Childhood Eating Experiences May Impact Our Food Choices as Adults

Parents cooking with kids

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Key Takeaways

  • The impact of what kids eat could follow them into adulthood, a recent study suggests.
  • Children who received guidance on healthy foods tended to be more likely to eat more fruits and vegetables as adults.
  • Identifying variables like these is important, experts note, since it may help address an aspect of childhood obesity.

When parents encourage healthy eating choices for their children, that message is likely to stick with them into adulthood, according to a study in Nutrients.

Researchers looked at food questionnaires from 443 adults who defined their recollections of childhood meals and snacks into categories, such as:

  • Food as reward
  • Pressure to eat
  • Child-led eating
  • Healthy eating guidance
  • Monitored by parents

Those who identified food as a reward for good behavior, felt pressured to “clean their plates” or who remembered having ample control over their food choices tended to eat more sweets and salty snacks as an adult.

Those who received more guidance, or had parents do most of the choosing were more likely to have higher consumption of fruits and vegetables as an adult.

Researchers noted that the best environment seemed to be “healthy eating guidance,” which included modeling food behaviors, eating more whole foods, and including children in meal prep.

Study Limitations

One limitation of the current study is that it relies on recall of consumption, which can be tricky for proper measurement, and results may be skewed toward nostalgia. For example, you may have strong memories of eating plenty of cake, cookies, and other treats throughout childhood, but it’s possible that those were only for special events and the majority of your eating was centered on healthier foods.

“Recall is a confounding variable in many nutritional studies, especially if there are emotional attachments to particular foods,” says Angie Asche, RD, CSSD, owner of Eleat Sports Nutrition and author of Fuel Your Body. “That said, it’s worth looking at what memories or feelings certain foods might bring up for you, because that may be affecting your food choices.”

For example, even if you didn’t eat cake as a child except on birthdays, the strength of that association with celebration and attention could increase the chances that you’d eat more cake as an adult.

The recent research acknowledges this limitation, which is called “recall bias,” but the researchers note that even with that as a factor, the link between parental feeding practices and future eating behaviors remains robust.

Health Effects

Teaching children to have a stronger, positive view of healthy foods—and encouraging them to eat that way for a lifetime—could help change the significant increase in childhood obesity, according to public health and epidemiology researcher Erica Kenney, ScD, in the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

“Obesity is like any chronic disease, where prevention is ideal, because once you’re at a point where you’re talking about treatment, you’ll likely to already have numerous health effects,” she says. “In the case of childhood obesity, that’s true at the highest possible level. Once children get to be obese or morbidly obese, it becomes very difficult for the body to let go of that.”

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that the prevalence of obesity for children age 2 to 19 is about 18%, which is over 13 million kids and teens in the U.S. The issue is more common among certain populations, particularly Hispanic and Black children.

The health effects can be profound. Children who have obesity are more likely to have:

  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Increased risk of impaired glucose tolerance and type 2 diabetes
  • Breathing problems, such as asthma and sleep apnea
  • Joint problems
  • Fatty liver disease
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Lower self-esteem

The CDC adds that they are also more likely to become adults with obesity, which comes with more risks, including some types of cancer and heart disease. Healthier habits can make a big difference, Kenney says, but they also need to be part of a larger, coordinated effort that includes federal and state school lunch policies, less junk food marketing, and more resources for families.

What This Means For You

Identifying the potential roots of your food choices as an adult can help you pivot to healthier eating behaviors. Also, if you’re a parent, you can increase the chances your child will eat more fruits and vegetables by modeling good eating habits, and involving them in meal prep.


4 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Malachowska, A. Does Examining the Childhood Food Experiences Help to Better Understand Food Choices in Adulthood? Nutrients. 2021 13(3), 983. doi: 10.3390/nu13030983

  2. Childhood obesity facts. Overweight & obesity. CDC.

  3. Vucenik I, Stains JP. Obesity and cancer risk: evidence, mechanisms, and recommendations. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 2012;1271(1):37-43.

  4. Artham SM, Lavie CJ, Milani RV, Ventura HO. Obesity and hypertension, heart failure, and coronary heart disease—risk factor, paradox, and recommendations for weight loss. Ochsner Journal. 2009;9(3):124-132.

By Elizabeth Millard, CPT, RYT
Elizabeth Millard is a freelance journalist specializing in health, wellness, fitness, and nutrition.