IS MY CHILD AN EMOTIONAL EATER?
What to do if your child is an “emotional eater”?
I get this question A LOT.
Parents who ask this question have noticed some kind of preoccupation with food. They are on target when they notice that something is not “right”. They feel that the child’s relationship with food is distorted somehow. They seem to be eating beyond fullness, or are too pre-occupied in food. Parents often look for emotional reasons that their children are eating in this way.
“My child would eat two huge suppers – one with the little kids and another one when my husband and I ate together 1 hour later. How could he possibly be hungry for that? He must be eating because he’s lonely at school or didn’t make the debating team ”
“My 8 year old Johnny talks about food all day long. As soon as we get in the car after school, he wants to know what’s for lunch? And then he asks for snacks incessantly throughout the afternoon? Why can’t he play like other kids. Maybe he’s like his uncle he eats compulsively and has no self-control?
The observation is spot on. However, the label of ‘emotional eating is a dangerous one, and based on many myths, misunderstandings and dangerous assumptions. The observations are usually astute, but the damage comes when the root cause is misunderstood and the resulting actions from the parents.
Firstly, when do parents worry that their child eats “emotionally”?
SIGNS OF EMOTIONAL EATING ACCORDING TO PARENTS
- Ask for treats all day long
- Overeats regularly
- Seems to eat much more than is physically necessary
- Look for food where they are bored
- Can’t seem to get enough food at a party
- Seems junk-food obsessed
- Eats very quickly
- Always asks about food, talks compulsively about food
- Sneaks, steals or hides food
- Is scared of being hungry
- Food is the first they talk about after school, or before going to an event
Now, don’t get me wrong. These are signs that should not be ignored. They are signs that something is not right when it comes to your child’s relationship to food.
But labelling it as emotional eating is a dangerous leap, and ignores the real cause of the problem. Without understanding the actual cause, any treatment will fail and backfire. The first step is to understand what is meant by emotional eating.
WHAT IS EMOTIONAL EATING
Emotional eating is defined as eating in response to something other than hunger. Oftentimes people eat out of stress, anxiety, anger, depression, and happiness. Eating for reasons other than hungry. Bored? Make a pizza. Angry? Eat a bar of chocolate. Lonely? Look in the fridge. It means that people use food to manage their emotions.
Now, there is tons of research on this, and using food for a coping tool is common ONLY in dieters. (it is fascinating to note that people are eat emotionally as a regular habit are those who diet. It becomes a coping tool for people who restrict their food. Look around – think of when you began eating emotionally).
Don’t hear this as: its never normal to eat for reasons other than hunger. Many people with healthy food relationships turn to food at times as a source of comfort. (When my car was stolen the only thing that soothed me was eating a box of smarties in my bed). We eat our birthday cake at a work party even if we aren’t hungry because it looks yummy. That’s normal.
It’s when food is a persons ONLY coping mechanism that things go awry. They use food to reward themselves, to punish themselves to soothe themselves. Food is not anymore about nourishment or satisfaction; it’s about fulfilling emotional needs. Food as a coping mechanism results from dieting. How crazy?
Christy Harrison, registered dietitian, explains how emotional eating is borne from biological and psychological deprivation.
“Physical deprivation is when you don’t eat enough and you’re biologically hungry,” Harrison said. “People can feel like they ‘shouldn’t’ be feeling hungry because they ate ‘enough’ food according to the diet, so they blame themselves and label the eating they’re doing ’emotional’ — instead of blaming the diet for making them so physically deprived that they can’t help but eat.”
Psychological deprivation can happen when you’ve placed a certain food off-limits, making it “forbidden.” “You end up eating that food and feeling overly full — and then label that type of eating as ’emotional’ instead of recognizing that the rule forbidding you to eat that particular food is what caused the eating, and the solution is removing the restriction.”
When it comes to kids (and adults), we don’t want them to eat emotionally. Eating emotionally means they lose the ability to self-regulate, and self-regulation is THE key to a happy & healthy relationship to food.
Now labelling children as emotional eaters is NOT accurate. The correct term is rather ‘Eating in the Absence of Hunger’ (EAH) and I will use that going forward.
The million dollar question is – why would a child Eat in the Absence of Hunger
Children are born with innate hunger and fullness cues, and if they are fed correctly, they eat according to enjoyment and nourishment. A child will – without any thought to it – leave over three French fries when they are satisfied. They will leave over half their ice cream cone when they are full.
They are the most attuned eaters (unless something ruins this ability). EAH is actually a biological or psychological response to feeling and being restricted around food. Eating too much occurs out of deprivation and is a much more accurate description of the root cause of your child’s behavior. 9 times out 10, if you dig deeper you will see this happening in the feeding relationship. You will find the parents covertly and overtly restricting the child’s eating in the type of foods they feed and how much they allow the child to eat. You also can have a child who has been taught to use food as a comfort for negative emotions, but this usually occurs together with restrictive feeding practices.
Here are some examples:
- They don’t know when they are going to get food next, or don’t get food regularly
“My mother was very disorganized and forgot to feed us until we asked. She has a tiny appetite, and never gave us food unless we reminded her. She packed us tiny school lunches and we were always hungry”
- They feel deprived around certain foods (here is your piece of chocolate, but no more until next week)
“My father would buy us a chocolate slab once a week and divide it up between the whole family. Other than that, chocolate was banned in our house. If we ate sugar at a friend, we would get a lecture about health”
- They are constantly comforted and rewarded with food (here have a cookie don’t feel sad)
“Every time I fought with a friend, my mother baked a cake. She didn’t like talking, so would show her love by baking for me. That was how she comforted me. I never learned to endure my difficult feelings or that they were not to be afraid of.
- They are not allowed/ discouraged from eating enough of the foods they want at mealtimes (no you can’t have more pasta, you can have more salad)
- They are physiologically hungry – their portions are controlled, and they don’t the opportunity to eat till fullness
“When my daughter gained weight I began feeding the whole family on side plates and made a rule: no one can have seconds. I did it to make sure she didn’t overeat, but she would be in the kitchen looking for food before bed”
- They are fed diet foods: “I began buying only fat-free dairy and low-carb bread and that’s what my 3 year old was allowed to eat”
- Their hunger levels and appetites are questioned and doubted constantly: “I ask my daughter, are you sure you want more? You must be full already. How can she possibly still be hungry?”
- They are fed differently to their siblings: “When we go out together as a family, I offer my skinny eldest son dessert at a restaurant, but will never offer my chubby son anything like that”
In simple terms, your child eats in the absence of hunger because they are deprived of having enough food – physically or emotionally. They message they get is that you don’t trust them and they get anxious.
You know when you eat that last meal before you go on diet on Monday? You pig out and eat way more of forbidden foods, in anticipation of when they are wont be “allowed”. When a child is regularly deprived or restricted, they overeat whenever they get the chance.
Eating emotionally primarily comes when a child does not trust they will get ENOUGH food or be allowed to eat as much as they want. It’s a biological response to restriction. They begin fearing they won’t get enough, so overeat when they can. They become pre-occupied because they are anxious they wont get enough.
“My 4-year-old would eat everything on her plate and asks for more every time. I then learned that small children need to eat every 2 -4 hours. I was feeding her lunch at 12 and expecting her to last till supper at 6pm with just a fruit in between. I was not providing food often enough; I thought she was obsessed with eating when actually she was hungry often”.
It also can arise when your child has somehow learned to comfort themselves with food. When parents soothe emotions regularly with food (Eg “Are you sad? Come have a cookie, you will feel better”), they learn that as a primary tool for dealing with difficult emotions.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU CHILD EATS “EMOTIONALLY”
So, if you believe your child is eating out of the absence of hunger the answer is NOT to try get them to eat less, or put them on diet, or carry on any subtle forms of controlling how much and what they eat.
That is what has caused the problem, and by introducing stricter portion control or eliminating all junk food from your house, nothing will be resolved.
Trying to get them to eat less will INCREASE these behaviors you want to address.
The answer is to begin to help them to reestablish trust and safety around food, and allow them get in touch with their body’s signals again.
If you fear your child eats emotionally, first look at your own feeding practices. The behaviours you are seeing are most likely signs of food deprivation and food insecurity
- You restrict them openly or secretly.
- You have a one treat a day rule.
- You constantly talk about the virtue of healthy food and being healthy
- You comment about their weight and suggest they eat less
- You don’t ever buy junk food
- You lock the junk food up
- You give them the “look” when they eat too much
- You serve small portions, and offer no seconds.
- You restrict or eliminate certain food groups – eg stop serving carbohydrates at dinner, or say “only one roll for everyone, there’s not enough” because of weight
- You reward and comfort with food regularly
If these are true, you first want to change these practices and see what happens. It’s easy to say: You are eating too much, eat less. But unless you address the root cause – the restriction – you will be caught in a vicious cycle.
Is your child an emotional eater? I don’t know. I do know that enabling self-regulation is only possible with a trust-based feeding model, and that feeding with enough structure and without interference will ensure that your child uses food for what is – fuel, nourishment, satisfaction, and once in a while comfort.
To answer the question:
Your child is a most probably restricted, deprived (physically or psychologically) eater.
IF YOU CARRY ON RESTRICTING REGULARLY YOU ARE SETTING YOUR CHILD UP FOR
- A lifetime of dieting
- Increased risks of eating disorders
- Low body image and low self-esteem as a result
- Lifetime struggle with food and body
Is this scaring you? It scares me. Because I see on a daily basis how many exceptional women spend their days trying to be thin enough so they can loved, worthy and acceptable.
At one time, this innocent girl was told that their body is not good enough, and began the cruel road of dieting bingeing and fearing food. But it doesn’t have to be that way. You can raise a child with a different narrative around their body.
The best way to reestablish trust around food is to follow the Satter Division of Responsibility (sDOR) in Feeding. This model defines very clear boundaries around whose job is what when it comes to feeding. It states that people can regulate themselves when given the support, structure and opportunity.
HOW TO FIX IT
- Provide food regularly. Your job is to provide ENOUGH food regularly. Offer meals or snacks every 2 – 4 hours. Don’t wait for your child to come to and ask for food. They need to know you will provide for them without them asking.
- Let your child eat as much as they want. This is THE most important part. Unconditional permission to eat is how a child and adult becomes safe around food again. Keep saying: you can have as much as you want. Do you want more? Pack his lunch box filled to the brim in the beginning. Offer every food group at every meal with fats, carbs and proteins. Don’t try get them thin by giving them diet food. You must do this like a broken record. You cannot say: are you sure you are still hungry. Or that’s enough pasta you are going to make yourself sick. Or too much bread is unhealthy. You cannot say a word. You must (pretend to) trust them. Remember, only they know when enough is. All bodies are different. Teenagers eat a fortune. Even if another sibling eats much less, this child has a different appetite and body.
- Include treat foods often and neutrally and have many occasions where they can east as much as they want. Read here about this in more detail. Maintain a clear meal and snack structure – don’t offer food whenever they ask or dish it out when they are bored, lonely or angry.
- Help them deal with their emotions in other ways besides food. This article explains in detail how to do this.
What to expect:
Depending on the level and length of restriction, the beginning can be TERRIFYING
Your child will overeat
Your child has lost the ability to know when’s enough. His fear of not getting enough has led him to ignore his fullness and hunger cues. He will overeat in the beginning. He is re-learning his body’s wisdom, without your constant limits and input. He doesn’t believe that you will actually let him eat as much as he wants.
“I never allowed sugar in the house and my 6 year old was obsessed with it. I began bringing it into the home, and in the first two weeks, my daughter ate liters of ice-cream at a time”
You will freak out
You may be terrified. What if he gets fatter? What if he never stops eating? This can be excruciating. If you need get professional support to handle your own fears and expectations. But don’t start restricting again. You have to be consistent even if it kills you. It a support partner or IE coach to work through your fears
Changes will begin to appear
Slowly things will shift. When they are secure they will get enough food, they stop asking about food all the time. And when food does appear they eat till fullness and move on.
“My daughter now sometimes doesn’t finish her plate. She asks for seconds, and has a spoon and then is done. She has a bite of cake and is full. She still loves eating and eats with gusto but it’s a non-issue in our house since we followed this plan. She has been telling me she is full recently, something she never did before. Sometimes I offer snacks and she doesn’t even want. Her appetite varies from day to day. “
“My son turns down sweets now because they are “too sweet for me”
To make the changes last:
- Reinforce body trust. Sometimes kids are so used to be controlled with eating that they ask their parents: is this enough food? Keep saying: your body knows, I trust you. Body trust is the biggest gift you can give your child, and when you tell them you know better than them, you diminish their body trust
- Immerse yourself in the world of Health at Every Size. Challenging weight bias and diet culture is critical if you are to succeed in the long term. Learn about this scientific framework where health is independent of size and thinness is not idealized and body diversity is appreciated.
- Model and talk about other coping mechanisms besides for eating. (You are feeling sad now, and that’s okay. Would you like me to sit with you and read a story? Would you like to listen to music on your earphones?)
If it doesn’t work
If after this structure has been followed for a long time, and consistently (no subtle pressures or false permission to eat) and the parents have a decent relationship with food (don’t restrict, diet, talk about weight & the rest) and the child is STILL displaying these behaviours, get help from a therapist who works in Health at Every Size and sDOR. (Any other therapist who does not understand these factors cannot support you fully and may offer counterproductive advice).
If you believe your child has learned to use food as coping mechanism for difficult emotions, and by removing restrictions and implementing a strict division of responsibility in feeding hasn’t worked, get help from a therapist who can help your child develop other ways to handle emotions and who understands sDOR.
If your child is older (over 10) and you have been trapped in the restriction cycle for a number of years, you will gain a lot from external professional help, and may benefit from separate therapeutic interventions for parents and children.