Does your child overeat in response to a hard day, out of boredom, or maybe when there’s just good food around? Emotional eating is associated with eating food when we’re not hungry or eating beyond fullness driven by positive and negative emotions.
We all have had the tendency to emotionally eat. Whether it’s a holiday, birthday, wedding or celebration, food is a big part of our daily lives and more so during special occasions. Thus, we eat for numerous reasons and often, eating extends beyond what our hunger and fullness cues signal to us.
Emotional eating can be problematic if it becomes a pattern and if it’s the only and main way of dealing with emotions. Emotional eating is strongly associated with anxiety, depression, loneliness and boredom, and can lead to feelings of guilt, remorse, disgust or shame. Emotional eating can lead to an eating disorder including binge eating disorder, bulimia nervosa, and anorexia nervosa.
Oftentimes people confuse emotional eating with binge eating (a mental health disorder), but the difference is that binge eating disorder is more severe and has specific criteria associated with it. It is defined as eating a large amount of food in a small amount of time, a feeling of being out of control, and is associated with shame, extreme distress, poor self-image, and interferes with daily functioning. Both binge eating and binge eating disorder can be ways to manage emotions. And both can be destructive and cause self-loathing, low self-esteem and health issues.
Typically, emotional eating can be recognized when children are eating continually, eating in secret (you may find food wrappers hidden in their room or car), or eating when they’re not hungry. Children and teens can be susceptible to emotional eating for many reasons such as difficulties expressing themselves, inadequate nutrition, eating mindlessly because they’re distracted, or mental health issues as mentioned above. Stress can also contribute as food can be self-soothing, pleasurable and numbing.
In an effort to help and support your child, it’s important that parents focus their conversations on the family’s (not the child’s) health behaviors, rather than on weight, body shape or size. A 2013 study in JAMA Pediatrics entitled “Parent Conversations About Healthful Eating and Weight: Association with Adolescent Disordered Eating Behavior” found that words, especially from parents, mattered in terms of weight and body issues.
“Mothers and fathers who engaged in weight-related conversations had adolescents who were more likely to diet, use unhealthy weight control behaviors, and engage in binge eating,” the study reported. “Overweight/obese adolescents whose mothers engaged in conversations that were focused only on healthful eating behaviors were less likely to diet and use unhealthy weight control behaviors. Both parents engaging in healthy eating conversations had best results.”
Keeping conversations on eating for wellness such as strong bones, muscles and brain power vs. telling them they need to lose weight is critical. Avoiding restrictive eating practices can make children and teens less vulnerable to overeat, and assuring that kids are eating regularly and receiving adequate nutrition can be extremely helpful.
Parents can help their kids learn coping mechanisms for dealing with difficult emotions and social stressors by modeling and suggesting alternative such as listening to music, talking with friends, being active (i.e., swimming, hiking, or playing basketball), and doing things that make them laugh.
If you find that you need support with your loved one who emotional eats, please seek help of a counselor or dietitian who understands eating issues and can guide you.
By // Dr. Dena Cabrera