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How your childhood shapes your eating habits

When it comes to making choices about what to eat, often people pick food they like over what's good for them. But what makes a meal comfort food is largely determined by cultural factors -- such as geography, ethnicity and socio-economics. This week on WRVO's health and wellness show "Take Care," hosts Lorraine Rapp and Linda Lowen speak with public health expert Dr. Cynthia Morrow about how culture affects eating habits.

Lorraine Rapp?: How do you think our family background and culture influence the decisions we make regarding food choices?

Cynthia Morrow: I really think that what we eat, how much we eat, where we eat, really everything about food, is based on our culture. We tend to do what’s familiar with us and I think it’s really important to know that, unknowingly, that family culture, that family history that tradition can, sometimes, sabotage our very best interests to be healthy. So it’s really important for us to recognize those influences so that if they are sabotaging our efforts to be healthy we can undo that and we can really understand why we’re making the choices we make.

Rapp: What are some examples -- things that we grew up with that later on may wind up being unhealthy?

Morrow: I think that the most common example for people my generation, and almost all of us, were brought up with “clean your plate,” and what our parents didn’t know when they taught us that we had to clean our plate was that portion size was going to dramatically increase over our lifetime. So if we’re taught to clean our plate and we have this cultural norm that we have to eat everything, we’re going to become obese because the portion sizes are so out of proportion right now. We’ve normalized the abnormal. I think that’s the most clear example.

Rapp: What about using food as a reward or a punishment?

Morrow: This is something that I really understood when my kids were quite small. I had gotten into the habits of saying to my children “well, if you finish your vegetables then you can have dessert.” I went to a lecture and understood what I was teaching my children – that sweets and things that really should be an occasional treat will be used as a reward and that unduly glamorizes them and puts a value on them that they shouldn’t have and, simultaneously, I was demonizing vegetables. Instead of having dessert as a reward, we would just have dessert once a week. It would be special and it would be unrelated to anything else. It was just ‘OK this is a sometimes treat’ and let’s make it into a treat; let’s not have it as a reward for anything.

Rapp: A lot of people think that making healthy choices is a more expensive choice. What advice do you give people who are nervous that buying the healthier foods might just add more to their budget?

Morrow: I think that that is a concern that a lot of people have. One of the things that we need to be careful of is convenience and sometimes, I think, it’s easy to confuse convenience with cost. It’s a challenge and it’s about balancing priorities. So preparing things in advance – it’s not at all unusual for me to cook more on the weekends. It does requiring planning, it does require preparation. If it is a priority, you can think about that planning as a way of expressing your love for your family as well; planning in advance so that you know that you’re going to be providing a more helpful food option on those days where life is chaotic. That’s the reality and we need to accept that reality.

More of this interview can be heard on "Take Care," WRVO's health and wellness show Sunday at 6:30 p.m. Support for this story comes from the Health Foundation for Western and Central New York.