Understanding where emotional eating begins

There is a saying that kids are resilient.  I think that’s a load of crap.  Kids are fragile. Kids are impressionable – like sponges.  Kids are developing, learning, growing, testing out boundaries, and discovering.  The prefrontal cortex, where decisions are made, is still developing into our 20’s.  This is why youngsters make some really poor decisions, this includes where emotional eating begins.

When we are young and bad things happen to us, we are emotionally ill-prepared or equipped to handle some of our feelings.  I think they say kids are resilient because kids aren’t good at expressing how they feel.  They aren’t good at talking about how they feel.  Silence is too often interpreted as “she’s fine.”  If a child is too expressive they are “having a temper tantrum” or “being dramatic.” 

Think back to your childhood.  Can you identify an event or events that were major; maybe life changing?

These things probably come to the surface pretty quickly.  You may not have detailed memories of the event because of dissociation, but you know they happened.   For instance:

Rape or sexual assault

Death of a loved one

Being in a car accident

Having surgery or being really sick

Learning you were adopted


Your house catching fire

Next think of things that were bad and on-going.  For example:

Sexual abuse

Physical abuse

Verbal abuse

Substance abuse by a parent

Feeling like you have to be perfect to be loved

Feeling like you are different from everyone in your family – they don’t understand you

Having a sibling that took up all the energy – you were not as important as them

Parents who fight all the time

Having too much responsibility for your age

Being bullied

Feeling invisible – nobody listened to you

Moving often and starting new schools  

Of course these events cause feelings.  Sometimes they are overwhelming.  Sometimes they are terrifying.  As kids, we are dependent on others.  We don’t have much control over our lives.  If the very things that you needed for stability were threatening or unstable, you can imagine what problems it could have caused. 

Furthermore, it’s not uncommon for kids to have a problem even putting a name to their feelings.  They just know this sucks and I don’t like feeling this way.   Parents reinforce that these feelings should be denied when they say things like

Don’t let it get to you

Don’t dwell on it

Get over it

He didn’t mean it

Suck it up

Don’t cry

Don’t be a baby

You’re a drama queen

Stop pouting

This tells us that we should not embrace negative feelings. We should not express them.  Instead we should ignore them. But nobody tells us how to do that, so we are left to figure it out on our own. 

Here is the connection to food and where emotional eating begins.

The mind feels uncomfortable. We think:

How can I distract myself and not think about this anymore?

Answer: FOOD

I feel down.  We think:

What would make me feel better?

Answer: FOOD.  And not carrots, right?  Carrot cake? YES, that would do the trick.  

I’ve had a bad day.  We think:

How can I do something nice for myself or reward myself? 

Answer: FOOD. 

While I am chewing I am focused on how great it tastes, how my stomach feels, how it smells.  I was sad but now I feel pretty good.  This is a treat.  But then I get done eating.  What now?  I have a choice.  Do I

Go back to thinking about what made me feel bad in the first place?

Find something else to distract myself like a video game?

Find something else to eat so I can continue to feel good and keep my mind off my troubles? 

This happens on an unconscious level.  Once you distract with food a few times, your brain sees it as “good.” The next time you feel down, you will have the urge to eat.  You’ve taught yourself that eating is the cure for being down and thinking about bad things.

This becomes your new normal.  

If you had a parent who lived this example it reinforced that this is a good idea.  Was your mom a stuffer?  When she was overwhelmed would she eat?  Did she escape to the bedroom with a bowl of ice cream?  Did she bake you brownies when you were sad?  Did she reward you with food when you were good?  Did she bribe you with food? 

These behaviors intertwine food and feelings.  Maybe that was OK when we are 20 but by age 30 we are overweight, battling low self-esteem and on the verge of high cholesterol. 

We think:

I gotta lose some weight.  

You decide to try a popular diet.  That’s where the diet cycle begins.  You are frustrated because you can’t seem to stick to the meal plan.  You beat yourself up because you can’t abstain from that late night snack.  You wonder what is wrong with you.  Confidence and self-esteem nose dive.  

Never thinking about your childhood and the relationship you developed with food from the time you were a wee one. 

If you want to explore and learn more about the origin of your emotional eating, I invite you to join me for my online group coaching program called Feelings and Fries.  The details are all right here:

Feelings and Fries

The next group begins Monday, April 5! Registration closes at noon on April 4.  If you would like to talk to me and see if this program is the approach you need, email me sherri@sherriclarkenutrition.com.

If you are ready to sign up and begin your transformation, also email me.  

If you aren’t ready, please stay in touch with me by following me on Instagram or Facebook.  I also have a YouTube channel, which is the best place to get free, helpful info on emotional eating. Link below.  

You got this. 


If you want to see the full  YouTube video that accompanies this blog, click here. 

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