Emotional eating.  Most of us do it.  But do your kids?

Sadly the answer is yes.  Research shows that emotional overeating in children is not uncommon.

In fact, while most young children lose their appetite in response to stress, a recent study discovered that, by the ripe old age of 3, some kids have already learned to cope with negative emotions by eating more.  Three!

Giving kids treats to distract them from negative emotions is common enough— even doctors do it by doling out lollypops after shots.   But, if you frequently “fix” booboos with brownies or resolve conflict with cookies, then watch out: You may be teaching your children to soothe their souls with sweets.

Unfortunately, food ain’t no magic bullet. What it fixes in the short term it damages over time.

Some parental feeding practices teach kids to use food to cope with difficult feelings.

Researchers call it Emotion Regulation: the process whereby parents teach their children to use food to address emotional arousal in the absence of hunger.

A recent study of 3-5 year olds found that children whose mothers used food to regulate emotions ate more cookies in the absence of hunger than kids whose mothers didn’t use this strategy.

More tellingly, look at what happened when the researchers intentionally frustrated some of the children:

  1. The kids whose mothers used food for emotion regulation ate more chocolate.
  2. But the kids whose mothers didn’t use food for emotion regulation lost their appetites. They ate less chocolate.

How would you honestly answer these questions?

  • When your child gets fussy, is giving him/her something to eat or drink the first thing you do?
  • Do you give your child something to eat or drink if s/he is bored even if you think s/he is not hungry?
  • Do you give your child something to eat or drink if s/he is upset even if you think s/he is not hungry?

If you use food to regulate your children’s emotions…

  1. You’re not just teaching your kids that food will make them feel better, though that certainly is one lesson that gets learned.  In addition…
  2. You may actually be teaching your kids to confuse emotional discomfort with hunger.  It’s the mixing up of these two states—negative emotions and hunger— that leads to overeating.

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!)

Kids who engage in emotional eating take in more calories.  What’s more, those calories tend to be from sweet, salty, fatty, calorie-rich foods and drinks. 

Maybe that’s why researchers have found that as emotional eating increases so does a child’s body mass index (BMI).  This association tracks into adolescence, and then into adulthood.

Food is a powerful elixir (I’ve said that before) but it can also be a dangerous tool. The next time you reach for the cookie jar—Read Cookie Love—to cheer up your special cherub, think about delivering a hug instead.

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits. ~


Sources:  Blissett, J., E. Haycraft, and C. Farrow. 2010. “Inducing Preschool Children’s Emotional Eating: Relations With Parental Feeding Practices.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 92: 359-65.  Musher-Eizenman, D. and S. Holub. 2007. “Comprehensive Feeding Practices Questionnaire: Validation of a New Measure of Parental Feeding Practices.” Journal of Pediatric Psychology 32(8): 96–972.