Emotional feeding triggers emotional eating
January 8, 2019
Parents are presumed to be the most powerful socialization agents affecting young children’s eating behavior. They are the chief providers and the main “gatekeepers” of food, they model eating behavior, and they affect their children’s eating through parenting and feeding styles.
Eating behavior influences energy intake, and thus weight, through choices of the type and amount of food. Healthy development of eating behavior is important in order to sustain a healthy weight throughout life, and it is also shown to protect against eating disorders.
Emotional eating, otherwise known as the tendency to eat more in response to negative emotions, is among the eating behaviors associated with overweight and distorted eating. Although the most biologically natural response to emotional distress is to eat less, as children mature, they tend to emotionally overeat rather than under-eat. Can parents affect such tendency, and if so, how?
To isolate the role of genes and environments in shaping emotional overeating in childhood, we analyzed data from the GEMINI study, a significant study of more than 2,400 British families with twins born in 2007. Parents rated their twins’ tendencies to emotionally overeat when they were toddlers (16 months), and again when they were 5 years old.
Results showed that the most important influence on the tendency to comfort eat as a child is environmental experiences shared by twins; genes were unimportant. Thus, emotional eating is due to nurture, not nature.
Built on this finding, and given the important role of parents in shaping children’s eating, we aimed to examine whether parental behavior can promote and/or prevent the development of emotional eating in their offspring.
It is not uncommon for some parents to use food to soothe their child’s distress, called emotional feeding. However, using food to soothe may inadvertently teach the child to apply the same tactics themselves when in distress.
A child that is repeatedly fed when she or he is upset or expresses negative emotions learns that eating helps to regulate such emotions and might be more likely to emotionally overeat.
To test whether parental emotional feeding can lead to emotional overeating in children, we analyzed data from the TESS cohort, a study of nearly one thousand families in Trondheim, Norway. Parents were asked to rate the emotional overeating of their children as well as their own habits of giving sweets or snacks to calm or cheer up their children. Parents answered these questions when their kids were 6, 8, and 10 years old.
The results showed that emotional feeding is a risk factor for children to develop emotional overeating habits: offspring of parents who reported the use of food to soothe their child displayed more emotional overeating over time.
Notably, children are not only passive recipients of their parents’ behavior, they also affect their parents.
Our study showed that parents whose children were more likely to emotionally overeat displayed more emotional feeding over time. We found parents’ emotional feeding promoted children’s emotional eating, and children’s emotional eating promoted parents’ emotional feeding.
Although we did not examine the underlying mechanisms, it is reasonable to assume that parents use emotional feeding because it works, and it works especially well in children who are particularly prone to emotionally overeat and are more easily soothed by food. Essentially, parents and children reinforce each other’s behavior.
It should also be noted that our study revealed that children who are more temperamentally difficult to soothe were at increased risk for future emotional eating and feeding. Due to their temperamental characteristics, these children will display more negative emotions and will more often be in emotional states that require regulation (i.e., finding ways to calm down).
Children who are more easily upset, and their parents, may need more strategies to handle negative emotions, which might explain why they are at risk for emotional eating and feeding. If emotional eating and feeding works, why not use it? My answer to that is: although it might work in the short run, the long-term consequences might be becoming overweight and exhibiting distorted eating.
When children are upset, give them a hug, put them on your lap, or try to calm them down by talking to them. Experiencing negative emotions is a part of being a human being. Children need to learn adaptive ways to handle their emotions, and eating is not among those ways.
Dr. Steinsbekk is an associate professor at the Department of Psychology, Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) and co-PI of the Trondheim Early Secure study (TESS). The TESS is a longitudinal study of psychosocial development and mental health in childhood, following almost a thousand children and their parents biennially from the age of four. Dr. Steinsbekk is a clinical child- and adolescent psychologist and worked for several years at an outpatient child-and adolescents clinic at the children’s hospital in Trondheim, Norway. She has a Phd in treatment of obesity in children.