How to prevent your child becoming an emotional eater

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

If you've ever reached for a tub of ice cream when stressed, chances are you're familiar with emotional eating.

While it's often jokingly referred to as "eating your feelings", the truth is, many people turn to food as a way to soothe their emotions.

Now new research shows that emotional eating may start in childhood.

The research, published online in the journal Appetite, analysed how children ate in response to being shown different clips from The Lion King - one of which was sad, one was happy and the last was neutral.

They found that children who watched the sad video ate the most chocolate.

Those who watched the happy part ate the next greatest quantity of chocolate, while those who watched a neutral clip ate the least.

"This suggests that children eat in response to both happy and sad emotions, but more for sadness," said researcher Dr Shayla C Holub, head of the psychological sciences PhD program and associate professor in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

Children aren't born with an innate desire to eat emotionally, she says.

On the contrary, Holub says very young children are "really good" at regulating their food intake.

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"If you change the energy density of a baby's formula content, the child adapts his or her food intake in response. If you give preschoolers a snack, they will adjust their meal intake to react appropriately so that they are not too hungry or too full.

"They know their own body cues."

As children grow older, however, they begin to think about what their social environment, rather than their bodies, are telling them.

She says that ages three to five were a critical time in which children learn to self-regulate.

"If we can learn how to nurture healthy habits early on, that makes us less likely to have to eliminate negative behaviours later.

"The idea is to set up healthy trajectories and communicate with our children about how to choose healthy options."

So how can we nurture those healthy habits early on, to prevent our children from relying on food to soothe their emotions?

There are lots of ways to do this.

You can start by modelling your behaviour, says Holub. After all, if your child watches you turn to food when you're sad, she can learn to copy you and do the same thing.

Psychologist Sharon Draper agrees.

She says if parents are more conscious of what (and how) they eat, they can stop themselves from inadvertently influencing their children to develop unhealthy eating habits.

You should also avoid placating children with food, says Holub.

So, when your child is bored or upset, don't use treats as the answer.

Teaching children that eating helps manage those feelings can set them up to carry this lesson into adulthood.

"By then, they've been so ingrained to eat emotionally that it makes it very challenging to change these patterns of behaviour as adults," says Draper.

Don't give food as a reward, either.

When you do that, Draper says children then associate sweets with feeling good, so they're more likely to want a sugary treat when they're feeling down.

That doesn't mean you need to ban treats altogether.

In fact, Draper warns that banning them could simply lead to cravings and binge eating when children are exposed to such foods, like at a birthday party.

Instead, she advises encouraging children to have treats occasionally and in smaller portions - and not in response to their emotions.

To help your child develop a healthier attitude towards food, Draper encourages teaching children about how food impacts them.

Rather than just saying, 'Eat your veggies', she says it's important to tell children why vegetables are good for their growing bodies.

Part of that education should include teaching children to eat mindfully, so they pay more attention to how food tastes and smells, rather than just gobbling it down.

Then, when your child is struggling with her emotions, Draper says it's important to teach her strategies to deal with such feelings, such as diaphragmatic breathing, going for a walk, reading a book or listening to music.

If your child reaches for food to help her feel better, she's not learning to regulate her feelings in a healthy way, says Draper.

The truth is that, in moderation, sweet foods are an enjoyable part of life.

But if you want to nip emotional eating in the bud, the experts agree they shouldn't be used to soothe your child's emotions.