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Food Parenting

Understanding Emotional Eating

When you’re feeling a bit down, or bored, do you ever grab yourself a treat as a little pick-me-up? If you said yes, then you’re engaging in emotional eating. Have you ever wondered how you began this habit? It’s actually something you may have learned before you could even speak...

If you want to help baby develop a positive and healthy relationship with food, it’s best to start as soon as you can. Once you learn a little about food parenting practices and the role you can take in shaping your child’s emotional development, you’ll be able to set your child up for a lifetime of success.

What exactly is emotional eating?

Emotional eating is when people eat food to deal with their feelings instead of eating to satisfy hunger. This can cause issues as eating when you aren’t hungry increases the risk of developing eating disorders and obesity, especially if this habit is formed as a baby. 

Emotional eating is often influenced by the home environment and the food parenting practice that parents use to teach baby about food.

Instrumental food parenting, for example, is where parents use food to regulate baby’s emotions. When a temper tantrum flares up, parents might give a treat to make baby happy again. Of course, this lays the groundwork for emotional eating which can lead to childhood obesity. 

Non-responsive food parenting is where parents do not respond to hunger cues at all. A baby then develops feelings of desperation around food. When food is finally provided, the baby is more likely to lose control and overeat as they’re unsure when the next meal is coming.

Even responsive food parenting can lead to emotional eating if not done properly. Some parents may respond to what they think is a hunger cue, but is actually a cue for emotional eating.

Emotional impact

During the first year of life, your baby is changing and developing in many ways. They grow physically, experience social and emotional growth, and have changing eating patterns. 

Babies learn about food through direct experiences, including playing with food and observing the eating habits of those around them. That means parents play a big role in establishing long-term eating behaviors. Parents can model healthy dietary choices for the whole family and can use their feeding practices to reinforce good eating patterns and behaviors.

Without learning positive food behaviors early on, your baby could learn to reach for food when they’re feeling emotions like:

    • Boredom
    • Insecurity
    • Anger
    • Loneliness
    • Happiness
    • Stress
    • Fatigue
    • Frustration
    • Resentment

Emotional eating increases the risk of developing eating disorders like binge eating. Binge eating involves regularly consumption of unusually large amounts of food with the feeling you are unable to stop eating. This disorder leads to difficulties with continuous weight gain and challenges with weight loss.

The difference between physical hunger and emotional hunger

It’s not always easy to tell if baby is eating for the right reasons. Learning the signs of physical hunger and emotional hunger can help you respond appropriately. 

When baby has physical hunger:

    • It comes on gradually and can be postponed
    • It can be satisfied with any number of foods
    • It means they’re likely to stop eating when they’re full
    • It doesn't result in feelings of guilt after food is eaten

When your baby has emotional hunger:

    • It is triggered by their emotions rather than a physical sensation of hunger 
    • It often comes on suddenly and seems urgent
    • It results in cravings for specific food (often unhealthy food)
    • It typically results in baby overeating

Preventing emotional eating

Right from birth, you can play a big part in ensuring your baby makes healthy food choices and continues to do so for the rest of their life. One of the main ways you can do this is to develop a diplomatic food parenting style. 

This feeding style promotes your baby’s independent thinking and learning about their own appetite regulation. As a parent, you focus on what will be served, when it will happen and where. You set the boundaries for mealtimes but your child still has the freedom to choose if they want to eat what you’ve provided, and how much.

 You can also use the following techniques to prevent emotional eating:

    • Understand and respond appropriately to appetite cues 
    • Know the difference between real hunger and emotional hunger
    • Avoid providing food for anything other than hunger, e.g. to alleviate boredom, conflict, calm frazzled nerves etc.

    • Minimize distractions (television, games, pets, siblings) during mealtimes to allow baby to focus on their own hunger and fullness cue

    • Trust baby’s tummy and safeguard their instinct to eat when hungry and stop when full 
    • Monitor baby’s food consumption and have structured meal and snack times 
    • Check portion sizes to ensure you are not over or underfeeding
    • Avoid using food as an incentive or reward for good behavior
    • Opt for non-food related rewards such as positive praise and support in the form of hugs and kisses
    • Don’t force baby to finish all the food on their plate as this teaches them to override their feelings of fullness
    • Provide boundaries and limits for your baby in a loving way
    • Schedule and plan mealtimes so you can avoid last-minute decisions or meals with over hungry or overtired baby

There are many ways to deal with emotions, but emotional eating doesn’t have to be one! Because emotional eating is a learned behavior, developing a positive and healthy relationship with food through food parenting practices will help you raise a happy and healthy baby.

Disclaimer: The information provided is the opinion of Good Feeding, it has not been evaluated by healthcare professionals, and is for educational purposes only.  Before starting any new foods or feeding practices, please consult your baby's healthcare professional.

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