families of low SES at least have options to help support the growth of children with healthy eating behaviors.
Kristy L. Carlisle is a school counselor and a mental health counselor in training at Rider University. Her interests include protecting children from cyber-bullying and from food addiction.