Children who turn to food when they are feeling stressed or upset have learned the behaviour rather than inherited it, new research suggests.
A study by University College London (UCL), which is published in the journal Pediatric Obesity, found that the main cause of emotional eating was home environment and largely due to parents giving their children food to make them feel better.
The new research builds on a previous UCL study published in 2017 which highlighted the strong effect of the home environment on emotional eating.
“Experiencing stress and negative emotions can have a different effect on appetite for different people,” said Dr Moritz Herle, UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health, who co-led the research.
“Some crave their favourite snack, whereas others lose their desire to eat altogether when feeling stressed or sad. This study supports our previous findings suggesting that children’s emotional over- and under-eating are mostly influenced by environmental factors.”
The study looked at 398 four-year-old British twins from the Twins Early Development Study (TEDS), half of which came from families with obese parents and half with parents with a healthy weight.
Parents reported on their children’s eating habits and tendency to emotionally eat. The researchers then compared the data between identical and non-identical twins along with their rates of emotional eating and found very little difference.
This suggested that environment was more of a factor than genes.
The researchers explained that emotional over- and under-eating could continue through life and be a risk factor for the development of obesity or eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa or binge eating disorder.
“We actually don't know a great deal about the physical and mental health consequences of emotional eating in childhood, because studies that track those children over many years haven’t been done,” said Dr Clare Llewellyn, UCL Institute of Epidemiology & Health, senior lead researcher.
“Understanding how these tendencies develop is crucial, because it helps researchers to give advice about how to prevent or change them, and where to focus future research.”
The team revealed that they will continue to research the home environment for factors that might play a role in emotional eating including parental feeding practices or stress around the dinner table.
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