Always a fun, unapologetic and thoughtful creator of meaningful content on social media as @YourDietitianBFF (Instagram and TikTok), she’s been a contributor to Outside magazine, Weight-Inclusive Nutrition and Dietetics (WIND), Shape Magazine, Diversify Dietetics, and Healthline.com. Check out her work and learn more here.
Educating Your Children about Emotional Eating with the Feelings Chart
Modern diet culture can be a terrible influence on people. It’s full of all kinds of unhealthy, even dangerous, ideas about body size, body image, and losing weight. And, thanks to social media, movies, and television, the ideas of modern diet culture are everywhere. While this is harmful to anyone, it is particularly harmful to young children and teens, who are just starting to form opinions about things like body image and eating habits.
Fortunately, you can teach your kids better, healthier ideas and habits by teaching them about emotional eating.
What is Emotional Eating?
Emotional eating is a very normal coping mechanism that helps people deal with strong emotions. Eating can lift your mood when you’re feeling down. It can calm you down when you’re feeling anxious or stressed out. It can promote a feeling of bonding between people eating together and make a special occasion feel even more special. In other words, emotional eating can be eating that is done to change, escape, or enhance a particular mood.
There are some biological reasons for emotional eating. When you’re feeling stress, for example, your brain responds by dumping hormones into your blood that make you crave fatty, sugary food. It does this because it tends to associate stress with danger or hardship, and it’s trying to make sure you have the fuel reserves you need to cope with those things. And then there’s the fact that eating also makes the brain produce other hormones that actually make you feel good.
Other roots of emotional eating are social in nature. Your parents might have praised you for finishing everything on your plate when you were very young, for example, teaching you to associate good feelings with eating everything in front of you. Certain experiences in your past may have taught you to associate positive or negative feelings with certain foods. The emotional motivations for eating can be quite complex.
Diet Culture and Your Kids
Diet culture gets the connection between emotions and eating wrong, wrong, wrong on a fundamental level. Which shouldn’t be that surprising, given how many other things it gets wrong. If you type “emotional eating” into Google, or whatever your search engine of choice is, you get a whole bunch of results telling you about how you need to “fight” your emotions, how to goal is to “ditch” your cravings, how you must “stop” emotional eating. The basic idea behind all of these results is that your emotions are wrong and bad, and that you need distrust them and oppose them at every turn.
This is a confusing message for anyone to take in, but children are especially vulnerable to it, because they’re only just starting to form a view of the world and of themselves. It teaches them to really internalize some unhealthy points of view about their bodies and about food. That’s why it’s so important to educate your kids about emotions and eating, as well as about body image and dieting issues.
The harmful lessons imparted by diet culture can give your children eating habits that are harmful to their physical health. Like the old saying tells us, a house divided against itself cannot stand. If you spend all your efforts “fighting” your emotions, you are putting yourself under an enormous amount of stress. And what happens when you feel stress? Well, as discussed above, you start getting powerful cravings for fatty, sugary foods. In other words, you’re sabotaging your efforts to lose weight. Restrictive dieting is a huge trigger for emotional eating. This can form a vicious cycle of restriction and bingeing that children should learn to avoid.
Long term stress and long term denial of your emotional needs are also not at all good for your kids’ mental health. And that’s in addition to the body image issues that popular diet culture can cause. This diet culture teaches kids some really bad habits of thought that can create some serious long term emotional problems.
There’s also the matter of your children’s bodies’ nutritional needs. Fighting the emotions can really interfere with them getting met. You see, when you feel food cravings, many of those cravings come from your body trying to tell you about certain nutritional needs it has. The body is the most intelligent and efficient system we’ve ever studied – more than any rocket, electric car, or computer. If you teach yourself to ignore or even fight your cravings, then you are also teaching yourself to ignore the things you need. This can result in poor nutrition and physical health problems.
Emotional Education and The Feelings Chart
Of course, just as young age makes your kids more vulnerable to unhealthy ideas about food and emotions, it also makes them primed to benefit greatly from learning to develop a harmonious relationship with food and their own emotions.
If you teach your children to listen to their emotions, to figure out what their bodies are telling them via their emotions, you are giving them tools that will benefit them greatly throughout their lives. You are giving them the ability to be healthier and happier. And there are a lot of tools out there that can help you do it.
Take the Way app, for example. Our Body Feels pathway is a structured series of lessons that can teach your kids how to have a greater awareness of the signals and cues that their bodies send them regarding food. The 18 sessions of the Body Feels pathway starts off with basic, easy concepts that are added to over time, helping your children build up a skill set that helps them become more in tune with themselves, better able to make healthy eating choices.
Then there’s the Feelings Chart, which is an excellent tool to use alongside the Way app. While the app can help your kids better understand the cues their bodies use to communicate with them, with word pools and groups that are an intermediate expansion of basic feelings, the Feelings Chart helps them better understand their emotions with the greatest set of options. Particularly the emotions involved in eating. The benefit of an app is that when they find an emotion or feeling and select it in the app, it’s automatically saved and kept so they can refer back to later, for reflection as they grow. And once they better understand their emotions, they can better understand their emotional eating triggers.
Through the combined use of app and emotions chart, you can do a lot to help your kids develops healthy food relationships. Even if you’re not a naturally gifted teacher.