A new Norwegian study found that when parents soothed their four and six year-olds with food, those children were more likely to engage in emotional eating at ages eight and 10. In addition, when children readily and easily accepted food as a source of comfort, their parents were more likely to continue the emotional feeding, thus continuing the cycle.
The study, published in the journal Child Development, sought to determine why children eat emotionally and is the first to consider the issue in school-age children.
One problem with emotional eating is that when children eat to soothe their negative feelings, they tend to reach for sweets, and if they engage in emotional eating often, they are more likely to be overweight. Emotional eating is also tied to the development of later eating disorders, such as bulimia and binge eating.
“Food may work to calm a child, but the downside is teaching children to rely on food to deal with negative emotions, which can have negative consequences in the long run,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. Silje Steinsbekk, associate professor of psychology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.
“Understanding where emotional eating comes from is important because such behavior can increase the risk for being overweight and developing eating disorders.”
For the study, researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, King’s College London, University College London, and the University of Leeds examined emotional feeding and eating in a sample group of 801 Norwegian four year-olds, looking at these issues again at ages six, eight, and 10.
They wanted to find out whether parents involved in the study (mostly mothers) shaped their children’s later behavior by offering food to make them feel better when they were upset, and whether parents whose children were easily soothed by food (those who calmed when given food) were more likely to offer them more food for comfort at a subsequent time.
Parents completed questionnaires describing their children’s emotional eating and temperament (how easily they became upset and how well they could control their emotions), as well as their own emotional feeding. Approximately 65 percent of the children displayed some emotional eating.
The researchers found that young children whose parents soothed their emotions with food at ages four and six had more emotional eating at ages eight and 10. In addition, parents whose children were more easily comforted with food were more likely to offer them food to soothe them. Therefore, emotional feeding increased emotional eating, and emotional eating increased emotional feeding.
In addition, higher levels of negative affectivity (becoming angry or upset more easily) at age four increased children’s risk for emotional eating and feeding at age six. And this contributed to the bidirectional relation between emotional feeding and emotional eating.
“We know that children who are more easily upset and have more difficulty controlling their emotions are more likely to eat emotionally than calmer children, perhaps because they experience more negative emotions and eating helps them calm down,” said Dr. Lars Wichstrøm, professor of psychology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, who co-authored the study.
“Our research adds to this knowledge by showing that children who are more easily upset are at highest risk for becoming emotional eaters.”
The researchers suggest that instead of offering children food to soothe them when they are emotionally distraught, parents and other caregivers should try to calm them by talking, offering a hug, or soothing in ways that don’t involve food.
The authors warn that since the research was conducted in Norway, which has a relatively homogenous and well-educated population, the findings should not be generalized without further study to more diverse populations or to cultures with other feeding and eating practices.