Emotional Eating

A child is born with strong attunement to cues of appetite, hunger and fullness, and will naturally eat well if raised in a supportive food environment. A mother’s role is to nurture this inborn ability by creating the right environment. Beginning with infancy, emotional development evolves in stages, and understanding these stages can help a mother nurture her child so her child can thrive. In the following articles, we describe a healthy parent-child dynamic as it applies to ideal feeding so that the mother can support her child’s natural ability to eat and grow well. 

Picture the following scenarios:

It is your turn in the neighborhood’s Sunday club merry-go-round, and you will need to entertain 10 five-year-old girls for two hours.

You are taking a flight to Miami for mid-winter vacation with four children under the age of seven, and you are worried that they won’t behave on the plane.

You are pre-Pesach shopping, and your seven-year-old son has had enough. He refuses to enter another store with you.

Your four-year-old son comes home from school, and he is upset at his teacher.

You are a teacher in the first grade, and would love to motivate your students to do their kriyah homework.

It’s Sunday, and your 12-year-old daughter is B-O-R-E-D. She needs something to do with her friends.

How would you navigate each of the above situations?

Of all the creative solutions you came up with, how many of them involved food? None of these scenarios involved a hungry child, yet there is a tendency to use food as a multipurpose solution.

As a parent, you can enrich your child’s emotional world with affection, connection, social interaction, communication, empathy, creativity, intrinsic motivation and problem solving. Alternately, you can enter your child’s emotional world with food or candy. This can impact your child’s social-emotional outcome and well as his or her relationship with food and thereby his or her weight and nutritional status. Take a moment to reflect on your instinctive uses of food.

How did you entertain the five-year-old girls? Did you create picture frames out of colorful popsicle sticks, glitter and stickers, or did you build a house out of graham crackers, glued together with marshmallow fluff and decorated with jelly beans and sprinkles? Consider what playing with food and creating excessive crafts out of candy might teach your child.

How did you occupy your children on the plane? Did you go to Amazing Savings and buy activity books, card games and crossword puzzles? Perhaps you played 20 Questions? Or did you go to the candy aisle in the grocery store and buy jawbreakers, chocolates and sour sticks to distribute during the flight? Consider how opportunities for creativity, mind stimulation and family connection can be lost in a pile of candy and how children can be taught to use food to fill empty time.

How did you convince your son to go shopping? Did you have a challenging but purposeful conversation with him, or did you bribe him with a chocolate bar? Consider how an opportunity to teach a child to handle disappointments in life can be lost and how a child can learn to use food to cope with life’s challenges.

How did you address your son who is upset at his teacher? Did you acknowledge his feelings, give him your full attention and empathy, thereby allowing and encouraging him to express his feelings? Or did you brush the incident aside and distract him with his favorite drink, letting him drown his feelings in a cup of sweet hot cocoa? Consider how appeasing an upset child with food teaches the child to use food to make himself feel better and silence his emotions, instead of addressing them more authentically.  

How did you motivate your students to do their homework? Did you draw elaborate smiley faces and hearts on the papers of the girls who had their homework signed, or did you give them chocolate chips? Consider how rewarding a child with candy strengthens the child’s emotional connection with food and how the opportunity for intrinsic motivation is lost.

How did you help your bored 12-year-old daughter? Did you let her paint pottery or make a Sunday camp for the neighborhood children, or did you send her out with her friends for pizza and ice cream? Consider how entertaining bored children with food teaches a child to use food to generate fun and excitement and to cure boredom.

If I had a dime for every time someone blamed children’s eating habits on the 20th century candy industry or the abundance of food in America, I’d be rich. However, I have another perspective on this topic. Certainly, the abundance of processed foods and sugar isn’t helping our health, but more importantly is that society has evolved in a way that favors the use of food to meet all sorts of emotional needs. In other words, food—and nosh food in particular—is overused for purposes like entertainment, motivation, behavior modification, celebration, connection, appeasement, relaxation and nurturance. Children are being raised to have a strong emotional connection with food. Food is a powerful, brain-chemical-altering substance. Endorphins, which are hormones that make one feel happy, are released when food is eaten. Serotonin, a hormone that relaxes and soothes a person, is also released in response to food, particularly carbohydrates. Little wonder food has become the panacea for boredom, disappointment, and the pick-me-up-thing-whenever-I-feel-down. Additionally, food has become the hot item for reward, entertainment, excitement, socialization, and celebration. It’s mind-boggling how food has become overly significant in our social and emotional lives.

The more a child is conditioned to use food for the reasons mentioned above, the stronger their emotional connection becomes to food, until food becomes a child’s (or adult’s) best friend. When one’s eating is driven by emotion, he will likely crave highly sweet, salty or crunchy foods like chips and candy, which lend a stronger sensational kick than chicken, rice or carrots. It’s important to be aware of the fact that emotional eating can occur with nutritious foods as well, and in either case there is always a higher likelihood of overeating. If one eats in response to her natural physical cues of hunger, she will likely stop eating when she feels physically full. However, if one eats in response to emotion, she will eat when she feels the emotion, and continue eating and eating until… until she feels sick, perhaps!

Occasionally, using food for emotional reasons may not be unhealthy. Evelyn Tribole, RDN calls this “play food.” Play food should have a place in everyone’s diet. For example, a parent might bake and decorate Chanukah cookies with her children and enjoy a bite with them when it’s ready, even if it isn’t snack time. Similarly, one might enjoy a coffee date with a friend or a cup of hot tea after a long, hard day.

Using food for emotional reasons becomes problematic if the person is frequently eating when they are not hungry, or if the person does not fully identify, experience or appropriately address the underlying emotion causing her to eat. For example, a schoolgirl might come home and munch mindlessly on a bag of chips until she feels overstuffed—not even realizing her underlying need, which may be some downtime to unwind before tackling her homework, or feeling insulted by a degrading comment made by a classmate. In either case, her underlying need or emotion would be suppressed if she uses food to distract herself.

Problematic emotional eating is exacerbated when the person is eating a previously restricted food and feels guilty about eating it. This brings more negative feelings into the mix of existing emotions and, ironically, will likely lead to more eating to appease these guilty feelings. In addition to suffering nutritionally, a person with these problematic eating behaviors will lose out on enriching and growth-promoting emotional experiences—because they are ignoring their emotions.

Unhealthy emotional eating habits commonly begin to form in toddlerhood. The toddler enters a learning phase of identifying her many emotions and differentiating them from her physical sensations—is she hungry, tired, or bored? Beginning in toddlerhood, a parent can use feeding practices that will set her child up for a healthy relationship with food. The way to do this is to make food (mostly) exclusive to addressing hunger. Having structured meal and snack times and eating food at the table helps children associate eating with physical hunger.

My client, Esty, worried about her four-year-old daughter who was asking for nosh all the time, and the cravings seemed mood related. Per my advice, she began serving structured meals and snacks at the table and saw success. One day after lunch, her toddler said she was hungry and wanted a nosh. Esty responded matter-of-factly that lunch was over and she wouldn’t be serving snack for another hour.

Her daughter sat quietly for a moment, and then moaned, “Mommy, I’m bored!” If Esty had responded with judgement (Why do you eat all this junk?) or argumentatively (You can’t be hungry—you just ate!), a useless power struggle would have ensued. If Esty had given her daughter the nosh, her daughter would have stuffed down her feelings of boredom with food, instead of discovering a stimulating activity to get busy with.

As discussed in previous articles, Esty followed Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility in Feeding. Using this feeding approach, she took charge of what foods were served at meal/snack time. Esty made sure to include some of her daughter’s favorite nosh foods as part of meals and snacks occasionally. She also joined her daughter at the table while she ate. By following these guidelines, Esty’s daughter didn’t feel deprived of her favorite foods. She did, however, learn to utilize the joy of food primarily in response to hunger. Endless nosh negotiations after meals were over as Esty’s toddler began to express her true needs.

Esty was then able to enter her daughter’s emotional world with empathy, creativity and meaningful conversations as she helped her daughter learn to express and cope with feelings such as boredom, sadness, jealousy and anger. Esty has not only benefitted her daughter’s nutrition, but has also enhanced her social and emotional wellbeing. 

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Here are some useful tips for parents who would like their children to have a healthy relationship with food.

  1. Parents can serve a wonderful birthday cake at their child’s birthday while emphasizing other enriching celebration activities such as games, birthday wishes, sharing memories and singing birthday songs. This creates a social and emotionally enriching celebration without losing the experience to a cake alone.
  2. Parents (and teachers) can motivate children using verbal acknowledgement or small non-food prizes such as stickers and erasers. Minimize the use of food for reward and motivation.
  3. Serve “Shabbos party” when enough time has passed since the seudah for the children to actually be hungry. Then, insist that the food be eaten at the table and serve “play foods” such as lollipops or taffies along with satisfying foods such as fruit, nuts and crackers. This makes the food more about hunger and less about play.
  4. Enhance a Chanukah party with family games, laughter and song. Nosh and doughnuts can be enjoyed too, but should not be the only form of celebration.
  5. Enhance a Shabbos seudah with family conversation, parsha sheets, stories and zemiros. Special Shabbos food should be enjoyed but should not be the only form of oneg Shabbos.
  6. Have scheduled meal and snack times where you serve food at the table.
  7. Insist that your children eat their meals/snacks at the table. When children take food into play areas or their bedroom, the food is more likely to be used for entertainment or comfort.
  8. Don’t bribe or threaten a child with food. Food is not a prize or a punishment. Food is a practical item that every child is entitled to at the right time in the right way.
  9. Don’t insist a child finish their protein or vegetables to get dessert. This heightens a child’s interest in the dessert food and decreases their interest in the meal foods.

Brochi Stauber is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist whose goal is to make healthy living a lifestyle reality for individuals and families. She combines clinical nutritional knowledge with an understanding of the behavioral science of food, enabling clients to sustain healthy habits. Contact her at 732-731-9340 or satisfinutrition@gmail.com.

Shira Francis is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in Chicago, IL. She provides guidance and counseling in relationships and self-development. Contact her at 773-971-3388 or shirafrancis@gmail.com.