Emotional Eating — More Angles

Ever since the consciousness revolution of the 1960s, suppressed communication and stifled emotion have been recognized as harmful to the human psyche. This short paragraph about a small study says a lot about how the phrase “eating your emotions” came to be part of our shared vocabulary:

36 women were asked to watch a particularly emotional scene from the movie Terms of Endearment. Half were told to control their emotions, while the other half were allowed to let loose with a box of tissues. After the test, the two groups were offered unlimited ice cream. Those who had suppressed their emotions ate 55% more ice cream than those who did not.

Not long afterward and in relation to the same issue, writer Anne Hart discussed the work of Kelly Bost, Ph.D., a University of Illinois professor of human development and family studies who specializes in pediatric obesity. When children experience emotional distress in the form of sadness, anxiety, or anger, the harmful reactions of some parents can range from dismissiveness to punishment. The extreme form is a threat familiar enough to be a cliche — “Stop that sniveling or I’ll give you something to cry about.”

Ideally, a parent will show a degree of sensitivity, and attempt to provide a child with tools or strategies for handling negative emotions. Insecure and inept parents who don’t practice those skills themselves are apt to express their own feelings of inadequacy or guilt by responding negatively to a child’s emotional turmoil. This, in turn, can set up unhealthy eating patterns and foster the habit of eating for comfort.

The worst thing about comfort eating is that it works — or at least, gives the illusion of working, in the short term. There is no denying that a ration of chocolate-covered bacon can create happiness — at least for the five minutes it takes to consume.

The sad thing is that so many people carry these patterns into adulthood. A typical example is the advice given by Eliza Barclay regarding sugar addiction:

Take a week or two to monitor exactly when the cravings hit. Then figure out what the cues are — like stress, boredom, emotional downers or the need for a distraction.

Those are absolutely artifacts carried over from childhood, and their prevalence among adults is the best evidence for the need to create programs that can stop food addiction in the earliest stage, before it has a chance to take hold.

Childhood Obesity News has referenced Michael Prager’s courageous book, Fat Boy Thin Man, many times. It is not surprising that other writers and reviewers have been equally impressed, including Jennifer LaRue Huget who noted:

As with other addicts, he explains, his emotional development stalled the moment he became addicted; for him, that was at age 12, in the midst of a troubled childhood.

Along with being emotional, such human behavior has a very practical side, verbalized in such folk wisdom as, “If it works, don’t fix it.” A child with painful feelings learns that a candy bar works. The momentary pleasure applies anesthetic to the wounds. Too many children carry that lesson into adulthood, never taking the next step, which would be realizing that the pain-numbing effect is fleeting, while the bad consequences are long-lasting and cause even more pain.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!
Source: “Why gov’t should regulate food like tobacco & alcohol,” NYPost.com, 12/28/13
Source: “Is Sugar Addiction Why So Many January Diets Fail?,” NPR.org, 01/09/14
Source: “Insecure attachments and emotional eating: Childhood obesity and unhealthy foods,” Examiner.com, 07/03/14
Source: “Conquering Food Addiction,” WashingtonPost.com, 01/18/11
Image by Vic

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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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