Emotional eating is a term used when children or adults use food as a way to make themselves feel better and receive comfort and satisfaction. It is eating for reasons other than satisfying actual physical hunger. Both positive and negative emotions may motivate this type of eating. Some children and teens can get into a pattern where every time they feel any emotion — sadness, loneliness, anxiety or even happiness — they turn to food. Patterns of eating when they are not hungry and eating at times other than regular meal or snack times may require closer monitoring.
A child or teen may reach for food when experiencing any of the following: boredom, insecurity, anger, depression, loneliness, happiness, stress, fatigue, frustration or resentment. It is important for your children to think about how their feelings are linked to food and begin to see if they have built up any habits over time.
When your kids reach for food when feeling any of the above emotions, you need to look at factors that contribute to such patterns of eating. Children need to learn and establish healthy eating patterns and behaviors, but also should address the emotional issues that cause them to reach for food.
Differentiating Between Physical and Emotional Hunger
Kids need to learn the difference between physical and emotional hunger. Children and teens may need to ask the question, “Where am I on my hunger tracking scale?” A hunger tracking scale can be used to track physical hunger. Number one is the need to eat right away, number two to three may indicate very hungry, number four to five is hungry, number six to seven is feeling content, number eight to nine is feeling full, and number ten is uncomfortable from eating too much. A child at number six may need to say, “I am not hungry but why am I reaching for food?”
Many emotional eaters are not aware of the reason they are eating and sometimes are not aware of the amount of food they are eating. Using the hunger tracking scale may give your child or teen a chance to pause before reaching for food and ask, “If I am not really hungry, what am I feeling and what can I do instead of reaching for food?” Your kids need to know that there are children, teens and adults who struggle with this type of eating and you want to help them discover which triggers, situations or emotions lead to this type of eating and learn ways to prevent it. Emotional or comfort eating may lead to weight gain, as children and teens may be eating extra food in addition to planned meals and snacks. One way to prevent weight gain is for your kids to recognize and separate emotions from food and eating.
Monitoring Foods and Feelings
A food diary is one way to monitor what kids are eating and what they are feeling at the time. They should see if there are any experiences or feelings that are leading them to eat when they are not hungry or any triggers that keep occurring. Children and teens need to remember that most feelings and emotions are temporary, and that they can learn new ways to cope. They need to learn what their emotional triggers are and have a plan in place to deal with these triggers when they occur. Asking “Am I really hungry or do I just want to change how I feel?” may help kids to understand why their emotions are making them indulge. Each time your kids see that the urge passes, they will feel more in control. Children and teens may need to find other sources of comfort besides food. When they are aware of their feelings, one way to find comfort or satisfaction is to do something they really enjoy — such as listening to music, reading a book or trying some type of relaxation technique.
Choosing Healthier Alternatives
Another way to control cravings or foods that bring comfort is to pick a healthy alternative. As parents, you can provide a healthier portion-controlled snack to satisfy a specific craving. If kids are craving something sweet such as ice cream, replace it with low-fat frozen yogurt. If they are craving something salty like potato chips or French fries, serve popcorn or rice cakes with cheese or peanut butter. Another way for them to realize how much they are eating is to take the snack out of the bag or container, put it on a plate and eat slowly. They should enjoy what they are eating and be encouraged to eat meals and snacks without the television on.
Children and teens can explore which feelings lead to emotional eating. If your son eats when he is feeling lonely, help him think of things he can do in response to that feeling. Are there people in his life who make him feel good and friends with whom he enjoys talking? Let him know that a long list of family members would love to hear from him, especially grandparents or those who live alone.
Encourage young children and teens to find volunteer activities that can satisfy feelings of loneliness. A child in your neighborhood may need assistance with homework. As parents, we need to look at our child’s schedule and see if there are some interesting activities that can alleviate feelings of loneliness and sadness.
Feeling anxious may lead to emotional eating. A way to reduce feelings of anxiety is with a form of physical activity such as brisk walking, running or even dancing to songs on the radio. See if your child or teen has some available time to join an after-school club or sports team. If your kids are not interested in joining a school activity, see if there is a community center that has programs of interest to your child or teen, or a sports league with programs. If emotional eating is increasing due to an increase in anxiety, it may be time to talk with a healthcare professional.
Periods of boredom or being very tired may lead to emotional eating. Your children need to understand that they are allowed to have time to just relax, curl up with a favorite book or watch a television program they enjoy. Encourage fun activities, which are a healthy way to combat eating when not hungry.
Sheryl Zang, EdD, FNP, CNS-BC, is an associate professor at Downstate Medical Center, College of Nursing. A nurse for 38 years, she is presently running groups for children and teens with diabetes.