Emotional eating: why we shouldn’t comfort or reward children with sweets and snacks
Many parents have used food to comfort or calm children at some point, but new research confirms that it’s a short-term fix that can have long-term negative consequences
Most parents have done it at some point: calmed and comforted their children with sweets, ice cream or their favourite snack when they’re hurt or upset.
“Of course it comes from the best intentions – no one likes to see their child experiencing emotional discomfort,” says Hong Kong-based eating behaviour coach Tatiana Kuvardina. “Parents are instinctively trying to help – to distract, to comfort, to replace pain with pleasure – and they are simply unaware that emotional feeding might have bitter consequences for their kids in the future.”
Emotional eating – increasing food consumption as a result of negative emotions – has been shown in a number of studies to be linked to obesity, which in turn is associated with conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. Add to that a fast-food culture and sedentary lifestyle and the situation is worsened.
Childhood obesity is a growing concern in Hong Kong and China. According to Hong Kong health officials, although the percentage of overweight students in the city decreased from 21.4 per cent in 2010 to 20.9 in 2012, this rate is significantly higher than the 16.4 per cent of 15 years ago.
A study conducted between 1985 and 2014 on nearly 40,000 students aged seven to 18 by the Shandong Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in Jinan, Shandong province, eastern China found that about one in six boys and one in 11 girls were obese.
More recent research conducted in Hong Kong as part of the Nutrition Exploration Journey programme by charity St. James’ Settlement canvassed the opinions of 2,600 Primary Four and Five students and their parents at eight schools. The findings highlight a major gap between nutritional knowledge and diet preferences among parents and their children.
While 75.4 per cent of parents said they believe nutritional value is the most important criterion when preparing breakfast for children, many admitted they tend to focus in reality more on convenience and children’s preferences.
In fact, nearly half of them choose processed meat snacks, like fish siu mai, fish balls and sausages, for their children’s breakfast.
At its core, emotional eating is actually a normal phenomenon for humans: we are emotional beings and we all have an emotional connection with food. It starts from the very first time a mother feeds her newborn – not only is the baby getting nourishment from her, it is connecting food to a feeling of safety, pleasure, comfort, love, and being cared for.
Emotions and eating are connected on a physiological level as well – our brain produces pleasure hormones in response to eating, so you could say we all are emotional eaters to some extent. It becomes a form of disordered eating, however, when people start to exploit eating in order to fabricate feelings or manage their moods, instead of using proper coping strategies (such as resting, connecting with family and friends, or asking for support).
A new study conducted on a group of 801 children in Norway by researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, King’s College London, University College London, and the University of Leeds found that young children whose parents offered them food as a means of comforting them between the ages of four and six had more emotional eating at ages eight to 10.
Moreover, parents whose children were more easily comforted with food were more likely to offer them food to soothe them (ie, to engage in emotional feeding).
Thus, emotional feeding increased emotional eating, and emotional eating increased emotional feeding. The study also showed that higher levels of negative emotions and poor self-regulation (getting angry or upset easily) reported in four-year-olds increased their risk for emotional eating and feeding when they turned six.
Children who are easily upset and have difficulty controlling their emotions are more likely to eat emotionally than calmer children, perhaps because they experience more negative emotions and eating helps them calm down, says Lars Wichstrøm, professor of psychology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, who co-authored the study.
“Our research adds to this knowledge by showing that children who are more easily upset are at highest risk for becoming emotional eaters,” he says.
According to the study’s lead author, Silje Steinsbekk, associate professor of psychology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, understanding where emotional eating comes from is important because such behaviour can increase the risk of being overweight and of developing eating disorders. “If we can find out what influences the development of emotional eating in young children, parents can be given helpful advice about how to prevent it,” she says.
Cristina Tahoces, a Hong Kong-based nutritionist and owner of Thrive Nutrition Practice, believes we’ve created a lot of emotional attachments to food. When we think about birthdays and celebrations, we make plenty of delicious food and have a cake. Happy summer days are synonymous with ice cream and iced tea.
“I think many parents – me included – are guilty of using food to make our children happy. This is natural,” she says. “The problem is that these comfort foods are predominantly sugar and refined carbohydrates, and in many cases, our children are already eating too much of these.
"These foods aren’t ‘special treats’ any more – they make up a large part of children’s diets and that in and of itself is creating and exacerbating a host of children’s health issues, including allergies, asthma, eczema, psoriasis, type 2 diabetes, obesity and depressed immunity.’
Tahoces’ tips on how to curb emotional eating and promote mindful eating among children
Don’t use food as a reward. Instead, reward your child with an extra bedtime story or special time with mum or dad. Often emotional eating happens because we yearn for emotional connection. So, give your child emotional connection so that they understand to distinguish between their need for food and their need for approval or affection.
When you do need to use food as a reward or special treat, focus on using whole foods. Your child is less likely to binge on bowls of fruit salad or chia pudding than they would on biscuits or chocolate bars. Eating whole food promotes a healthy leptin (a satiety hormone) response, which means that you will be helping your child be more mindful and aware of when his body is saying “enough”.
Don’t allow mobile phones or any other screen use during meals. If we’re focused on the screen, it is impossible to be focused on the enjoyment of the meal, and may miss the signals from the body that it has had enough.
Offer children three square meals a day consisting of protein, healthy fats, vegetables and whole grains. Children who eat a nutrient-rich diet have fewer cravings, will binge less and have fewer blood sugar crashes.