Valentine’s Day has a more damaging effect on eating habits than Halloween.
Or at least, Valentine’s Day has the potential to be more damaging than Halloween. Halloween is associated with bounty, that’s for sure. But other than the happy memories that children develop from dressing up, hanging out with friends, and diving headfirst into a pile of candy, Halloween isn’t marketed as a link between food and feelings. On the other hand, there’s no way around the fact that Valentine’s Day=chocolate=love. Valentine’s Day is the poster-child for food is love.
I’m not trying to rain on your holiday-parade. True story: One Valentine’s Day, a few years after my husband and I were married, he marched up to me with a self-satisfied smirk and said, “Aren’t you glad we don’t celebrate these kinds of holidays?” I started crying. I’d survived too many lonely Valentine’s Days not to get my chocolate.
Unlike Halloween, which drives health officials batty, Valentine’s Day gets a pass. I suppose it’s a volume-thing. From a habits-perspective, though, Valentine’s Day produces unhealthier eating habits.
Most of us outgrow the drive to amass a killing of candy once a year, even if we do indulge on the day. How many of us can really say that we don’t equate food with love?
Or equate food with a lack of love? Movies bombard us with images of lonely and/or broken-hearted women drowning their sorrows in a pint of ice cream. (These images are almost always women, but that’s a topic for another post.) These images reflect and reinforce normative beliefs.
One thing you can do is to play up the LOVE part of Valentine’s Day and play down the candy part. Another thing you can do is ensure that the food=love message isn’t a regular guest at the table.
Emotional eating is problematic, especially for children, because it rarely has anything to do with hunger. But eating when you’re not hungry isn’t the worst outcome.
Children who learn to eat when distressed don’t just learn to eat when they’re unhappy. They confuse the feeling of unhappiness with the feeling of hunger.
As I wrote in Using Sweets to Soothe the Soul, research shows:
Children who inappropriately identify emotional discomfort as hunger are more likely to respond to any negative arousal state with food. (But it’s not usually broccoli!)
On the flip side, using food to reward children, confuses things too. The problem isn’t that reward foods aren’t healthy foods, it’s that rewarding kids with food teaches children—and the adults they grow into—to seek out food when they want a pat on the back.
Don’t skip Valentine’s Day. You don’t even have to avoid giving your kids candy. Just be conscious of how often you send the food is love message.
Of course, it’s impossible to ameliorate the food is love message because it is everywhere. And I would never recommend forgoing a slice birthday cake because you’re not hungry. However, as a parent who tends towards food is love—read Cookie Love, Hot Chocolate to Soothe the Soul and The Fallacy of the “Food Cures All Feeling” for my confessions—I know how important it is to disconnect emotions from food whenever possible. The first step is conscious parenting.
~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~