Youth and emotional eating habits

Going back to school can be a very exciting, fun, empowering time for youth. But it can also be a time where youth experience anxiety, fear, and restlessness. We know that sometimes emotional variances in youth will lead to changes.

Bad health and nutrition habits often begin as a result of emotional eating.

Bad health and nutrition habits often begin as a result of emotional eating.

Labor Day has officially passed and most youth are back to school! It can be a very exciting, fun, empowering time for youth. But it can also be a time when youth experience anxiety, fear and restlessness. We know that sometimes emotional variances in youth will lead to a change in their eating and sleeping behaviors. As supporters of youth – parents, friends, teachers, coaches, etc. – we can help youth who may be experiencing a wide range of emotions.

We already know that it isn’t easy to break a bad habit. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) report that most youth in the United States:

  • Don’t eat the recommended servings of fruits, vegetables or whole grains
  • Exceed the maximum daily intake for sodium
  • Empty calories (soda, fruit drinks, dairy desserts, grain desserts, pizza and whole milk) make up about 40 percent of caloric intake in children and youth ages 2 to 18
  • Adolescents drink more full-calorie soda pop than milk per day

Unfortunately, bad health and nutrition habits often begin as a result of emotional eating. It’s so important for youth to maintain healthy eating habits even in the times of emotional highs and lows. Remember that emotional eating doesn’t just happen when youth experience those negative feelings like anxiety, fear and restlessness. Emotional eating can also happen as a result of positive feelings such as celebrations (winning a football game or passing a milestone), excitement (trying something new) or rewards (receiving a food or gift certificate for an accomplishment).

According to KidsHealth, there are three techniques adults can use to help youth manage emotional eating habits:

  1. Explore why they are eating and find a replacement activity.
    Try to find the emotion or physical status tied to why they are eating. Are they bored, stressed out, tired, etc.? Then look for something else to do: call someone, exercise, change routines, start homework, etc.
  2. Have youth write down the emotions that trigger their eating.
    Create a mood/food journal so youth can keep track of their feelings and eating patterns. Journaling will show a correlation between what they feel and what they eat. Based on this information, you’ll be able to help youth find a more positive alternative to their emotional eating.
  3. Encourage youth to pause and “take five” before they reach for food.
    Ask youth to take a few minutes to relax after they get home from school or practice before they begin eating. Are they eating out of emotion? Habit? Lack of time? It’s great if youth have the opportunity to take a few minutes to transition from one part of their day to the next. Talk to them about their day, how they are feeling and what they are thinking.

Don’t forget to model the behavior we expect from youth. You can work alongside youth to discover what emotional triggers cause you to eat. Try alternatives to eating together, such a exercise, finding a new hobby or changing your daily routine.

For more articles on youth development, academic success, parenting and life skill development, please visit the Michigan State University Extension website.