“Emotional eating” is a term that many of us are familiar with, and some will have experienced the phenomenon. A new study has investigated the effect of a happy and sad mood on the dietary choices of children.

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How does a child’s mood influence their food choices?

When we are at a low emotional ebb, we may be more likely to make bad food decisions, reaching for the cookie jar rather than the cucumber.

Research dealing with this behavior pattern in adults has confirmed this: negative emotional states, such as sadness, anger, or boredom, increase the likelihood that an individual will chow down on a burger rather than a bowl of blueberries.

Earlier studies have also shown that adults who engage in negative emotional eating more often are more likely to have negative physical issues such as obesity and adverse psychological outcomes including depression.

Of course, no one needs reminding that depression and obesity are both huge issues in the United States today. But it is for this reason that gaining insight into the factors involved is more urgent than ever.

A few studies have indicated that adolescents and children might also engage in emotional eating. And, because childhood obesity is at an all-time high, it is crucial that we discover as much as we can about how kids decide what to eat.

Much of the existing work on emotional eating habits in children has relied upon asking parents or children what they have eaten — which is not entirely reliable.

A recent study, published in the journal Appetite, took a fresh look at emotional eating in children. To get a more accurate picture, scientists directly measured the amount of food that the children consumed, rather than relying on self-reporting. They also asked whether positive moods might trigger a similar overeating response.

The team was led by Dr. Shayla C. Holub, from the University of Texas at Dallas, and Dr. Cin Cin Tan, from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

In total, the scientists enlisted 91 children aged between 4.5 and 9 years. To start, the children’s moods were modified using a trusty tool: Disney’s The Lion King. They picked out a sad clip, a neutral clip, and a happy clip, and all the children watched just one of these scenes.

Once they had viewed their assigned clips, the emotionally altered children were offered two snacks to choose from: chocolate candy or goldfish crackers.

As expected, those in the “sad” goup ate more chocolate than those in the “happy” group, but the happy children still ate more chocolate than the neutral group. And, conversely, goldfish crackers were eaten in larger quantities by the neutral group, followed by the happy group, then the sad group.

This suggests that children eat in response to both happy and sad emotions, but more for sadness.”

Dr. Shayla C. Holub

When they delved into the data, the researchers found that the children’s body mass index (BMI) made no difference to the effect. Also, girls and boys responded similarly.

The scientists also noted that older children in the sad group ate more chocolate than younger children in the neutral and happy groups.

These findings could have important ramifications. With obesity being such a huge problem across much of the Western world, understanding how and why we overeat is important. Studies such as these help us get an inkling of when unhelpful dietary choices start creeping in.

“Very young kids are really good at regulating their food intake,” says Dr. Holub. “If you change the energy density of a baby’s formula content, the child adapts his or her food intake in response.”

She continues, saying, “If you give preschoolers a snack, they will adjust their meal intake to react appropriately so that they are not too hungry or too full. They know their own body cues.”

At some point during our childhood, this impressive self-regulation gives way to social queues. “If the portion that is on my plate is what I’m supposed to eat, I’m going to force myself to eat it,” Dr. Holub explains.

“Restrictive feeding practices,” she adds, “also seem to be problematic — telling children they can’t have something makes it a preferred food, and when they gain access to it, they immediately eat more of it. That’s another way that children learn to stop listening to their internal cues.”

According to Dr. Holub, the way in which parents act can have a significant impact on a child’s future food choices.

“In 2015, we published one of the first studies to find that it’s not only that the behavior is being modeled for a child — seeing a parent turn to food when they’re sad, for example — but that it sometimes also might be that parents feed children in emotion-regulating ways.”

“Your child gets upset? Here’s a piece of candy. You’re bored? Here’s something to eat.”

Although behavior can be modified later in life, it is harder once habits have formed and solidified. The ages of 3–5 are crucial for children; this is when their internal regulation gives way to social triggers. Understanding how to ensure these behaviors don’t become ingrained could be of significant benefit to the population at large.

Setting our children on the right path from an early age means that they will face less of a struggle with food choices later in life.