Comforting kids with food leads to emotional eating later in life

That ice cream or candy you give your kids when they're upset could have some unintended consequences on how they make food choices down the road.

Baby crying next to a cake
Photo: iStockphoto

Treating my six-year-old daughter to a generous bowl of her favourite ice cream after she had two teeth pulled was a no-brainer. The promise of the sweet treat was barely enough to get her reclined in the dentist’s chair—and that was with My Little Pony already playing on the television. The whole experience was traumatic for both of us, so when she was still upset the next morning, I caved and gave her another bowl of cold, chocolatey goodness before lunch. (At least it was organic?)

As a parent, it’s easy to turn to food as a solution when your kid is upset, but experts are beginning to suggest there are unexpected consequences to stopping tears with treats. According to a new study from Norway, young children whose parents use food to soothe them are more likely to have problems with emotional eating later in life.

“Emotional eating is not due to nature, but nurture,” says Silje Steinsbekk, an associate professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and lead author of the study. “Although food may comfort your child, the downside is teaching children to rely on food to handle negative emotions, which may have negative consequences in the long run.” Emotional eating—consuming food in response to a bad mood—can increase a child’s risk of being overweight and developing eating disorders.

The longitudinal study, published in the journal Child Development, looked at the eating habits of 801 Norwegian children and found that approximately 65 percent of them displayed some emotional eating, and it was largely influenced by their parents. Children whose parents offered them food for comfort at ages four and six were shown to engage in more emotional eating at ages eight and 10. Of course, parents of children who are easily soothed by food are more likely to reach for treats in times of trouble, which leads to stronger associations between food and comfort and creates a cycle of emotional feeding and eating.

The study also found that children who have trouble controlling their emotions are at a higher risk for becoming emotional eaters, likely because they need to be comforted more frequently.

“Our brains are rewarded by palatable food—it makes us feel better—and some children’s brains are more easily rewarded by food than others,” Steinsbekk says. “There is likely a reinforcing effect as well: Your brain responds very well to eating, you get soothed, so you crave chocolate when you’re upset, and the brain learns that it works, which increases emotional eating over time.”

Child and family dietitian Caitlin Boudreau, who runs Wee Nourish in Victoria, says it’s common for parents to turn to food to regulate their children’s behaviour and emotions. “In my practice, I see a lot of well-intentioned parents using food as a reward and as a way to soothe,” she says. “It’s a short-term solution and it may be interfering with children’s ability to learn other coping strategies. I advise parents to take food out of the equation.”

Boudreau recommends talking to your kids about their emotions and how to handle them, and discussing food and why we need it. While it can certainly be tempting to try to shut down a meltdown with milk and cookies, Boudreau and Steinsbekk suggest using other methods such as offering a cuddle or a time in, reading a book or doing a special activity together.

“We all eat for comfort sometimes, and that’s not a bad thing, but it can be a slippery slope,” says Boudreau. “Soothing kids with food is something we really want to try to reduce. The first step is being aware of when you do it and trying to think of other ways to help them feel better.”

But, let’s be honest, sometimes chocolate ice cream is in order.

Read more:
The harm in bribing kids with food
Confession: I’ve resorted to feeding my picky eater mac and cheese
Childhood obesity: Sizing up our kids

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