How often do we reach out for the cookies at work when we are bored or drowsy, or seek comfort in the far-too-large tub of ice-cream at the end of a stressful work day? When even adults fall prey to the siren calls of unhealthy foods in response to certain emotions, what chance do our stressed-out kids have?
‘Comfort eating’ or ’emotional eating’ is one of the leading causes of modern childhood obesity. Comfort eating refers to the consumption of (often unhealthy) food, not in response to hunger, but in response to emotional triggers like boredom, stress or unhappiness. While ‘physical hunger’ leads to feeling satisfied, ’emotional eating’ can make one feel guilty and ashamed of oneself. Emotional eating also often results in binge eating.
Kids are particularly vulnerable to emotional eating because they are less experienced than adults in expressing, understanding and managing their emotions. Kids can crave high-salt, processed, junk foods when they are unable to deal with peer pressure or the demands at school. Children, and parents, can also neglect to notice when they are over-eating in front of the television or the laptop.
So, how do we break the cycle of emotional binge-eating in our children?
1) Avoid erratic meal times
Our body can learn patterns and schedules, and with repetition, it can become conditioned to releasing the cues for hunger at specific times. Having set meal times will help inculcate discipline, and also help the child recognize what his or her body is saying to them. If they are hungry between meal times, give them healthy snack options like fruits or assorted nuts.
2) Avoid junk accompaniments at meal times
It does children no good if they are washing down a healthy meal with a carbonated drink. Junk foods are specifically loaded with ingredients to get our bodies hooked to certain chemicals. Drinking excessive fluids with meals can also confuse them about whether they have eaten adequately or not. If they haven’t eaten enough, post-meal hunger pangs can lead to late night snacking and binge eating. Say no to the soda on the dinner table.
3) Have a heart-to-heart
‘Emotional eating’ – the clue is in the name! Kids might be resorting to bingeing on savory snacks or sweets because they are experiencing stressful emotions. Sit down for an empathetic chat with them, and figure out what is the causing these adverse emotions. Be their source of comfort, so they don’t have to seek comfort in food.
4) No eating in front of screens
Need we elaborate on this one? Mobiles and e-readers are invading our dining tables and encroaching upon family bonding time. Ban mobiles from dinner time (yes, that means your mobile phone too) and reclaim that time to bond with each other.
5) Let’s take it outside
If food is becoming your child’s outlet for emotions, introduce them to a healthier one. Going out with them for a bicycle ride, or a walk in the local park can distract them from feelings like boredom and stress. Natural surroundings are also known to have an overall calming effect on the brain, and spending up to 30 minutes a day in green environs is known to bring down stress levels significantly.
Lastly, teach them to recognize their tendency to seek comfort in food. Tell them it is natural, and that adults do it all the time too. Teaching them to understand emotional eating will enable them to spot certain emotional triggers. Helping your child battle emotional eating will give them the opportunity to manage their emotional well-being and make healthier life choices.