Emotional Eating – Why don’t we ever address this?

Photo from one of my “Little Chefs” Sessions: baking for young children

Using food as reward or punishment never promotes healthy eating, better food choices, nor does it create empowered children. All it really does is create emotional eaters, who, as adults, will continue to reward or punish themselves with food. Emotional eating is practiced everywhere, in fact, we very often hear people expressing it and even see it manifesting in media and in stores, adverts and even on the silver screen. Most of the times without addressing nor acknowledging its effect and consequence, rather almost promoting the habit! Think the association between ice-cream and depression for instance. How many times have you watched your favourite actors on TV act eating ice cream because they are depressed? How many people started expressing the same, tucking into tubs of ice cream when they are feeling down… And this is just an example.

This might not be the most delightfully light food topic, but it is one that is overly practiced everywhere, and has serious consequences! So really, why do we never address it?! Well today, we are going to…
Do read on…


Food is neither a reward nor a punishment

Let me first establish that I am not in anyway saying we should completely omit sugars, chocolates, candies, cakes and all similar foods out of our children’s diets. What I am saying is: we must stop using these foods as rewards / punishments to alter children’s behaviours or enhance children’s performances. And while we are at it, we must refrain from referring to only this section of food as “treats”; instead we must view all food types as a whole and not dissect them into desirable foods and the other, must eat foods! Ask yourself what are you most likely to choose “desirable” or “must eat”? We pass on our attitudes to our children, then we think they are developing bad eating habits. But as the saying goes, there are no bad children but there are better parenting practices.


Eating Healthy for Children

Photo from my son’s 6th birthday: trying a new flavour in making our pizzas activity

To begin with, all food types are food; each of which have essential nutrients needed by our bodies. Some more beneficial than others, including a mix of nutrients, while others less so including a few essentials needed by the body. The least desirable of foods are those that carry empty calories, which can do nothing for our bodies, even at times can cause illnesses. So if we look at a cake as a type of food that includes, carbs and sugars, oils and fats, dairy and fruits as well as vegetables at times….etc we detach this cake from being “devil food”. Instead a slice of cake can be viewed as a full meal. With that said, because cake is more heavy on sugars, carbs, fats and so on – and because a very small serving of cake is a full meal – furthermore in comparison to a salad it becomes less healthy and therefore less desirable. Does that mean we should omit cake from our diets? Not at all, but we certainly must consume it less frequently than we do a fresh fruit for instance. These are the types of facts that we must empower our children with. And we must separate our understanding of “healthy” as equal to “weight loss regime”, the two are very different things!


As long as we are offering our children a varied diet where no specific type of food is omitted or overly focused, our children are then eating healthy and developing a good appetite and palate for different flavours and textures.


Photo taken at one of my cooking sessions with young adults about “Cooking And Healthy Eating Attitudes for Young Adults”

Research shows that children – since their bodies are still growing and building – need a bigger variety of food types than adults do. As long as we make sure that their diets are balanced and that their bodies are taking their need to grow and develop from food, without having so much excess that the body does not need, they are then eating healthy. Children do not need to go on an all vegetable (salad) diet – neither do adults for that matter – nor do they need to eat grilled meats all the time… in fact, that is very unhealthy for them. However, they also do not need the excessive amount of sugar, fried food, and junk snacks that they usually consume. The problem with these food types is that when they are had in excess they can lead the way to obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure as well as cavities and other health issues.


Raising Children with Healthy Attitudes Towards Food

“Healthy” for kids is really eating a balanced diet. But most importantly “Healthy” for kids is developing the right attitude towards food. Children raised with the right attitude towards food grow to become healthy eaters and tend to make better food choices as adults.


Photo from one of my “little Chefs” Sessions about introducing new flavours & textures to toddlers and young children

Examples of commonly used phrases that tie foods to specific emotions and promote using food to feed these emotions:

Raising children with a healthy attitude towards food can only be done by removing the emotions from food types! Because as long as they believe that crisps are a “treat” … cake is for “special occasions” only….  junk is “special food” or “food had on special days” ….  chocolate is a “reward” for eating a healthy lunch … broccoli is “punishment” for not finishing the plate…. and all these connotations and associations that we continuously tie different foods with, they are most likely to continue to treat themselves with chocolates, comfort themselves with ice-cream and request junk on special days as well as avoid broccoli because it is only for punishment!


This is exactly what is known as emotional eating.

  • “If you eat this food, I will give you a chocolate.” (reward)
  • “If you pick up the toys, I will give you each a cookie.” (reward)
  • “I know you got hurt when you fell down, here is a piece of candy.” (comfort)
  • “Eat all of your sandwich or we will not go to the playground.” (punishment)


According to Marlene Schwartz, PhD, Co-Director, Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders:
“Rewarding children with unhealthy foods undermines our efforts to teach them about good nutrition. It’s like teaching children a lesson on the importance of not smoking, and then handing out ashtrays and lighters to the kids who did the best job listening.”


Photo from one of my “little Chefs” sessions that I held for moms with toddlers: “Fussiness is all in the textures for toddlers”

You see, we must never use food as a reward or punishment. We must avoid this method as though it is the plague! Instead, we must take out the emotions from food and reward / punish behavior with non-food-related actions. We must follow the words with supporting action, when we explain to them what is healthy and what is not, we should not offer them a chocolate when they eat their healthy meal. When we tell them all food is equally good we must not offer “treats” in the form of sugary or junk foods!

Dealing with Fussy Eaters

We all have to deal with fussy eaters at some point or another. Sometimes, fussy eating can lead to this whole reward/punishment with food scenario. There are many ways to deal with fussy eaters, but this method is not the solution. ‘Food as reward / punishment’ method is nothing but a temporary fix that will keep the fussiness alive throughout these children’s lives and set them up for unhealthy eating habits.

You may also like to read the article: Fussy Eaters? Make way for happy and healthy eaters for more on this topic.

Learning best happens in a fun environment, turn everything into a game and your young children are most likely to play!


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