7 Danger Signs of Emotional Eating


One thing to keep in mind, always, is that children are different from grownups. They do go through what used to be called “phases” and are apt to try out and then quickly discard behaviors as part of their natural development. Another thing to remember is that children are different from one another. The very young ones have many urgent concerns. Sometimes they don’t even realize they have to use the bathroom until it’s embarrassingly too late. They are still getting used to interpreting their bodies’ signals.

No parent should panic because of a single episode of what looks like emotional overeating. But in a general way, and especially with older children and teens, it’s a good idea to keep an eye out for patterns that suggest a child’s hunger might be triggered by emotional distress. These are some signs that could, if they show up often enough, indicate a need for help.

  • Hunger that comes on suddenly and can’t wait another minute to be satisfied.

For some reason, emotional hunger seems to hit like that, rather than sneaking up in a progressively insistent way.

  • Hunger that will only be satisfied by one particular food, and it’s probably not broccoli.

A craving for donuts or a cheeseburger or any specific foodstuff, especially if it’s sweet and soft, is likely to have an emotional origin.

  • Hunger that starts “above the neck.”

As our source expresses it, “An emotionally based craving begins in the mouth and mind.” Real hunger, physical hunger, feels like a gnawing in the stomach, and will be just as happy with a tuna sandwich as with a package of cupcakes.

  • Hunger that is paired with an upsetting emotion.

Something bad happened at school or a trip to the mall had to be canceled, and suddenly your child is eating everything in sight. Such an obvious connection is one of the easiest for a parent to spot. In a stressful situation, a parent sometimes feels an impulse like, “Fine, go eat whatever you want, just don’t bug me.” It might be difficult to resist the temptation to take this easy way out. But taking time out for a talk, or suggesting an alternate activity, could pay off big dividends.

  • Hunger that is paired with mechanical behavior.

If a child is watching TV and scooping up handfuls of cereal in an automatic, robot-like fashion, she or he might not even be aware of eating. Absentminded eating — the kind that looks like a machine adding a part to an automotive assembly line — is never healthy.

  • Hunger that doesn’t have an “off” switch.

If a child plows through a second or third helping with no sign of slowing down, or even continues to eat despite signs of “too full” discomfort, the overstuffing process just might be an attempt to tamp down feelings that the child thinks can’t be dealt with any other way.

  • Hunger despite guilt.

If a child is so conflicted as to feel bad about overeating but keeps doing it anyway, this is a sign of trouble. When a kid feels guilty about pigging out but goes ahead and accepts the trade-off because it buries some other emotion that’s even worse, you’ve got a situation on your hands.

These danger signs are adapted from a chart for adults that was created by Doreen Virtue for her book Constant Craving. Again, do remember that children are not yet fully formed beings and therefore can’t be judged by the same standards as adults. It’s never a good idea for a parent to get all bent out of shape over something that turns out to be nothing. On the other hand, emotional eating can quickly take over a life, and the resulting obesity, undesirable as it might be, is not really the core problem. Emotional eating is a symptom of a deeper problem that needs to be addressed if the whole family is to be healthy.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “The Eight Traits of Emotional Hunger,” Ebookbrowsee.net
Image by Dave Parker


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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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