Emotional Eating in Children and Adolescents

At some point in our lives, we all are emotional eaters. However, the development of this behavior occurs during childhood and adolescence due to multiple factors, such as our environment and eating habits. So, to manage emotional eating, it's key to detect it early on and to see a professional if necessary.
Emotional Eating in Children and Adolescents

Last update: 18 December, 2020

Throughout this article, we’ll learn how emotional eating can be managed and which factors cause it. But before that, we’ll see the definition of this behavior.

What is emotional eating?

First of all, it’s a concept that refers to the consumption of determined foods to manage emotions. Foods normally consumed in this way are palatable and high-calorie foods, such as sweet or savory snacks, French fries, nuts, cheese, etc. They’re considered a way to find momentary relief and escape from anxiety, sadness, etc.

And it’s momentary because, once you’ve turned to eating, you continue to feel the same as before. There may appear feelings of guilt. Research generally regards this behavior as a way of reacting to negative feelings, including even overeating. However, it’s also related to happiness and even to under-eating.

Its occurrence depends on the given moment and the mood we’re in, although it appears mostly during adolescence or after the age of 40 and 50. Besides, it’s more common in women due to the image of perfection or “superwoman” that society imposes. However, this doesn’t mean that men cannot be emotional eaters as well.

Also, we’d like to highlight that, depending on the case and frequency, emotional eating can be considered to be an eating disorder.

How emotional eating develops

Even though for some authors the genetic component influences its occurrence, it really is a learned behavior. So, the main causes are the family and social environment. That’s why we can say that childhood is the stage where it becomes vital to learn how to eat and manage emotions.

Emotional Eating in Children and Adolescents

Consider that at that age, this assimilation is gained through imitation and observation. In the beginning, they learn this behavior from their parents and other members of the household. Later, from their friends and teachers at school and extracurricular activities.

Therefore, it’s necessary to watch the behavior we show at the table, in front of the food, or regarding physical appearance. Even the way we express ourselves and solve conflicts will have an impact. Here are some risk factors that stand out:

  • Perfectionism and frustration over mistakes.
  • Negative criticism of body parts of our own or others’.
  • Obsessing over weight or how clothes fit us.
  • Restriction or prohibition of foods, either because we want to lose weight or because of negative attributions. In short: dieting. This makes us want to eat.
  • Using food to celebrate every achievement. This behavior in particular shouldn’t represent a problem as it’s part of our own culture.
  • Using food as a reward or as a way of forcing ourselves to finish something we hate. Also, encouraging consumption through a material reward.
  • The need to eat candies or to have snacks when we’re tired, sad, or when we’ve had a discussion.

Next, we’ll see the influence that the media has over messages related to this topic.

Advertisements and emotions

Throughout history, beauty standards have evolved. Since the ’90s, being thin has been a common goal, especially for girls and women. And here’s where magazines, publicists, and modeling agencies have seized the opportunity and shared behavioral patterns and imposing figures, as well as pieces of advice to lose weight or burn fat.

In fact, low-fat and low-calorie foods are often advertised. These consumptions increase the risk of developing eating disorders.

Also, advertisements highlight the pleasure that food gives us. For this reason, they use emotions as sales strategies. Some clear examples of this are ads in which a girl asks her father where happiness comes from, and he responds with a chocolate bar or pizza.

There are various versions for that last example: there is the advertisement with a girl left by her boyfriend and whose father offers her a comforting pizza, or the one with a mother who, after moving homes, suggests having pizza for dinner to make their children happy.

This is also seen in movies, especially in American ones. Do you remember those late-night scenes of a girl on the sofa, or the kitchen, scarfing ice-cream or surrounded by French fries and cookies? Most of the time we aren’t aware of the impact of these scenes, so we assume it’s something normal.

Stress, sadness, anxiety, or depression

As we’ve mentioned before, emotional eating is related to both overeating or undereating. What makes you lean towards one or the other? Your mood, the situation, the environment, previous experiences, and hormonal and neurotransmitters levels.

On the one side, it’s very common to feel stressed due to the economic situation as well as the interest that businesses and business people have in boosting productivity – and, hence, obtaining bigger benefits. But in reality, we aren’t machines and we can’t reach all the goals that society expects of us.

We also hold high expectations for everything and everybody. When we realize we cannot meet those expectations, anxiety and depression arouse. The best thing you can do is accept your limitations by lowering your standards to healthy ones, and learn from each moment, both good and bad, and from mistakes, too.

It’s also worth mentioning the impact of our massive exposure to information and new technologies, especially social networks. As a consequence, people may experience feelings of sadness or frustration that need to be dealt with adequately.

Emotional Eating in Children and Adolescents

Practical advice to treat and prevent emotional eating

  1. In the first place, watch yourself, and value how you feel, not only in front of food but also regarding your physical and mental health. Next, ask yourself how you can modify your way of seeing that and behaving. If this is hard for you, ask a psychologist for help. They’ll give you the tools you need to manage this and gain awareness. It’s never late to start therapy, even if it’s only preventive.
  2. Eat in a pleasant environment, free of discussions, impositions, and distractions. Why? In the first place, by doing this you avoid tensions, and, secondly, you can practice eating consciously, letting your appetite guide you, and enjoying the way food nourishes you.
  3. Try to dedicate at least 15 or 20 minutes to eat. How do you do this? Leave the fork at the table after each bite and chew slowly.
  4. Value yourself and others for their achievements and improvements. Avoid negative allusions to physical appearance. In this way, you encourage self-esteem and self-trust.
  5. If your goal is to lose weight or improve your body composition, make progressive changes. In this way, it will be easier to sustain them in the long term.
  6. Try to eat healthy and varied foods most of the time. From time to time, indulge yourself and eat something because you fancy it, such as a slice of cake or pizza.
  7. Forget all about prohibitions or lists of good and bad food for something in particular.
  8. Express your emotions with someone you trust. Help children recognize their feelings by using books and movies such as Inside Out.
  9. If anxiety arouses, try to breathe deeply to relax. It’s hard at the beginning, but it’s a matter of practice.
  10. If you’ve had a particularly bad or stressful day and fancy a certain food, try to look for a distraction such as exercising, going for a walk, calling a friend or talking to someone, etc.

Finally, remember to teach your children that eating is a basic need to live that generates pleasure and that it’s vital to express our emotions. And, above all, take into account the joint work of a psychologist and a dietitian-nutritionist or a master in dietetics to solve emotional eating.

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