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This Common, Loving Response To Your Kids Is Actually Very Unhealthy

Photograph by Twenty20

Let's face it: Women are the most prepared individuals on the planet. That's why we take a purse wherever we go. Moms take this preparedness to the next level. We also carry snacks—lots of them—for emergencies and personal sanity.

It is difficult (and nerve-racking) to distinguish the difference between hunger and boredom when a child is losing his or her mind in the back seat of a car. And, in moments of desperation, parents do whatever it takes to get them to stop screaming.

Pacifier? Nope.

Talking book? Can't be bothered.

Cute little toy? Gimme a break.

How about some soothing '80s hits by Spandau Ballet?

When all else fails, we go for the nuclear option: snacks. And, according to science, this exactly the wrong thing to do. When we offer food for frustration, we are teaching children to become emotional eaters. (Worried now? Grab a half-eaten bagel and read on.)

Researchers fom the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, King's College London, University College London and the University of Leeds, describe emotional eating as eating when you feel sad or upset, or in response to another negative mood.

In other words, it is a caloric version of retail therapy. Probably most moms—most adults—know exactly what emotional eating is. We humans eat not only to survive, but often to make ourselves feel better. At some point, the newness, the comfort, wears off, and so we eat more. Sound familiar?

OK, that's what we're doing to kids.

Children's snacks are high in calories but, for some reason, we tend to justify their usage by thinking our kids will "burn it off later."

What if they don't? What if they continue to use food as a means to distract negative feelings throughout their lives? It's not so much the food they're taking in, it's the reasons they're taking in the food.

In addition to weight gain and obesity, emotional eating has been linked to the development of eating disorders (e.g., bulimia and binge eating), which—as we all know—can be extremely dangerous.

"Understanding where emotional eating comes from is important because such behavior can increase the risk for being overweight and developing eating disorders," states Silje Steinsbekk, associate professor of psychology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. "If we can find out what influences the development of emotional eating in young children, parents can be given helpful advice about how to prevent it."

Dr. Jennifer Ashton, the chief women's health correspondent for ABC News, shared her feelings on emotional eating this week by suggesting parents eat as a family and "avoid using food as punishment or a reward." She also recommends talking to your kids about emotions (a much better alternative than muffling their screams with a cookie).

For a lot of kids, transitions call for a snack. They hop into the back seat of the car after preschool or a playdate and demand a snack. Goldfish, Cheerios, a granola bar are certainly convenient options. But they're pretty much empty calories and a whole lot of insulin-spiking carbs—which just leaves them with hunger pangs well before dinner.

Emotional eating is real, it's a cycle and our children will suffer the consequences if we keep letting it do the emotional work of parenting for us. Easier said than done, yes! Loud public meltdowns are the worst. Still, talking feelings and instead of feeding them? That’s just healthy parenting, really.

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