Roots of Emotional Eating

I Love Snacks

In his paper written for the journal Eating Disorders, Dr. Pretlow stated that today’s youth appear to be “victims of boredom, stress, and depression in an addictive, comfort food environment” and added:

Accordingly, a perfect storm may be contributing to the childhood obesity epidemic: 1) cheap, widely available, highly pleasurable foods, 2) increased stress in children, and 3) comfort eating, leading to dependence (addiction).

Recently, three British researchers (Claire V. Farrow, Emma Haycraft, and Jackie M. Blissett) set out to understand more completely the development of emotional eating in young children. Specifically, they wanted to learn “whether parental use of overly controlling feeding practices at 3–5 years of age predicts a greater subsequent tendency for children to eat under conditions of mild stress at ages 5–7 years.”

As far as they are aware, this is “the first study to explore the impact of parental feeding practices over time on experimentally observed emotional eating in young children.” The very complex procedure they followed, replete with “emotion manipulation procedures” and “age-appropriate mood-induction tasks,” is explained in detail in the pages of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Food Should Not Be an Emotional Tool

Using food as a reward turns out to be a bad idea, and so does “restriction of food for health reasons,” which seems rather counterintuitive. Whether the motive is self-serving or altruistic, it appears that overly controlling parents cannot win either way. Too much control just sets the kids up for trouble, because within a couple of years they will be using food to cope with negative emotions.

Some aspects of emotional eating are very clear, such as the tendency of adults and adolescents to resort to it. The researchers were interested in tracing this unfortunate habit back to its roots, and that is where things get complicated. Apparently, when children are between the ages of two and six, their natural response to stress is a not an increase in appetite, but a lack of it. For this reason, the study authors propose that “emotional eating may be a learned abnormality.”

There seems to be a fork in the road, where the reaction to negative emotions is no longer the loss of appetite, but switches over to excessive appetite—and once emotional eating has a person in its grip, it is very reluctant to let go. If intervention could be performed at this juncture, the outcome might be very different.

Children Follow Parents’ Examples When it Comes to Food

There are indications that, depending on the child’s age, parental use of food as an emotional tool can trigger either a temporary reaction of undereating or a reaction of overeating. The message here is that using food to bribe, reward, or exert any other kind of emotional leverage is never recommended. It should go without saying that a child should never be forced to eat.

One disadvantage of messing around with a child’s eating pattern is that it undermines her or his ability to innately regulate hunger and satiety, which is something that only an individual’s own body and mind can successfully manage. When moved from the experimental setting to real life, the problems multiply, because any child is likely to face emotional stressors many times per day. Add to this the fact that as children grow, they spend longer periods of time untrammeled by parental control, and encounter many opportunities to overeat.

Another layer of complexity is added by the example set by parents in the home environment. What caregivers do, kids imitate. If a parent sets the example of grabbing a snack every time something goes wrong, a child will be imprinted with that example. But the overall impression of a lot of different factors at play is reinforced by the following:

Tanofsky-Kraff et al. reported that eating in response to being happy (followed by boredom) is the most commonly endorsed reason for emotional eating in older children and adolescents…

And of course, as always, the authors recommend that “future research is needed with larger samples.”

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Addiction to Highly Pleasurable Food as a Cause of the Childhood Obesity Epidemic: A Qualitative Internet Study,”, 06/21/11
Source: “Teaching our children when to eat: how parental feeding practices inform the development of emotional eating—a longitudinal experimental design,”, 03/18/15
Image by La Melodie


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OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

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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