Emotional eating — the habit of eating to cope with stress, boredom or negative feelings rather than to satisfy true hunger — is a behavior that can often lead to overeating and weight gain.
The feeding styles of parents and other caregivers play a significant role in the relationship young children develop with eating. Emotional feeding or the giving of food or beverages to children to help soothe or calm them down can encourage emotional eating in children.
A recent study published in the journal Child Development found that children fed food for comfort at ages 4 and 6 were more likely to show signs of emotional eating at ages 8 and 10. This suggests that emotional eating is a learned behavior and not necessarily due to the common perception that emotional eating is caused by a lack of self-discipline.
Researchers noticed that children that were more easily comforted by food were fed more often by their parents for the purpose of consoling them. While a stressed-out parent dealing with a toddler having a tantrum might innocently use food as a first response to calm or distract them, this behavior prevents the child from learning to deal with emotions in a healthy way. Plus, this pattern of emotional feeding can understandable lead to a child’s reliance on food for comfort.
Observing adult caregivers eating is an important part of how young children develop their own eating habits, including a positive relationship with food.
If you would like your little one to be a healthy eater, one of the smartest ways to achieve this is to make sure he or she sees you being a healthy eater. This includes providing consistency and avoiding sending mixed signals about what is acceptable.
For example, if you would like your child to reach for nutritious snacks, make sure that they are easily accessible while not-so-good choices are not.
The good news is that there are steps parents can take to turn around emotional eating behaviors and encourage mindful eating in children:
Teach children to listen to their internal hunger cues. Use words focused on the levels of hunger and fullness that don’t place value on how much is consumed.
Avoid encouraging overeating in order to finish all of the food on the plate when he or she says they are not hungry, which interferes with a child’s own ability to regulate their hunger.
Ensure a calm eating environment that limits distractions. A stressed, rushed or overly stimulating atmosphere during meal times is less than ideal for listening to hunger cues and eating mindfully. Family meals that are focused on enjoyable conversation, not the food, foster healthy eating habits.
Steer away from putting kids on diets. Children need quite a lot of calories for growth and development. An approach that focuses on quality, variety and balance of foods rather than restriction is better for building a child’s healthy relationship with food and their body.
Keep food in its place. Designate just a few seated areas where eating takes place in the home such as the dining room, the kitchen or maybe an outdoor patio table. Avoid free-range eating that involves food being consumed anywhere and everywhere including in front of screens, bedrooms and while performing other non-eating activities.
Use non-food rewards to encourage positive behavior. When an edible treat is offered as an incentive, it places special value on food as a motivator and allows the lack of it to be a punishment. Plus, it can encourage a pattern of consumption of high-fat and high-sugar foods as a way of rewarding oneself.
Extra time and attention from parents, fun weekend activities, attending a show or sporting event, or extra stories at bedtime are some appropriate non-food alternatives for incentivizing a child’s good behavior.
LeeAnn Weintraub, a registered dietitian, provides nutrition counseling and consulting to individuals, families and businesses. She can be reached at RD@halfacup.com.