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It’s a recurring scene in Hollywood movies: the depressed or anguished protagonist eating a giant ice cream bottle in front of the television at dawn.
Many of us resort to food as an escape route in the face of emotional stress, which in English is called emotional eating .
But, when is a problem?
According to specialists, if this is done regularly, behind that habit there may be an unhealthy relationship with food, whose origin is not in the genes but is established in early childhood.
That is the main hypothesis of a study by the University College of London, which concluded that the family environment is the main cause of the development of this “emotional appetite”.
Learned, not inherited
The research, published in the journal Pediatric Obesity , suggests that parental behavior is behind some of these learned behaviors.
Among the practices that can be counterproductive is to comfort a disgruntled child by giving him his favorite food or candy or to eat habitually in an environment of stress at the table, according to the authors of the study.
The authors of this report analyzed the relationship between emotions and eating behavior of almost 400 British twins and twins and found that the environment counts more than genetic inheritance , since there were no differences between siblings.
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Resorting to food as an escape route “indicates that there is a healthy pore relationship with food,” says the researcher who led the study, Dr. Clare Llewellyn.
Some parents, “instead of finding more positive strategies to regulate their emotions, use food,” he said.
“A tendency to want to eat more in response to negative emotions could be a risk factor for the development of obesity.”
On the other hand, “eating more or less for emotional reasons could play a potentially important role in the development of eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia.”
According to experts, understanding how these trends develop is crucial to developing prevention strategies.
“A persistent characteristic”
Previous research suggested that certain eating behaviors in early childhood were strongly influenced by genetic inheritance.
Among them are the speed at which you eat, how long it takes you to feel full and the willingness to eat for pure pleasure.
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However, according to the Llewellyn team, the tendency to use food as a way of emotional escape begins to develop in the preschool years, which are very important for the formation of the person.
That “indicates that there is space to give parents more direct advice on the strategies they can use to help their children when they are upset during that important early childhood, when they begin to develop patterns of behavior,” said the doctor.
His team believes that the so-called “emotional appetite” is “a persistent characteristic” that could be maintained throughout life.
Although it does not have a genetic origin, the pattern of using food as a consolation, as a reward or to control the behavior of children, can persist in families and pass from one generation to another.
However, the British organization supporting families of patients with eating disorders Beat says that parents should not be blamed for eating disorders of their children.
“Eating disorders are complex mental illnesses and never have a single cause,” his spokesman told the BBC.
According to the organization, some people do have a genetic predisposition that makes them more vulnerable to eating disorders , and for these people “stress or an emotional upset can be a trigger.”
“The advice for parents is to try not to use food as a comfort,” Dr. Llewellyn recommends.
So, what strategies can be followed?
“It depends on the age of the child,” says the specialist, and suggests: “sit with them and talk openly about how they feel or, if they are younger, give them love.”
And what can adults who suffer from “emotional appetite” do?
According to information from the British Public Health System (NHS), the habit, while common, can become a problem when it becomes something that happens regularly, as it can cause overweight and discomfort from overeating.
The important thing, they recommend, is “recognize and separate the emotions of what you eat”.
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And for that they suggest writing a diary in which to register what you eat and how you feel at that moment.
They also suggest asking questions such as:
- Am I really hungry or do I just want to change how I feel?
- What emotions are causing you to eat more than you need?
- Are there recurrent triggers?
- When do the emotions that are problematic surface? For example, do you eat alone or at night because you are embarrassed to do it in public for the inordinate amount you take?
- How do you feel after having given in to that impulse?
- What makes you feel stronger or weaker?
- How long have you had these feelings?
Asking these questions can help identify conflicting emotions, control them, avoid triggers, and adopt healthier habits.