Teenagers are hard-wired to consume a high number of calories to support their quickly growing bodies, but even teens can overdo it when it comes to food. Unfortunately, it can be quite difficult to determine whether your teen is an emotional eater because it is impossible for you to know whether they are actually physically hungry or whether it is their emotions that are compelling them to eat. If you suspect that your teen could be an emotional eater, then there are a number of facts about the issue that you’ll want to understand:
There are differences between physical hunger and emotional hunger.
Physical hunger is a feeling that everyone knows. Your stomach growls, you feel irritated or confused, and your energy levels start to sag. When you’re truly hungry, it usually doesn’t matter to you very much what you eat, as long as you eat something. When most people experience physical hunger, they stop eating once they become full, and, after they’ve eaten, they generally feel satisfied and energized.
Emotional hunger, however, often causes feelings of guilt and regret once the person has finished eating. This in part due to the fact that emotional eaters are likely to severely overeat. This emotional hunger can come on very suddenly, and it generally manifests as a craving for a specific type of food, as opposed to physical hunger’s ability to be satisfied by any type of food.
Studies have even shown that different emotions can cause people to crave different types of foods. Bored people, for example, tend to crave salty and crunchy foods like chips, whereas sad emotional eaters tend to prefer sweets like ice cream and cookies. When emotional eaters are happy, they often crave foods like pizza.
It could be caused by any number of things.
The causes of emotional eating are numerous. For some teens, it is simply habit. Perhaps they are so used to eating a snack during the boring afternoon hours after school that they do so regardless of whether or not they’re actually hungry. Or perhaps as a child, their parents used food as a comforting mechanism or a form of reward. For example, perhaps when your son or daughter was upset or cranky, you took them out for ice cream to cheer them up. This is innocent enough, and, for most children, this would have little to no negative consequences. For some, though, it could lead to a harmful association of a specific food with a certain emotion, causing them to become an emotional eater. Now, as a teen, they could associate ice cream with comfort and contentment and could turn to that food when they are stressed or upset and want to experience those emotions.
For others, the cause of their emotional eating goes well beyond simple habit and is associated with the very chemistry of their brain. If your teen has emotional or psychological disorders, such as depression or anxiety, they could use food as a way to cope. Some types of food cause the brain to release “feel good” chemicals (much like certain drugs), and if your teen suffers from a chemical imbalance or prolonged unhappiness, they could become addicted to food, in a way, as their primary source of these comforting chemicals. This is especially true for sweets and carbohydrates.
It can be treated.
The good news for emotional eaters and their parents is that this problem can be addressed through a variety of means. For some teens, simply changing their eating habits is enough. Talk to your son or daughter about the necessity of assessing their feelings – both physical and emotional – before delving into a meal or snack, and help them to recognize what emotions they tend to most often associate with eating or overeating. Keeping a food/ mood journal is a great option: Simply have your teen write down what they eat in a day, and, next to their meals and snacks, have them keep track of the feelings they experienced before, during, and immediately after eating. Once they recognize this, it is just a simple step towards asking themselves before eating whether they’re truly hungry or just upset.
For others teens, though, the problem could run deeper. Emotional eating might not seem like a serious issue, and, in some ways, it really isn’t the end of the world. Everyone does it now and again, after all. But if emotional eating is a habit for your teen, it could be indicative of a deeper, much more serious problem like depression. Even emotional eating on its own can cause serious problems because it often contributes to weight gain, health problems, low self esteem, and other negative side effects. For these teens who eat based on their emotions regularly or uncontrollably, it is often a smart option to seek professional help from a psychiatrist, dietician, or other specialist, whatever your family deems most appropriate.