5 ways to stop your child from comfort eating

How to reshape your child’s eating habits, so that they won’t turn to food to relieve stress and sadness.

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Picture this: Your preschooler has just returned from school and you notice that he looks frustrated. Concerned, you ask him what’s wrong but instead of answering, he asks for his favourite gummy bears.

If this scenario happens regularly, your mini-me could be giving in to emotional eating. This happens when a person uses food to deal with their feelings and not to satisfy their hunger.

Incidentally, this pattern of behaviour can begin much earlier than you think. Dr Lim Boon Leng, a psychiatrist at Dr BL Lim Centre for Psychological Wellness, explains that emotional eating has been demonstrated in studies of children as young as 18 months.

In fact, your tyke has probably learnt to associate eating with feelings of comfort from birth as that is when they will get to be in the comforts of your embrace during their feeds.

The act of giving your tot food to soothe them when they’re emotional or stressed can cause them to associate eating with emotional comfort.

Dr Lim shares that emotional eating also tend to result from environmental factors rather than genetics. This means that when you give your tot food to soothe them when they’re emotional or stressed might cause them to associate eating with emotional comfort.

Consequently, your child’s unhealthy eating habits will lead to an over-reliance on food to relieve feelings of sadness and anxiety, which may trigger obesity. Dr Lim says, “More importantly, as emotional eating simply helps one avoid the emotional distress [instead of] learning to process or endure these difficult feelings, [your child may] end up losing opportunities to learn to have better coping mechanisms.”

If they are unable to control their emotions, it can also possibly lead to depression and anxiety disorders.

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While it isn’t entirely clear if comfort eating leads to any eating disorders, Dr Lim states that binge eating in youths and adults is essentially an extreme form of comfort eating.

“Should the child learn to try to purge the food out by means of vomiting after binging, he or she will develop bulimia nervosa.” Try these techniques to prevent your child from turning to food for comfort…

1) Avoid using food to soothe your tyke As parents, you feel obligated to do everything possible to comfort your child who is feeling down. You can still do so without offering them a scoop of ice cream or their favourite pack of chips. Instead, introduce other coping methods that your child can do to relieve their frustrations or sadness. Things like drawing, colouring and even writing their experiences can be equally helpful.

Introduce other coping methods that your child can do to relieve their frustrations or sadness. Things like drawing, colouring and even writing their experiences can be equally helpful.

2) Stick to regular mealtimes Also, avoid snacking between meals — this applies to you and your child — as this often causes them to overeat or triggers other unhealthy eating habits.

3) Don’t always use food to reward your child, either If ice cream on the weekends has become an after-playgroup reward for your tot, you may want to switch to another reward. This will break your cherub’s positive associations between eating and feeling good. Even better, Dr Lim suggests using delayed gratification ― reward your child at a later time for his or her achievements, like a family vacation.

4) Involve your tyke when you shop for groceries Don’t just instruct your mini-me to grab this item or that off the shelves, take the opportunity to educate them about making smart food choices. For instance, you can compare the nutritional values of two bags of snacks.

5) As your child grows, mind what you say about their weight and appearance Dr Lim points out that an overemphasis on being slim or muscular can be detrimental for their well-being. It is one of the leading causes of bulimia. “As such, always emphasise healthy eating and allow for occasional indulgence but avoid excessive eating.”

Photos: iStock

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