Why Your Teen Might Be Eating Emotionally

Emotional eating is a phrase with which most of us are very familiar. We might not be able to recite the medical definition, but we can all recall reaching for a cookie (or two) after a stressful encounter at work or a terrible fight with our partner. While this is a behavior we can all relate to, it’s one that can negatively impact the health of your child if left unchecked and one that might point to deeper emotional problems.

What is Emotional Eating’?

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According to Mayo Clinic, emotional eating describes “eating as a way to suppress or soothe negative emotions, such as stress, anger, fear, boredom, sadness and loneliness.” If you notice your teen eating as a response to emotions rather than hunger, eating a larger amount of food than normal, eating at strange times during the day, gaining excess weight and/or feeling guilty about what they’ve eaten, they may be struggling with emotional eating.

Emotional eating can lead to overeating because it often occurs in the absence of hunger. Your teen isn’t eating to satisfy a nutritional need, but rather to fill an emotional void or to distract themselves. Where physical hunger is an urge that builds gradually due to an empty stomach and can be satisfied by many types of food, emotional eating is often characterized by urgent and specific cravings.

Why Food?

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While there are still many questions surrounding emotional eating, studies conducted over the past several decades have linked certain food preferences—often high-calorie or high-carbohydrate foods—to emotional eating. Scientists believe that these preferences may be linked to evidence gathered from some animal studies that associate carbohydrate increases with serotonin increases in rats.

When your teen turns to food in the face of emotional stresses, they may not even notice what they’re doing: the behavior may have become a habit. Food, particularly comfort food, often serves as a distraction from the deeper problem, providing short-term relief from the anger, frustration, stress or fear that your child might be experiencing. The emotion will always return, however, and if your child’s response is to turn to food, emotional eating can become an unhealthy cycle.

How Can I Help My Teen?

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Be there for your teen; when you see your child turning to food for comfort, intervene gently and encourage them to talk about whatever it is that’s bothering them. Be careful not to blame or shame your teen. Rather, be positive and straight-forward about your concerns for their health.

Help your teen find alternative ways to deal with their negative emotions; if they’re bored or stressed, encourage them to take a walk (maybe even offer to talk a walk with them) or call a friend. Suggest keeping a food diary. This simple act gives your teen more control over their choices and allows them to see their eating patterns throughout the day.

You might also consider removing unhealthy snack foods from your household. Remember that behaviors such as emotional eating can be learned, so be mindful of your own eating habits — hold yourself accountable just as you would your teen.

If you’ve tried every tactic you can think of but are still concerned about your child’s health and emotional eating habits, it may be time to reach out to a professional. An objective third-party might be better equipped to help your child better understand their emotional eating and learn to cope with their triggers.

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