As a stressful deadline looms, does the allure of a sugary snack become irresistible? Does a break-up equal a tub of ice cream? A wheel of cheese a cure for the blues?
You, like many of us, might be an emotional eater.
New research has indicated that this bad habit may be one to add to the blame-the-parents list.
Giving an upset child a sweet treat is a common approach to calming them down.
A lollipop after an injection or using chocolate to bribe a child into compliance is almost a cultural norm.
But the research shows doing so could lead to emotional eating later in life.
“Many of us go for chocolate or ice cream because we had a bad day and we’re stressed out. It rewards the brain,” the study’s lead author Silje Steinsbekk said.
“[But] if you do that often, you have more calories than you need and you will keep putting on weight all the time.”
Emotional eating can also lead to the development of obesity and eating disorders, such as binge eating and bulimia.
The study sought to find the cause of emotional eating, said Dr Steinsbekk, the associate professor of psychology at the Norwegian University of Science.
“If we can find out what influences the development of emotional eating in young children, parents can be given helpful advice about how to prevent it.”
The researchers looked at the eating habits of 801 Norwegian four-year-olds, then met with them again at ages six, eight and 10.
It found the children with parents who used food to make them feel better when they were upset, did more emotional eating in later years.
The reverse was also true: children who weren’t emotionally fed were less likely to turn to food to cope when they were older.
The more prone to anger or sadness the child was at age four, the more likely the parents were to use food as a calming tactic.
This led to both the child and parent becoming reliant on it and thus a “vicious cycle” was reinforced, Dr Steinsbekk said.
Emotional eating was influenced by environment rather than it being hereditary, she said, with children also modelling their parents’ eating behaviours.
Dr Steinsbekk and the other researchers hope to follow the children into young adulthood and use the findings to develop interventions for emotional eating.
To avoid setting up bad habits, she recommended parents offer hugs to upset children instead of food.
“Food may work to calm a child, but the downside is teaching children to rely on food to deal with negative emotions, which can have negative consequences in the long run,” Ms Steinsbekk said.
“If your child is crying, put him on your lap, talk to him and soothe him by all other means than using food.”