Breaking the Cycle of Emotional Eating
You're "hungry". You’ve had a stressful day at work. You’re arguing with your best friend. The kids are wound-up and you can’t handle another email. You’re pretty sure you’re finding more grey hairs than usual and you haven’t slept since you were pregnant. All you want to do is kick back, turn off your brain, and eat that bag of potato chips that’s been calling your name all day. But are you really hungry? Or is stress, upset, frustration, or exhaustion just tricking your brain into thinking you need food? Good chance it's the latter, and here's why.
As adults our problems can be big and the desire to mute them with a “substance” can be tough to resist (yes, even those potato chips count as a substance when you’re “self-medicating” with them!). And we aren’t the only ones who experience this need to eat when we’re stressed and tired. Our children may also have that inclination to reach for a sugary or savoury treat when they’re bored, anxious, or exhausted.
Did you notice that not one of those feelings was hungry?
When we allow our mood, rather than our hunger impulses, to instruct us to eat, we enter the world of emotional eating.
The prevailing theory that explains emotional eating is the “Psychosomatic Theory of Obesity” which states, “In times of distress, food is used as an emotional defense, which in turn, leads to obesity”. These negative states include anxiety, depression, anger, and boredom. Some studies suggest that the impact of stress on unhealthy eating may begin as early as 8 or 9 years of age. The results in a study of psychological determinants of emotional eating in adolescence revealed that “perceived stress and worries” were the main determinants in emotional eating in those sampled. While female participants were more likely to associate emotional eating with stress, worry, tension, and anxiety, and their male counterparts expressed it as a “confused mood”, either way you slice it, stress is the culprit.
Furthermore, until recently, it had been thought that emotional eating was strictly eating in response to a negative emotion. However research is now showing that even a positive mood can elicit increased food intake. This means that along with reaching for those treats when you or your child feel negative emotions, you may also do the same thing when you’re experiencing positive emotions like joy, excitement, or even love. Happiness, it turns out, can play just as much of a role in unrestrained eating as stress and unhappiness. The key to stopping the slippery slope from a congratulatory doughnut to an entire box is re-establishing both your and your child’s relationship with, and expectation from, food.
Because much of the previous research done on emotional eating has been through self-reporting questionnaires and naturalistic settings where researchers try to elicit responses by exposing subjects to situations meant to stimulate an emotional reaction, there is still much left unknown as to why some people experience unrestrained eating when their emotions are high. And while there has been correlation between unrestrained eating and more complex issues like depression, impulse control, or learned cue reactivity, the jury is still out on exactly why it happens.
The recipe for emotional eating
Although the exact causality of why some people turn to food for comfort is still unknown, empirical evidence shows that it does happen, and what had previously been considered an inherited condition reserved for those with genetic markers for increased risk of obesity is now believed to be even less discriminating. A 2018 British study of middle school students in Los Angeles County published in the Journal of Pediatric Obesity found that emotional eating is both learned and influenced by environmental factors regardless of genetic obesity risk. This means that both the environment in which we raise our children and the habits we model in their lives play a part in how they relate to and interact with food.
Regardless of the remaining questions about the complex causes, it has been found that some of the emotional eating kids experience could be remedied with interventions like stress-reduction techniques, a promotion of positive self-esteem, and by implementing tools and routines to encourage a healthy relationship with food.
Exterminating emotional eating
Feast well for better feelings
Eating regularly and making healthy choices don’t just do a body good. Food also has the power to keep us emotionally balanced! Protein sources like organic turkey, artichokes, free-range eggs, seaweed, beets, spinach, bananas, beans, and legumes don’t only keep you satiated, they also help balance blood sugar and insulin levels, and prevent some of the sugar craving peaks and valleys that can add to mood changes. Further, quality protein sources are also full of amino acids that help with mental stability.
Tyrosine, a key amino acid and protein, is a building block for dopamine, a key neurotransmitter that helps us combat stress. Tryptophan, another protein critical in helping balance hormones, is also responsible for the hormone production of serotonin (often referred to as our “happy hormone”).
To prevent that ravenous sensation that can lead to unrestrained eating, it’s important to eat regular meals throughout the day, typically at four-hour increments. Keep it healthy and make sure there is some protein in each meal and snack.
Put your body on snooze
Sleep is a critical modulator of endocrine (hormone) function and glucose metabolism. Sleep affects every aspect of our body, but is particularly important when we look at the adrenal glands, which regulate our body’s secretion of cortisol (our stress hormone).
The trend of shorter sleep duration has coincided directly with the growing obesity epidemic in children and adults. In a study published in the Journal of Pediatrics, metabolic markers (glucose, insulin, triglycerides, high-sensitivity CRP, and total cholesterol—both HDL and LDL) of children aged 4-11 years old after an overnight fast were found to be negatively affected when the child had inadequate sleep compared to their peers who had optimal sleep.
Decreasing sleep time in children and young adults causes a direct change in a whole host of endocrine and metabolic processes, including:
- Decreased glucose tolerance
- Decreased insulin sensitivity
- Elevated sympathovagal balance (the state resulting from interactions between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system)
- Increased evening cortisol
- Increased ghrelin (hunger hormone)
- Decreased levels of leptin (the hormone that tells our brain to stop eating)
- Increased hunger and appetite
Sleep is critical for growth and development in children and aids in optimal adrenal health by supporting proper cortisol patterns in the body. When our sleep schedule is interrupted or inconsistent, cortisol release becomes confused, the result of which can be sugar cravings, overeating, and ironically, sleeplessness/insomnia. Your child may appear as though they’re not tired, when in fact, their whole sleep cycle is so out of whack that their adrenals are overproducing cortisol, making them feel awake—and stressed.
In 2015, the National Sleep Foundation gathered experts from a wide spectrum of health disciplines, including, sleep, anatomy and physiology, pediatrics, neurology, gerontology, and gynaecology to create new sleep recommendations for parents:
- Preschoolers (3-5 years old): 10-13 hours of sleep
- School-aged children (6-11 years old): 9-11 hours of sleep
- Teenagers (12-19 years old): 8-10 hours
- Adults: 7-8 hours
Developing a healthy and consistent sleep schedule is an essential life skill. Help kids ease into sleep by making their bedroom sleep-ready and inviting: a dark, quiet, safe space with cooler temperatures and soft blankets is a great place to start. Remove distractions, like technology and toys, and help foster a sleepy feeling by creating bedtime rituals like leisurely baths, quiet stories, or songs. As tough as it can be in our very busy world, setting a bedtime and sticking to it can help little bodies regulate and dedicate themselves to the important task of growing.
The practice of mindfulness appears to be effective in promoting positive eating patterns in adolescents and adults. The latest study looked at mindfulness in eating in children as young as three years of age. Sixty-five children in preschool and early elementary, aged 3-10 years, were assigned to a four-week mindfulness intervention. Each week for four days, children received one of four different foods: celery, cauliflower, kidney beans, or garbanzo beans. Children either received instructions to mindfully engage with the food or were given the food and allowed to eat without mindfulness prompts. The results suggest that even a brief mindfulness intervention improved healthy eating patterns in young children.
Try a simple technique with your children called, “Mindful Eating Practice”:
- Take a minute to pause before you dig in.
- Think about where the food came from, where it grew, and who helped it get to your plate.
- Observe the colours, details, and aroma of what you’re about to eat.
- Chew each bite slowly, bringing your attention to the taste and texture of what you’re eating.
- Give thanks, verbally or internally, for the pleasure and nutrients you are receiving.
I confess, this was me after a busy day with patients. I would come home exhausted, wanting to eat, but too tired to make dinner. So I’d reach for my personal kryptonite—salty, crunchy, buttery, delicious popcorn. I could devour an entire bag by myself. And I would.
Our brain is wired for relationships with nature and people, not with our food, and when we seek comfort from food, it’s because we are lacking that comfort elsewhere in our lives, or may not have those skills necessary to healthfully relieve our own distress. There is no better way to teach children to manage stress and emotional eating than by setting a positive example. Opening the lines of communication, creating self-love opportunities (for both you and them!), and providing adequate healthy snacks they can quickly reach for are small tweaks that can combat that pesky urge to mindlessly eat. As with all things, if you are concerned with your child’s mood, focus, or eating habits (or yours, for that matter!) contact your health care provider who can provide direction, advice, and extra support where needed.