There are loads of emotional reasons that explain why people eat even when they're not hungry: Boredom, stress, and depression are all common triggers for kids as well as adults. According to Edward Abramson, Ph.D., an internationally recognized expert on emotional eating, eating disorders and weight control, we're faced with an astounding 200 eating decisions a day and only a small portion of those is associated with hunger. Consider these scenarios: As you watch television, you are bombarded by food commercials; you walk past someone’s desk at work and notice a bowl of candy; or it’s six o’clock so you automatically sit down to dinner and eat, even though you might not be very hungry – any of this sound familiar?
Why do so many of us fall into this pattern? Abramson explains that, “eating emotionally can presumably be traced back to infancy. It's thought that mothers will frequently misinterpret a child’s cry or distress as hunger, when in actuality, the child may be frightened, need a diaper change, or feel too cold, for example.” Somehow, the act of feeding is associated with being comforted and nurtured, and as we grow up and experience things that are unpleasant we resort to food to make ourselves feel better. Sometimes, Abramson states, “emotional eating is associated with positive emotions. For instance, if a child gets straight A’s on a report card, she may want to celebrate by eating a hot fudge sundae. But for the most part, emotional eating is associated with negative emotions.”
Additionally, if your child loves sugary foods, it may not be solely due to snack food companies’ marketing campaigns aimed at our kids. Abramson notes that there is an evolutionary case that suggests people are born liking sweet tastes. “Best guesses indicate that very few poisonous substances were sweet and our pre-historical ancestors who ate bitter and sour things were more likely to get poisoned and die than those who ate sweet things. So now, generations later, we are born with an affinity for sweet things.” But having an affinity for sweet things is one thing; reaching for those Double-Stuffed Oreos every time you feel down, is another.
The good news is that once aware of emotional eating patterns, families can work together to curtail it. Here are several key things Abramson says parents can do:
- Limit TV time. There's no question about the direct relationship between watching TV and overeating. The two things go together like peanut butter and jelly. Snacking while watching TV, regardless of hunger or blood sugar level, is a habit young people develop that's often reinforced by commercials aimed at kids promoting sugary treats and drinks. “You don’t see any advertisements for broccoli or asparagus,” comments Abramson who believes parents should spend time watching TV with their kids. “I don’t think kids should idly channel surf and decide what programs they want to watch. Mom and dad should watch TV with them and they will see how the media frequently communicates unrealistic body images, especially for adolescent girls. Talk about these things together and use TV as a teaching tool.” And, make sure the TV stays is the living room or family room; kids should not have a television in their bedroom. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids should watch two hours of television a day at most and Abramson suggests that video games, DVDs, and recreational computer use be included in that time allotment. Idle time in front of a screen increases the likelihood of idle eating to go along with it. Interestingly, he says, watching TV “actually lowers your basal metabolism, so you are better off sitting and doing nothing."
- Put food in a designated area. Rather than leaving candies in the living room and snacks in the car, keep everything in the kitchen and dining room so that there are clearly defined eating areas and less visual stimulation. Naturally, you should stock up on healthy snacks like fresh fruits and vegetables instead of junk food. Expect some resistance at first, but don’t make it a battle of the wills. Abramson advises, “If your child won’t eat broccoli, retreat gracefully but keep trying.”
- Be careful as to how you "use" feeding. In the earlier example of a child who brings home straight A’s on her report card and wants to celebrate with a hot fudge sundae, other rewards that don’t involve food would be more appropriate. Take a fun family trip, throw a swim party, or go for a bike ride together. “If you do this right, the pairing of eating with self-nurturing will diminish.”
- Avoid putting your child on a diet. Abramson sees kids begin to diet before they are even in kindergarten. “It is counterproductive and can lead to eating disorders and a battle of wills with parents. Moreover, kids require a fair amount of calories in order to grow.” The key, rather than dieting, is for parents to model good behaviors and providing your kids with the right kinds of calories e.g. the right kinds of foods. In older children, it's also reasonable to encourage discussions around how they are feeling when they are suspected of eating emotionally. Parental support and encouragement may be helpful in dealing with these feelings. To initiate a conversation, you might ask your child, “Are you bored?” or “Are you really hungry, is your stomach growling?”
- Be mindful of environmental contributors. Sometimes, it is not entirely an individual choice that contributes to emotional eating. School lunches, for instance, may not supply any ideal choices. So, bringing a nutritious lunch from home may be the better alternative.
- Have your child keep a food journal. If your children are older, keeping track of the food they consume on a daily basis may help them realize when and why they eat. Teenagers are old enough to do this, and given how technically savvy they are, Abramson says they may prefer to download online programs such as www.loseit.com to their smartphones. This App enables people to set caloric goals and calculate their actual intake by recording foods and exercise.
- Get out of the house. It may seem obvious, but not everybody does it. Make sure your teen does something active to increase endorphins, which make you feel good and keep you energized. Try something you and your teen can do together, whether it's a hike at a local park, a casual soccer game, or walking the dog. Not only will you be keeping your teen active and instilling healthy habits, but you'll also get to squeeze in some bonding time.
About Edward Abramson, Ph.D.: Dr. Abramson gives workshops and talks on emotional eating, weight control and eating disorders throughout the U.S., Canada and Europe. He is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Chico State University and has a private practice in Lafayette, California. He is the former Director of the Eating Disorders Center at Chico Community Hospital and has appeared on numerous radio and television shows including 20/20, Hard Copy and Joan Rivers. Dr. Abramson is the author of four books including Emotional Eating: What You Need To Know Before Starting Your Next Diet (Jossey-Bass) and Body Intelligence: Lose Weight, Keep It Off and Feel Good About Your Body Without Dieting (McGraw-Hill). He is currently working on his next book, It’s Not Just Baby Fat: Ten Steps To Help Your Child To a Healthy Weight.