Along with our basic needs for nutrition, how we feel can play a role in what we choose to eat and how much we eat. A new study from the University of Texas at Dallas examines the reasons behind "emotional eating" with a focus on kids and how dietary habits develop in early childhood.
Shayla Holub, the head of psychological sciences at UT Dallas, says eating can often be a response to negative emotions like sadness, anger or frustration, but not exclusively. Adults and children can eat out of boredom or when they're feeling happy or excited as well.
"In the long term, eating in response to anything besides your hunger and fullness cues could mean that you could be at risk for [being] overweight," Holub said.
I sat down with Holub to talk about the research and its insights into children and emotional eating.
On what the study involved
We had families come into our lab shortly after they had eaten their lunch or dinner because we didn't want the kids to feel hungry. The kids were randomly assigned either to a happy condition, a sad condition or a neutral condition. Happy condition kids watched a clip from the "The Lion King" where Simba is dancing and singing about being excited to be king. For the neutral scene, we played the video in which all of the lions are coming to see the new baby. The sad scene was Mufasa's death.
On how the study was conducted
The kids involved were between the ages of 5 and 8. We also checked to make sure what their moods were before they watched the clips — just so we could see a baseline — and then what they were after they watched them. After we gauged their emotions, after they watched the videos, then we presented them with some food choices. We had several snack foods available, and then we told them that we had to step out of the room and that they could either eat or play with whatever they wanted; we had some toys available for them to play with, too.
The kids in the sad condition ate a lot more chocolate than kids in the other conditions. We don't really know exactly why that is. It could be that kids at that point have learned some of the physical feelings — the happy feelings — that they get from eating chocolate and that's why they choose the "sad" food. But what I really think it is: We are socializing kids to use chocolate to feel better.
On why 'sad' and 'happy' kids both ate chocolate
We do a lot of things as parents and adults around food. We provide foods like chocolates and cakes and other things at birthday parties, so kids learn to associate happy times with these sort of sweet foods. Kids also see their parents reach for these foods when they are sad or upset. We also found that the older kids were more likely to do this, which suggests that maybe some of our younger kids were less responsive to the negative moods, but as kids get older, they're more used to using food to cope with their emotions.
On the 'neutral' kids reaching for Goldfish crackers
We were trying to figure what this was all about. I think it's interesting that they didn't reach for chocolate, of course, but we're wondering whether that means they were bored, and so that's eating in response to boredom, but more research would be needed to find out why they reached for the Goldfish crackers.
On what is next for this research
I think there are a lot of next steps. We're currently doing a project in our research lab that is looking at how the stressors that parents experience during the day impact the way they feed their kids in the evening. I think what is going to be really interesting is to see if parents who are experiencing more stress, who might not have the coping skills necessary and maybe engage in more emotional eating themselves, are more prone or more likely to engage in more controlling feeding practices at the dinner table. And that might include feeding for emotions.