When Emotional Eating Can Be Normal and Even Healthy
Learn when to worry and when it's best to let it go.
Posted December 21, 2022 | Reviewed by Tyler Woods
- The way parents approach feeding their kids can impact whether their child might use food to deal with emotions in helpful or unhelpful ways.
- Emotional eating that's short-term and situational can be healthy and normal.
- Using food to chronically avoid unpleasant or uncomfortable emotions can be problematic.
On my 16th birthday, my mother did a rare thing: she took the day off of work.
On that cold Friday morning in March, we got in her car and drove one town over. She pulled over to the curb, about 200 feet from a busy intersection, grabbed her purse, got out, and turned back with a wink and a wave. As I moved into the driver's seat, a stern-looking man with a clipboard joined me as a passenger. Less than 30 minutes later, my mother and I were cruising down the interstate together again and she was asking me what I wanted to do next.
To this day, I'm not sure what I was more excited about at that moment: having finally earned myself an official driver's license, or the fact that my mother was, clearly, playing hooky for the rest of the day so we could celebrate with a special lunch.
I chose a restaurant called Grandma's, known for its decadent desserts. Over 30 years have passed since that day, yet I still feel giddy remembering those slices of steamy apple pie we enjoyed together in that cozy booth.
Eating and Emotion Go Together
Eating is an intrinsically emotional experience. It involves memories, associations, and traditions, and is often done together with loved ones. Almost everyone can relate to using food to mark an emotionally-charged moment. Whether it's to add joy to a celebratory milestone, such as a birthday, graduation, or wedding, or to offer reassurance during moments of stress, sickness, or loss, we all use food in one way or another to enhance or soothe emotion.
Despite what fitness professionals and weight loss experts tell us, emotional eating is nothing to fear or cure. In fact, normalizing emotional eating can help improve our children's relationship with food as well as their nutritional health.
Raising our children to understand emotional eating helps them avoid the unnecessary guilt, remorse, and shame that often accompany it when we fear it is unhealthy or wrong. It also helps them avoid the negative effects of parental food restriction, which creates emotional chaos and binge eating behaviors that crowd out room in kids' bellies and diets, increasing the odds they'll miss out on important nutrients.
When Emotional Eating Isn't Healthy
While parents don't need to panic if their child is snacking more to deal with the stress of exam week, or baking batches of cookies to soothe the sadness of an important peer relationship that's turned rocky, if eating is the only way they can deal with uncomfortable or intense emotions then it needs to be addressed.
In my practice, I call this "evasive eating." Emotional eating that's short-term and situational is appropriate, normal, and even helpful. However, emotional eating that occurs consistently over the long term can be harmful, unhealthy, and even have a negative impact on nutritional health.
Here are some ways to be more understanding about your child's emotional eating as well as increase protection against evasive eating.
Avoid Dieting, Limiting, and Restricting
Research suggests that the more you restrict your child, the higher the chances they will go overboard on certain foods when a negative emotion or stress strikes. This is especially important to think about if you’re a parent who has been trying to limit foods for fear of weight gain—the more your child is feeling stressed about their eating or how you and others perceive their eating or weight, the more likely they might be to binge on food when anxiety, stress, or worry strikes.
Challenge Your Food Attitudes
The more relaxed you feel about enjoying celebratory foods or indulging in comforting food when needed, the less likely you'll experience the negative side effects that commonly (and necessarily) accompany emotional eating. In other words, if you do decide to have a bowl of creamy mac and cheese after a stressful or draining day, choosing to view it as a positive act of self-care as opposed to a food slip-up, will go a long way in protecting you from guilt and shame. It'll also help ensure you get the soothing benefit you were seeking from it in the first place.
We, as parents, unwittingly communicate our own negative bias toward long-maligned meals, dishes, and desserts to our children without realizing it. With this in mind, focusing on improving our own beliefs about what foods or eating behaviors are "healthy" or "unhealthy" can go a long way in helping our children have less disordered and more well-adjusted relationships with food of their own. If you can neutralize negative attitudes you have towards traditionally taboo, yet celebratory or comforting foods, your child will be able to enjoy them without unnecessary, internal conflict as they grow.
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Teach Them How to Talk About Emotions
Instead of worrying about how much or which foods your child eats when they're emotional, try paying closer attention to how well they're able to label and talk about their emotions instead. You can do this by checking in with them on a day-to-day basis or right before or after a meal or snack.
For example, is your child able to identify and share what kind of day they've had or name a prominent emotion they're feeling? If they're indulging in food for comfort, can they also talk about what’s bothering them? Or is the emotion as deeply buried as those chocolate bar wrappers under their bed? From my experience, children who are more communicative about their feelings are less likely to rely on food as a way to cope on a regular basis.
When to Ask for Help
Remember, these tips aren’t meant to prevent emotional eating. Rather they are meant to help you better understand that emotional eating can be normal—and to explain how making it forbidden might backfire.
If you suspect your child is relying on food as a way to avoid dealing with difficult emotions such as anxiety, boredom, depression, or stress for a long period of time, it's important to enlist the help of a psychotherapist who can help them work through the underlying problem. This approach will be more effective than focusing on trying to get them to eat less, or "healthier."
To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
Schnepper, Rebekka, Claudio Georgii, Katharina Eichin, Ann-Kathrin Arend, Frank H. Wilhelm, Claus Vögele, Annika P. C. Lutz, Zoé van Dyck, and Jens Blechert. “Fight, Flight, – Or Grab a Bite! Trait Emotional and Restrained Eating Style Predicts Food Cue Responding Under Negative Emotions.” Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience 14 (June 3, 2020). https://doi.org/10.3389/fnbeh.2020.00091.
Siegel, Daniel J., and Tina Payne Bryson. The Whole-Brain Child. 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind. Delacorte Press, 2011.