The Role of Food in Early Development
Eating behavior describes all the facets of the relationship we have with food from the moment we’re born. To fully appreciate this relationship let’s consider how our eating behaviors and preferences develop. From birth we’re suddenly exposed to a myriad of sensations; noise, light, touch, temperature, and odors that overwhelm our senses. Most of us cry out in indignant protest and we’re immediately introduced to a breast or bottle to pacify (and nourish) us.
Over the next few weeks, the emotional connections between unpleasant sensations, our cries of displeasure, and the comfort provided by oral soothing are reinforced for life. As we start to crawl, many of us learn that having something in our mouth provides comfort when we’re afraid, hurt, or tired. As our curiosity emerges we discover that oral stimulation not only provides relief from frustration but at times boredom. Yes, boredom…why the heck else would we stick our toes (or everything else) in our mouth?
For many of us, oral reward (whether it takes the form of a thumb or lollipop) becomes our primary “go-to” behavior that provides relief from unpleasant experiences, emotions or sensations. We can’t exactly talk about what we want so oral reward becomes the default means to satisfy unmet needs.
When we think about our development from this perspective, it’s not surprising then, that as we mature, we continue to turn to food or other oral stimulation (such as smoking or chewing gum) to relieve (dis)stress.
When you’re stressed or upset, how often do you use food or oral soothing (smoking, gum, toothpicks) as a distraction or coping technique?
Important Developmental Milestones
Early cognitive constructs that relate directly to lifelong eating habits and weight control are the concepts of delay of gratification, self-regulation and “enough.” From the perspective of eating and early development, delay of gratification begins with parental influences. This shift requires more robust yet less frequent feedings.
Delay of gratification is related to learning self-regulation. When parents regulate feeding times and control portion size, then self-regulated eating behavior and learning can develop. We will eat what we need to have enough energy to make it to the next feeding. If we don’t eat enough; we become hungry and irritable. If we overeat, or eat too quickly, we’ll likely to redecorate our environment (as well as becoming hungry and irritable).
Do you struggle with self-regulation when it comes to quantity / quality of food?
What are some of your early memories of soothing “comfort” foods?
Exposure to different environments is also important during this period as this encourages the development of tolerance, and more importantly, resilience. Increased tolerance results in less dramatic responses to routine sensory inputs and increased resilience reduce the incidence and magnitude of depressive disorders.
Once again, let’s touch on the concept of “enough” that we discussed in Chapter 1. In an era of social influences that glorify excess, it’s difficult to appreciate the concept of “enough”. But when it comes to food…to lose weight we’ll likely have to limit quantities and improve the quality of our diet. This may be something that we weren’t taught early in life so we have the challenge of retraining our brain.
RECOGNITION: We do this by learning what is good for us
RESISTANCE We develop this by strictly regulating portion sizes.
What is your concept of “enough?”
From a global perspective, most cultures embrace the notion that good behavior or the achievement of goals should be rewarded with treats. For many, this might involve a trip to get ice cream, candy, or fast food. From a learning perspective, this introduces the concept of secondary reward reinforcement. We don’t just eat sugar or high-fat foods when we’re low on energy or unhappy, we also consume them to celebrate when things are going well. We’ve accepted the premise that even when we feel happy we can (or should) do something that will make us feel even better. It’s this mood-altering drive that can ultimately lead to the maladaptive use, dependence and addiction to food.
How do you typically reward yourself?