There’s never a shortage of stress in our lives. I’ve heard people refer to “modern” life being stressful relative to how things used to be, but I think the truth is life has gotten more complex, not more stressful. I’ve never had to hunt food for my own survival – that would be stressful. Modern hunters simply come home and open the refrigerator if they return empty-handed. This highlights a stark contrast from our past. Food is more plentiful, and available, than ever.
Our ancestors ate to survive. We, of course, need food to survive as well, but the abundance of it means it can now play other roles in our lifestyle. Food now can serve as a means to cope with stress and related feelings such as disappointment, frustration, guilt, sadness, anxiety…a hot fudge sundae might be a preferred choice to soothe any of these.
Emotional eating is a habit that often starts in childhood. An upset child may be upset because they are hungry, but often there are other causes. Feeding a child who is hungry makes perfect sense, but using food to soothe a child who is upset for other reasons can lead to an unhealthy connection between eating and emotions.
A recent study in Norway seems to confirm this connection. Researchers followed the eating habits of 801 Norwegian children starting at age four through age ten, checking in every two years in between. They found a direct relationship between children who were “emotionally fed” by their parents at a young age being “emotional eaters” at the end of the study, at an age where they were beginning to make more independent food choices.
We seem to always be searching for individual foods that are the cause of our health and nutrition problems. “It’s fat!” “No, it’s carbs!” “Maybe not all carbs, just sugar!” “Never mind, it must be the gluten!” And on and on we have gone for decades.
But maybe the problem isn’t specific foods. Maybe it’s our relationship with food and our process of eating in general. We were all born as mindful eaters – you’ll never see an infant finish a bottle “just because it’s there” – but habits we build from a very young age undermine our natural process of eating.
Eat when you’re hungry. Stop when you’re full. These directions seem very simple but in truth they are extremely difficult in modern society, particularly when you’ve spent decades eating because of signals other than the ones we were born with.
The first step is being more aware. Food tracking and calorie counting are more popular than ever thanks to apps like MyFitnessPal, and for many people they can be an effective tool in weight loss and portion control. But again we are relying on external direction for our eating habits, rather than internal cues.
If you’re trying to change your eating behaviors, spend some time journaling not just what you eat, but how you made that choice and how your body feels before and after eating. You may be surprised at how much you learn, and how “automatic” your eating behaviors are. Remember how your mother made you clean your plate at the dinner table? You might still be doing it today, regardless of how much food there is and how you’re feeling.
As a parent, be mindful of these concepts as you teach your child about food and eating. Teach them to listen to their bodies and trust their natural cues of hunger and fullness, as well as how to deal with stress in ways other than eating; it may save them the trouble of reclaiming a normal relationship with food later in their life.