The emotional aspects of eating

Eating is not just about satisfying physical hunger. It is also closely linked to our emotions

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Many of us are aware of the link between our emotions and eating, but the extent of emotional among children and adolescents is often overlooked. Behaviour is governed by beliefs, feelings, motivation and emotions.

We are not referring to the emotional aspects surrounding food, such as social values, family customs and attitudes or the emotional value of food, but rather to behaviour that causes overeating, which, in turn, may lead to obesity in children and adolescents. These are specific situations in which food is used for reasons other than for nourishment, i.e., the emotional use of food.

In an article published in 2013, several studies were examined to demonstrate a relationship between obesity in children and adolescents and certain eating disorders, including binge eating, eating out of boredom, the so-called “emotional eating” and even sleep eating. Restrictive eating, which is now appearing at increasingly earlier ages, also leads to weight increase and ultimately eating disorders.

Situations

If we buy ice-cream or sweets to handle a tantrum, we are associating tasty food to curing a bad mood. When a child is bored and heads to the refrigerator to eat something nice that “fills this void”. If children eat chocolate or sweets to console or comfort themselves. If we reward children for finishing their dinner with their favourite dessert (ice-cream, custard, etc.) or we punish them for bad behaviour by taking it away. If we reward a good school report by taking them to a fast food restaurant. If we buy them sweets to stop them whining. All these situations “instruct” children by associating food with emotions, which in the long run can lead to excessive intake.

Excessive eating habits and their relationship with emotions:

  • Overeating: Different types of excess food intake, often compulsive (sometimes learned from family habits), sometimes due to boredom.
  • Emotional eating: eating in response to states of emotional excitement, such as fear, frustration, anger or anxiety.
  • External influences on food intake: eating in response to external factors, such as seeing and smelling food or seeing other people eat; these behaviours are related to impulsiveness.
  • Restrictive food intake: dieting or skipping meals to avoid to gaining weight are behaviours that are increasingly prevalent in preteens.
  • Binge eating: inability to control overeating, which is considered a pathological condition.
  • Food addiction: less frequent in children; this consists of searching for a reward in food, which leads to developing repetitive behaviours.

The link between food and emotions starts at birth and lasts throughout our lives:

  • Breastfeeding and the mother-child attachment bond
  • The correct introduction of complementary food and the gradual learning of new flavours (food neophobia)
  • Manage hunger and satiety (self-regulation of energy intake)
  • The setting and the socialisation process experienced by children during meals (food as a prize, threats, punishments, etc.)
  • Cultural heritage, the transmission of family and cultural beliefs about food
  • The use of food to relieve stress
  • Adolescence and assertion through the control of one's own body
  • Socialisation in adults and learning to enjoy food.

Parents should be aware of these situations and also the importance of establishing healthy eating habits in early childhood.

How to instil healthy eating habits

  • Avoid irregular eating times and eating on the go. This usually means eating fast food, which is high in calories and is typical of a lifestyle where planning meal times is difficult.
  • Take into account portion size (not knowing when you are full), when too many calories are ingested.
  • Controlling “hedonistic” eating, a habit that doesn't limit food intake and can involve eating for pleasure without actually being hungry.
  • Avoiding the use of food to soothe anxiety or stress, to provide comfort or reward or to relieve the child when he/she feels sad, angered or even bored. (compensatory orality)
  • Don't use food as a reward or a prize; Don't take away treats as a punishment, as this will make children more anxious for them.

Practical resources for families

  • Make dinner time an agreeable experience: Enjoy each other's company at dinner time. Use this time for positive conversations.
  • Preach by example: Teach your children about healthy eating, encourage them to eat slowly and focus on their food so they will develop their own tastes. Talk about their feelings and preferences.
  • Don't use high calorie foods as a prize or a reward, or use fruit and vegetables (or other healthy food) as a punishment.
  • How to avoid emotional eating: teach children to be aware of emotions, feelings or thoughts that make them feel unhappy (annoyance, rage, sadness...), help them to identify them and differentiate them from feelings of hunger.
  • Teach them to accept their own feelings, talk instead of giving them food to ease anxiety, find other resources to help them, such as dancing, drawing or going out for a walk.
  • For children affected by sensory stimuli in the environment: point out that they are not hungry, give them tips on managing and controlling their impulses, avoid exposure to stimuli that triggers the impulse to eat.
  • Don't restrict access to certain foods: Prohibiting food can have the opposite effect; it may accentuate children's preference for the food.
  • Children and adolescents who restrict eating to control their weight: look for other ways to boost their self-esteem, such as with artistic, sports or social activities they are good at.
  • It is important to help your pre-teen and teenage children to develop a healthy body image, make them aware of values other than physical beauty, teach them to take a critical viewpoint of the current models of beauty, etc.
  • Aiming for 5 meals a day without skipping breakfast or dinner to “avoid gaining weight”. Stick to the same meal times, avoid eating at all hours, plan ahead.