Emotional eating occurs when a person eats out of boredom or to address 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 very temporarily, it is a superficial solution at best because after the eating is finished, the problem that caused it remains and may be even be worse. Overcoming this issue needs to start from the bottom up, first by identifying causes.
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 afterward. 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 important 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 some kind of 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 the release of dopamine—and thus, of stimulation. The body craves emotional eating on several levels, and with conscious effort, these cravings can be combatted. 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 if it isn’t, there are steps to follow.
- Teenagers should tell themselves they will wait five minutes before eating the food that tempts them.
- After the five minutes have passed, if the teens still want the food, okay, go ahead. However, it’s very possible that during the intervening time, the teens have found another alternative 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 between 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. Now, with preparation, he can ask himself: “Am I truly hungry? Is my stomach rumbling?” If the answers are yes, he can choose to eat something healthful such as an apple or cheese sticks 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 hormones such as cortisol. With enough time and enough cortisol, a body develops pangs for certain foods and for 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.
To defeat what may be an instinctive response for food in stressful times, teenagers could try these strategies.
- Consciously plan ahead 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 include boredom, loneliness, anger, frustration and life changes.
Not Enough Sleep
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 full. Lack of sleep leads to not enough 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 laptop computers and tablets in the few hours prior to bedtime.
What Parents Can Do
According to familydoctor.org, there are plenty of ways parents can help a teen who is emotionally overeating. First is to identify the problem.
- Is the teen eating at odd times?
- Does the teen seem to 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 big changes such as moving to a new school occurring in the teen’s life?
- Do you tend to reach for food such as ice cream, pizza or cake after a fight? While studying for a huge test? While slaving over a big research paper?
- Have you been eating bigger 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 especially anxious? If a teen is being bullied, he may be reluctant to open up about it. Being positive and encouraging is absolutely critical.
Parents should talk to their teens and explain why emotional overeating occurs. They should explain how bodies, neurotransmitters and hormones make things more difficult, but that overcoming emotional eating is certainly doable.
Parents should serve as role models by:
- Not using food for celebrations or as rewards (this helps break a cycle started in infancy). Stickers, new clothes, books or a fun trip are possible alternative rewards.
- Combating their own emotional eating, if any.
- Helping the teen come up with solutions and identifying/addressing the underlying problems causing the emotional eating.
- Avoiding judgment on the teens. Conversations should be positive, upbeat and motivational.
- School counselors 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 give the body stimulation that food otherwise would.
Solutions Parents Can Give to Teens
1. Identify why the teen is feeling this way and find activities to replace the 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, the information can be used to deal with the overeating.
Here are some signs a person is experiencing physical hunger.
- Most any food could satisfy the hunger.
- It has occurred gradually, over a few hours.
- Fullness leads to 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.
- The person is bored, or a stressful event has triggered the craving.
- The craving has happened suddenly and without warning.
- Eating is in excessive proportions.
- Feelings of guilt frequently occur during and afterward.
Overcoming emotional eating in teenagers certainly takes time and conscious behavior, both on the parts of the teenagers and their parents. Understanding the body’s role in the process and finding alternative strategies to stimulation and to staying busy is a huge key.
Sources: http://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en/kids/eating-nutrition/overeating/emotional-eating-in-children-and-teens.html, http://kidshealth.org/teen/your_mind/emotions/emotional_eating.html#