Emotional eating occurs when a person eats out of boredom or addresses an emotional need such as comfort or to lower stress. People of all ages, including teenagers, engage in emotional eating. It’s unhealthy because it does not act to provide nutrients or calories. These extra calories build up and lead to weight gain. Often, feelings of regret, guilt and inadequacy follow.
While emotional eating can help temporarily, it is a simple solution at best because after the eating is finished, the problem that caused it remains and maybe even be worse. Overcoming this issue needs to first start from the bottom up by identifying causes.
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Boredom is one of the top causes of emotional eating in all age groups. It is also one of the most frustrating reasons because people often feel guilty afterwards. There are many reasons teenagers feel bored. A few include not having enough activities or being restricted to a small area because of a lack of transportation or safe walking paths.
For a person to stop emotional eating out of boredom, it’s essential to understand why this phenomenon is so common. The main reason is the neurotransmitter dopamine. It increases pleasure and motivation and is unleashed in such situations as people falling in love or getting addicted to a drug. Dopamine neurons go off like crazy, prompting people to feel like they have to take action.
It ties into emotional eating like this: suppose a teenager is bored and needs stimulation. He probably won’t know this on a conscious level, but eating leads to dopamine release—and thus, of inspiration.
The body craves emotional eating in several groups, and who can combat these cravings with conscious effort. The solution is for a teen to find a better way to get the dopamine neurons charged up. Simply being aware of the phenomenon is enough for some teenagers to stop eating out of boredom, but there are steps to follow if it isn’t.
- Teenagers should tell themselves they will wait five minutes before eating the food tempts them.
- After the five minutes have passed, if the teens still want the food, okay, go ahead. However, it’s possible that during the intervening time, the teens have found other alternatives such as reading, meditation, journaling, exercise or chatting.
- Slipups will happen and should not be seen as signs of discouragement or failure. Establishing new patterns, including eating patterns, requires three weeks and three months.
Here is an example of a common scenario. A teenager gets home from school and unthinkingly heads into the kitchen. Before, he would reach for the ice cream. With preparation, he can ask himself: “Am I starving? Is my stomach rumbling? If the answers are yes, he can choose to eat something healthful such as an apple or cheese stick to tide himself over until dinner.
If the answers are no, he can ask himself why he is reaching for the ice cream. Is he bored? Upset? What else can he do?
Comfort during Stressful Times
When a teenager is stressed, it’s normal for her to reach for something that will calm her and make her world right—at least for a few moments. More often than not, food is that balm. For many people, it’s been that way since they were infants. When a baby squalls, his caregiver often replies by supplying him with milk. In times of death, how do families and friends help comfort the dead person’s loved ones? Food. Lots of food. Also, how do grandparents show love? One big way is food. These long-term patterns become ingrained and counterproductive. And that’s before hormones are factored in.
Constant stress results in increased production of hormones such as cortisol. With enough time and enough cortisol, a body develops pangs for certain foods and overeating. Why? Cortisol loves foods high in unhealthy items such as sugar, salt and fat. Not only that, fat cells produce cortisol, leading to a cruel cycle.
Teenagers could try these strategies to defeat what may be an automatic response to food in stressful times.
- Consciously plan for alternatives in stressful times.
- Do group activities if possible.
- Some exercises include deep breathing, yoga and meditation.
- Identify the source(s) of stress. They may consist of boredom, loneliness, anger, frustration and life changes.
Research invariably shows that people who sleep less are at higher risk of eating more the day after. Moreover, people who sleep less often weigh more. Two hormones, leptin and ghrelin, are culprits in this. Ghrelin, which hails from the gastrointestinal tract, heightens appetite, while leptin, from fat cells, signals the brain when a person is a whole.
Lack of sleep leads to insufficient leptin being made, so a person’s brain won’t know when he is full. Not sleeping also causes ghrelin to increase, leading a person to overeat.
The solution seems simple—get more sleep by whatever means possible. Teens could exercise, so their bodies are more tired at night. They could avoid drinking caffeine after dinner and avoid brightly lit screens from laptops and tablets in the few hours before bedtime.
What Parents Can Do
According to familydoctor.org, there are plenty of ways parents can help a teen who is emotionally overeating. The first is to identify the problem.
- Is the teen eating at odd times?
- Does the teen instinctively reach for food after stressful events such as a fight with a friend or relative?
- Has the teen inexplicably been gaining weight?
- Is the teen already overweight or obese?
- Are other family members overweight or obese?
- Do other family members emotionally overeat?
- Are significant changes such as moving to a new school occurring in the teen’s life?
Parents can ask their teenagers the following questions.
- Do you reach for food such as ice cream, pizza or cake after a fight? While studying for a huge test? While slaving over an extensive research paper?
- Have you been eating more significant portions than you usually do?
- Do you feel less in control around food?
- Is something such as going to a new school or your grandmother’s death making you incredibly anxious? If a teen is being bullied, he may be reluctant to open up about it. Being positive and encouraging is critical.
Parents should talk to their teens and explain why emotional overeating occurs. They should explain how bodies, neurotransmitters, and hormones complicate things, but overcoming emotional eating is undoubtedly doable.
Parents should serve as role models by:
- They are not using food for celebrations or rewards (this helps break a cycle started in infancy). Stickers, new clothes, books or a fun trip are possible alternative rewards.
- They are combating their emotional eating if any.
- They are helping the teen come up with solutions and identifying/addressing the underlying problems causing emotional eating.
- I was avoiding judgment on the teens. Conversations should be positive, upbeat and motivational.
- School counsellors and therapists, in general, can help teens address their feelings, pinpoint their eating patterns and get them on a healthy track.
- Joining a gym or exercise class can stimulate the body that food otherwise would.
Solutions Parents Can Give to Teens
1. Identify why the teen feels this way and find activities to replace eating. For instance:
- Boredom or loneliness? Call someone or volunteer regularly at a shelter.
- Stressed? Try deep breathing, yoga or rock out to music.
- Tired? Get more sleep.
2. Wanting to procrastinate? Just get started and feel productive much sooner!
3. Keep a journal of emotional overeating triggers. A food journal can contain how much was eaten, what was eaten, the time, how the teen felt (worried, stressed, happy, etc.). and whether the eating was for hunger, comfort or both. Once patterns start to emerge, Who can use the information to deal with overeating?
Recognizing Physical Hunger versus Emotional Hunger
Here are some signs a person is experiencing physical hunger.
- Almost any food could satisfy hunger.
- It has occurred gradually, over a few hours.
- Fullness leads to a stoppage of eating.
- No feelings of guilt follow.
Here are some signs a person is experiencing emotional hunger.
- The craving is for a specific type or group of food.
- Eating is in excessive proportions. The person is bored, or a stressful event has triggered the desire.
- The passion has happened suddenly and without warning.
- Feelings of guilt frequently occur during and afterwards.
Overcoming emotional eating in teenagers certainly takes time and conscious behavior, both on the part of the teenagers and their parents. Understanding the body’s role in the process and finding alternative strategies to stimulate and to staying busy is a huge key.