Emotional Eating — Some Angles

Children often start overeating just because “the food is there.” They discover some things taste better than others, and if their parents make good-tasting food available, kids will eat it.

No surprise there, and no blame, either. Parents are supposed to feed their children. The problem arises from the food industry’s insistence on loading everything with sugar and other ingredients that facilitate obesity.

No matter how delicious a serving of carrots may be, a bowl of over-sweetened cereal tastes better, and so does a package of chips or a plate of cookies. If parents keep a kitchen full of treats that are available 24/7, it’s not difficult to guess what foods children will gravitate toward.

They soon learn about the major side effect of hedonic foods. As Dr. Pretlow says:

Once depression, stress, or boredom are eased by the pleasure of the food, this “comfort eating” behavior will be repeated, typically mindlessly. As the child continues to eat to ease emotional distress, changes take place in the brain to reinforce the behavior and keep it going.

With the brain involved, eating for emotional comfort becomes an addictive process. Just like drug addicts, food addicts develop tolerance. When the expected happiness does not occur, disappointment with the food joins all the other emotional malaise. Where a small packet of chips used to do the job, now the attainment of comfort involves a party-size bag. Each increment of food is found to be less satisfying, so larger amounts are ingested in hopes of recapturing the necessary level of soothing. This is a recipe for disaster.

The relationship between comfort eating and obesity is not hot news. More than half a century has passed since LIFE magazine published an article titled “The Plague of Overweight,” whose first line read:

The most serious health problem in the U.S. today is obesity.

That was in 1954! Much of the article centered around a particular individual, Dorothy Bradley, who graduated from high school weighing more that 200 pounds. It said about her:

She had overeaten from the time she began to mature, possibly because of unconscious emotional turmoil.

Today, six decades later, the connection is no big revelation to us, yet the health professionals are still trying to figure out how to break that connection. Anger and fear are reliable triggers, as are sadness, loneliness, and boredom. When people are upset, they try to eat their way out of it, with varying degrees of success.

The situation grows even darker, as described by Tricia Greaves Nelson, who attributes emotional hunger not just to the desire to escape pain, but to its opposite — an actual drive for punishment. She explains:

Emotional eaters are extremely sensitive. We feel deeply, so we’re very prone to feeling guilty, and therefore use use food as a form of punishment because we feel bad about a lot of things and we just end up taking it out on ourselves.

This is something people do not talk about. Food as punishment is probably one of the biggest hidden causes of overeating.

Food addiction as self-flagellation — how bizarre does that sound? But remember Elvis Presley? He, like so many other unfortunate humans, was quite literally at war with himself. While ordinary people have clever ways to conceal the self-hating nature of their addictions, the larger-than-life persona of Elvis made the underlying fact glaringly apparent.

As Childhood Obesity News has mentioned before, the world-famous singer stuffed himself not only with far too much high-calorie, low-nutrition food, but with three daily meals of drugs including (but not limited to) Seconal, Demerol, Nembutal, Valium, and Quaalude. The horrifying aspect of this habit is that he himself called each load of drugs an “attack.”

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Obesity in America: Photos From the Early Days of a National Health Crisis,” TIME.com, 03/21/13
Source: “The Hidden Causes of Overeating,” Hypesrus.com, 02/05/15
Image by Thoth God of Knowledge

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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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