WA parents are teaching their children to overeat by giving them lollies as bribery to behave well and eat their vegetables, Perth researchers say.
A Healthway-funded study found parents were using unhealthy treats to show their love, and to stop their children feeling deprived of the snacks their friends were eating.
But researchers warned that parents were inadvertently setting up their children to overeat and use food as an emotional crutch.
Melanie Pescud from the University of WA and Simone Pettigrew from Curtin University surveyed low-income families with at least one overweight or obese child aged five to nine.
Dr Pescud said that despite knowing they should limit sugary and fatty foods, most parents admitted giving their children treats every day, mostly lollies, icy poles, ice-cream, biscuits and hot chips. They admitted using treats to bribe children into eating healthy food, and as sign of their affection and love.
But instead of being occasional treats, these foods were becoming part of children's everyday diet.
"Parents clearly care about their kids and most know these sorts of treats are unhealthy and shouldn't be consumed frequently," Dr Pescud said.
"But this doesn't stop them from giving unhealthy treats to their children on a regular basis, and they're using these foods as a cheap and easy way to show that they love their kids."
While the study was based on parents in households with an annual income of less than $60,000, there was no reason to believe other parents did not fall into the trap of using junk food to reward and bribe.
Dr Pescud said unhealthy snacks were readily available and affordable but inexpensive toys were a better alternative.
Healthway chairwoman Rosanna Capolingua said the research helped explain some of the causes of a major community health concern.
"Given that one-quarter of Australian children are overweight or obese, with the problem more pronounced in low-income families where 32 per cent of children are overweight or obese, this study has unearthed some very important information," she said.
"These findings could be used to find ways to help parents to treat their kids in a healthier way."