Emotional Eating Begins Early

Emotional Eating: Parents Pass It On to Their Kids

A tendency to eat for emotional reasons—such as when worried, annoyed or anxious—is an important contributor to excess weight gain. While emotional eating is a known cause of obesity, what turns people into emotional eaters is not as well understood.

Norwegian researchers set out to better comprehend this relationship by asking a cohort of parents to rate the frequency of certain parental feeding practices (like giving a child something to eat to make him feel better when he’s upset) and children’s eating practices (like eating more when angry). According to the study, published in the April 2017 edition of Child Development, the researchers found that parental emotional feeding of young children was highly related to emotional eating in the children as they got a bit older.

In other words, emotional eating often begins in childhood, at least partly in response to a parent’s tendency to be an emotional feeder. In the study, the kids at greatest risk for emotional feeding scored high in a measure of “negative affectivity”—that is, they experienced higher-than-average levels of sadness, fear, anger and frustration and lower degrees of “soothability.”

Parents learn early on that food can be a calming agent. As an act of love and empathy, they offer food (usually highly palatable, high-sugar/high-fat foods) to soothe a crying baby, a fussy toddler or an upset school-aged child. The child feels better and begins to associate that sensation with eating food. This can start a cascade of emotional feeding and emotional eating.
Parents can break the cycle by making a concerted effort to help children identify more useful ways to cope with stress, such as journaling, meditation, brief bouts of exercise, or talking with trusted family members or friends.

Were your parents emotional feeders? Are you? How do you cope with triggers to eat? What other strategies do you use to help your family cope with stressors? Send your responses to Sandy Todd Webster at [email protected].

Natalie Digate Muth, MD, MPH, RD

Natalie Digate Muth, MD, MPH, RD

"Natalie Digate Muth, MD, MPH, RDN, FAAP, is a board-certified pediatrician and obesity medicine physician, registered dietitian and health coach. She practices general pediatrics with a focus on healthy family routines, nutrition, physical activity and behavior change in North County, San Diego. She also serves as the senior advisor for healthcare solutions at the American Council on Exercise. Natalie is the author of five books and is committed to helping every child and family thrive. She is a strong advocate for systems and communities that support prevention and wellness across the lifespan, beginning at 9 months of age."

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