How Parents Unknowingly Raise Emotional Eaters
How Parents Unknowingly Raise Emotional Eaters
If you have followed me for any length of time you know that I am a dietitian who cares more about WHY you eat versus WHAT you eat. There are plenty of dietitians out there who can tell you what to eat to manage your diabetes, lower your cholesterol or lose weight. There’s a saying that food is food and feelings are feelings and the two should not intertwine. I’m a dietitian who helps people who have the two so intertwined it is a source of pain in their lives.
With that said, SO much of emotional eating starts in childhood. No parent sets out to bring up an emotional eater, so let’s look at why it happens and what you can do about it.
Problem number 1 – Rewarding kids with food.
This teaches that food is a reward. What’s wrong with that? For some, nothing. But for other kids this sets them on a lifelong pattern of rewarding themselves with unhealthy food. Let’s face it. No parent rewards with flavored water and an apple. Food as a reward teaches them to ignore hunger. Being hungry is not the trigger to eat. Achieving something is the trigger. Adults who eat unhealthy food to reward themselves after a tough day or a hard conversation too often find themselves overweight. It’s OK to reward yourself. But there are a hundred other ways to do it that is not detrimental to your health.
Problem number 2 – Bribing with food or punishing them by taking away food.
This teaches the child to covet food. It teaches them to ignore hunger as a trigger for when to eat. It puts food on this pedestal. It makes it more likely they will reward themselves with this highly coveted treat as they grow up and gain independence.
Problem number 3 – Comforting your child with food.
This is a HUGE one. It’s only natural when your child is sad, disappointed, or hurt to want to comfort them. But telling them not to be sad and giving them cookies is a bad way to handle it. Kids need to know how to feel negative emotions. They are a part of life and they have a purpose. When you encourage a child to stop the feeling and turn to food for comfort you are breeding an emotional eater. Instead, comfort with a hug or kind words of encouragement. Snuggle on the couch. Talk about their feelings. Assure them it will be OK. Don’t invalidate their feelings by telling them to get over it or stop acting like a baby. Don’t teach them that eating unhealthy food makes you feel better.
Problem number 4 – Expressing your love only through food.
All of us show our love by giving or making food for those we care about. This is not the problem. The problem is when giving food is either the primary or the only way the parent shows love to the child. This sounds crazy but I assure you, some parents don’t know how to show love or put it into words. Therefore, they nurture and love by cooking, baking and buying food. This ties love to food. The result is an adult who thinks unhealthy food equals love.
Instead, here’s what is important to teach children.
Hunger is a sign you need to eat. What does hunger feel like?
Being full is a sign you need to stop eating. What does a full stomach feel like?
It’s OK to stop eating when full even if the plate still has food on it.
Food cannot make you feel better or worse.
Feelings are not right or wrong, they just are.
Parents too often model poor behavior around food. How do you model eating, exercising and expressing emotions? Would you want your daughter to grow up to be just like you? Here are some behaviors to be aware of and avoid.
Skipping meals to lose weight
Talking negatively about your body
Talking negatively about another woman’s body
Using food to make yourself feel better
Using food to numb out and avoid your feelings
Saying you are exercising to make up for what you ate
If you find you have a child now that is overweight, it’s a delicate subject. Here’s what doesn’t work:
Putting them on a “diet”
Buying them a diet book
Telling them they have a pretty face
Buying them workout equipment or a gym membership for the purpose of losing weight
Making them weigh in front of you and charting their weight
Being the food police and critiquing their food choices constantly
Using phrases like “you aren’t going to eat more are you?”
Comparing them to siblings who are smaller
Letting a thin child eat unhealthy food while telling the overweight child they can’t have the same
Before the age of 18 I would not recommend anyone put their child on a calorie counting or macro counting plan. Studies show a high correlation between young adults who have been diagnosed with an eating disorder and those who were on a diet from ages 12-18.
Instead, focus on encouraging these things:
Learning to tell when they are hungry and full
Learning what a proper serving size is and limiting themselves to one serving
Introducing a wide variety of foods including fruits and vegetables
Teaching basic cooking skills
Teaching nutrition basics like label reading
Lay down healthy habits like drinking water and only eating when hungry
Trying different sports and exercises. Experiment and see what they like.
If your child has experienced something traumatic, like the death of a family member, see if the trauma correlates with weight gain. If so, the child is likely using food to cope with their overwhelming feelings. Seek out a qualified mental health professional to address this behavior.
I did a YouTube video on this subject. If you’d like to see it click here.
You may also check out this video on childhood trauma and how it affects what you eat today.
If you are ready to address your emotional eating start with my Feelings and Fries online course and group coaching. Next group starts May 3!
Thanks for your support and I will be back next week with another blog.