Emotions, Comfort and Food

Parents who have unresolved issues with their own parents are ill-equipped to protect their children from obesity, as we discussed yesterday. Another comment on that same study and that particular brand of poor parenting comes from Vanishree Bhatt, writing for ScienceWorldReport.com:

It was found that insecure parents were more likely to be distressed by their children’s negative emotions when punished. Children are unable to handle all the emotional turmoil and feelings and turn to comfort eating of junk food, sugary drinks and salty treats. These eating and behavior patterns increase risks of obesity.

A study published by The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition and reported on for MedicalDaily.com by Samantha Olson illustrates one way in which parents can undermine their children’s health. Olson describes the elaborate experiment showing that stressed kids consume more calories, but this is the gist:

They found those parents who said they had used a reward system with food between the ages of 3 to 5 were more likely to have kids at risk of eating more calories.

University at Buffalo public health researcher Marc Kiviniemi wondered why, regardless of the fact that most Americans have tried to lose weight, most Americans are still overweight. He perceived a “disconnect” and, together with Carolyn Brown-Kramer of the University of Nebraska, set out to discover what was behind it.

The things that people take into account when making a diet plan are not the same factors that influence actual behavior. Kiviniemi is quoted on his institution’s website:

The crux of the disconnect is the divide between thoughts and feelings. Planning is important, but feelings matter, and focusing on feelings and understanding their role can be a great benefit… Planning is an effort that demands mental energy, but feelings happen automatically. Deprivation or anything that demands a high degree of self-control is a cognitive process. If you put yourself in a position to use that energy every time you make a food choice that energy is only going to last so long.

Dr. Billi Gordon writes often about the compulsive overuse of food, alcohol, and drugs. He asks his readers to remember that many processed food products are actually more like drugs, and to be conscious of when we are using food for drug-like purposes. Some behaviors that help us to “survive now” are quite damaging in the long run, and we need to replace them with better “survive now” strategies. This brief extract gives an idea:

In the case of negative emotions generated by social cues, your brain’s response will be to take the lid off of the neurochemical cookie jar for some dopamine… To protect us from the neurochemical deficits caused by negative emotions, one of the brain’s immediate solutions is to increase dopamine (the brain’s happy dance drug)… When you are bingeing, your brain is surviving now by reaping the neurochemical rewards of eating to obviate the immediate threat of negative emotional states.

Reddit contributor “hamplanet_boogie2988” once wrote:

I am the ‘perfect storm’ of bad eating habits.

I eat when I am sad because it makes me happy. I eat when I am happy to celebrate. I eat when I am bored. I eat when I’m depressed.

I am a compulsive eater. I am an over eater. I binge. I also am unable to purge.

I am obsessive about it. I get angry about it. I get sad about it.

I have gone to the store to get a food I didn’t really want and ate it while crying.

I’ve eaten huge meals while not even thinking about it, but thinking about what I was going to eat next.

This litany of misery ends with a final declaration that we won’t repeat on a family webpage, but which translates as, “I’m all kinds of messed up.”

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Poor Parenting Linked to Childhood Obesity: Study,” ScienceWorldReport.com, 02/11/14
Source: “Stressed Out Kids More Likely To Overeat; How Parents Train Their Kids In Emotional Eating,” MedicalDaily.com, 05/03/15
Source: “Thoughts drive dieting plans but feelings drive dieting behavior,” Buffalo.edu, 05/05/15
Source: “We Break Our Own Hearts,” PsychologyToday.com, 04/07/15
Source: “FatPeopleStories,” Reddit.com, 2014
Photo credit: cogdogblog via Visualhunt.com/CC BY

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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.

Food & Health Resources