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Study finds moms who experienced food insecurity as children convey unhealthy feeding practices to their kids

Single mothers who reported inconsistent access to food in their chilhood were more likely to pressure their children to eat when not hungry, and to worry about their children's weight.

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ROCHESTER, Minn. โ€” Researchers have learned that mothers who experienced food insecurity during childhood are more likely to convey feeding lessons to their children that contribute to obesity. The study is believed to add to the evidence for a mechanism behind the trans-generational association of obesity and poverty.

"If you grew up not having enough, or in situations of feast and famine, you learn that when it's there, you eat it or you squirrel it away," said lead author Dr. Sara Lappan. "... What gets passed along to children is some of that anxiety โ€” will we be able to eat, what will we be able to eat โ€” and that the food may not be there for long so eat it while you can."

The study, published online this week in the journal Family & Community Health by a team from the University of Alabama and Alliant International University, looked at the feeding practices of 103 low-income single mothers as determined by their answers to The U.S. Household Food Security Survey and the Child Feeding Questionnaire.

Mothers who endorsed experiencing food insecurity in the present or as children were more likely than those who had not experienced scarcity to pressure their children to eat more. Mothers who'd experienced scarcity in the present were also more likely to worry that their child was overweight, reflecting their recognition that inconsistent access to food had steered the household towards energy-dense, low-nutrient foods.

Lappan said her work as a couples and family therapist led her to investigate the question of whether food scarcity in childhood predicted lessons such as the need to eat food that is available, even if ignoring bodily signals of hunger or satiety.


"As adults we have learned from our family of origin and are influenced by our historical experiences that brought us to where we are today ... I don't think we really give enough credence to where we came from ... in the mental health field we conceptualize this as trauma.

"When you didn't have a basic human need met like food ... when you had a very inconsistent relationship with this thing that keeps you alive, I think there's a real lack of understanding of what that does to somebody."

Lappan believes the findings are helpful for therapeutic benefit and hold the potential to become included in screening measures to identify mothers at risk.

"When you can make connections for those adults into their childhood, it really helps make sense of their behaviors ... It can be really powerful and helpful for the individual."

1 in 3 households with a single mom

Food insecurity, or the lack of steady access to food sufficient to meet nutritional needs, is experienced by one in 10 households in the U.S., according to the researchers. It is believed to afflict nearly 1 in 3 households headed by a single woman and is associated with a five-fold higher rate of obesity.

Lappan says adults often retain salient memories of deprivation during childhood.

"When they would reflect back on their experiences as a children they would remember going to bed hungry, or maybe overhearing their caregivers struggle deciding which bill to pay," she said. "They would watch their caregivers not eat while they ate."

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Sara Lappan is assistant professor in the couples and family therapy program at Alliant International University and lead author of a new study finding that food insecurity during a mother's childhood leads to family feeding behaviors that promote obesity.

Lappan says one element of food insecurity often overlooked is the way it steers families toward eating patterns based upon low-quality processed food, diets that are increasingly the object of health warnings from dietary authorities.


"I think the narrative is that they are out there buying lobster and that's why the money doesn't last," she said. "In our experience these women are really cognizant of those messages and trying to make what they have stretch as far as they can ... I'm not going to get fresh green beans which go bad in a week if I can get canned green beans that can last months and months.

"So this message that they need to eat fresh fruits and fresh meat and introduce all these things into a diet โ€” that really isn't relevant. It doesn't take the context into consideration."

Lappan said common narratives blaming the poor for obesity reflect a larger societal failure to address factors linking poverty and obesity, including poor access to healthy food, and now an inter-generational component in the form of food insecurity.

She points to the absence of fresh foods in low income neighborhoods populated by fast food and convenience stores as some of the structural barriers that have created "a David and Goliath problem" faced by mothers in poverty hoping to feed their children healthy fare.

"When we put the ownership of the problem on the individual we really ignore, maybe on purpose, maybe inadvertently, the larger system that really fails people. It's created by our policies, and infrastructure planning. It's not as simple as eat less, move more. That is a really ill-informed position to take on this."

Paul John Scott is the health reporter for NewsMD and the Rochester Post Bulletin. He is a novelist and was an award-winning magazine journalist for 15 years prior to joining the FNS in 2019.
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