We all do it. We gorge on chocolate biscuits after getting bad news, plunge our faces into a bowl of stodgy pasta after a stressful day at work, or guzzle a tub of Ben & Jerry’s to forget our pain during a breakup.
These situations sound cliché – and that’s because they are. Emotional eating – eating when we’re experiencing negative emotions – is normal and, while it’s not necessarily “bad”, it doesn’t solve our problems and we usually feel like crap afterwards.
So, why do we do it? According to new research, the way our parents fed us as we were growing up could be partly to blame. Children whose parents feed them to soothe their emotions are more likely to become “emotional eaters” as adults.
The research, published in the journal Child Development, analysed emotional feeding and eating in 801 Norwegian 4-year-olds, examining them again at ages 6, 8 and 10 to determine the impact of parents on their eating behaviour. It’s the first time emotional eating has been studied in school-age children, the researchers said.
Nearly two-thirds (65%) of the children showed some emotional eating. Children whose parents offered them food to soothe them at age 4 and 6 were more likely to emotionally eat at ages 8 and 10.
The parents of these children would offer food to make them feel better, but the reverse was also true – parents were more likely to “emotionally feed” their child if the child was more easily comforted by food.
“Thus, emotional feeding increased emotional eating, and emotional eating increased emotional feeding,” the researchers said.
Understanding the origins of emotional eating is important, “because such behaviour can increase the risk for being overweight and developing eating disorders," said Dr. Silje Steinsbekk, associate professor of psychology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, who led the study.
"If we can find out what influences the development of emotional eating in young children, parents can be given helpful advice about how to prevent it."
Many of us will remember being offered sweets to quell a childhood tantrum or instil good behaviour. Children love eating junk and stressed-out parents need an easy way to stop them from acting up. But this research offers a valuable insight into the potential consequences of such emotional feeding.