Emotional eating is eating for comfort, out of boredom, or in response to other emotions rather than eating for nutrition or because you are hungry. Children, teens, and adults may engage in emotional eating at one time or another.
Usually, emotional eating comes on quickly and feels urgent. It’s often triggered by a specific event or mood. It’s not like typical physical hunger, which gradually builds and is a result of an empty stomach. Physical hunger can be satisfied by a number of different foods. Emotional cravings generally involve a specific food or type of food.
Most adults can on some level relate to a child’s emotional eating, even though the exact circumstances may differ. If you find yourself on auto-pilot reaching for chocolate – or whatever you might crave after a hard day – you can understand what your child is feeling.
Emotional eating can lead to overeating because it isn’t usually about fulfilling a need for nutrients or calories. Your child’s body doesn’t need the food. Over time, the extra calories may cause your child to gain weight and become overweight or obese. And if your child already is overweight or obese, overeating could cause your child to experience feelings of guilt or remorse.
Although it may make your child feel better for a short period of time, emotional eating doesn’t solve your child’s problems.
Several situations and emotions can trigger emotional eating. Some common emotions associated with emotional eating include the following:
Even positive emotions, such as happiness, sometimes can result in emotional eating.
Talk to your child if you sense that something is wrong, or if you notice your child is eating at unusual times or in response to emotions. If your child is embarrassed about his or her eating or tends to “sneak” food during high-stress times, get involved.
Because emotional eating can be learned, your role as a parent or caregiver is one key to prevention. Avoid using food to celebrate occasions or to reward your child for good behavior. Instead, use verbal praise and give other types of rewards, such as fun stickers for young children (the “gold star” still works!), books, a pair of shoes, a trendy new shirt, or something that you know your child may enjoy.
Help your child develop a more healthy response to his or her problems, such as focusing on solutions. Try to teach your child how to talk about his or her problems and deal with the emotions that trigger the emotional eating.
Be gentle when you talk to your child about your concerns. Stay positive. Remember, helping your child might be as simple as a warm and loving conversation.
This content was developed with general underwriting support from The Coca-Cola Company.
Developmental perspectives on nutrition and obesity from gestation to adolescence by Esposito L, Fisher JO, Mennella JA, Hoelscher DM, Huang TT (Prev Chronic Dis 2009;6(3):A94 , http://www.cdc.gov/pcd/issues/2009/jul/09_0014.htm)
Management of Child and Adolescent Obesity: Psychological, Emotional, and Behavioral Assessment by Jonides L, Buschbacher V, Barlow SE (Pediatrics 2002;110:215-21 )
Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff