Children as young as four years old eat 79% more calories when bored, study shows

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A new study at Aston University has shown that children under the age of four eat 79% more calories when they are upset than when they are in a neutral mood.

Despite boredom being a common emotion experienced by many children, no research to date has empirically looked at how much children eat when bored. On average, the study showed that children who felt upset ate 95 kcal when they were already full, compared to children in a neutral mood who ate just 59 kcal. The pioneering research was led by Dr Rebecca Stone as part of her PhD, supervised by Professor Claire Farrow and Professor Jackie Blissett of Aston University and Professor Emma Haycraft of Loughborough University.

Children’s eating behavior is shaped by their genetics, temperament, and a range of other factors, including the feeding practices they experience. In previous studies, the authors have explored behaviors that make children more likely to eat when they experience negative emotions. Often when children experience negative emotions such as boredom or sadness, adults use food to soothe them. However, this behavior, known as emotional eating, makes children more likely to eat more when they are upset, potentially teaching children to seek out food when they are in a low mood.

As part of the study, researchers asked parents about their feeding habits with their child and about their child’s mood. Children and parents were given a standard meal that they ate until they were full. The children then participated in a series of daily situations in which their mood was assessed, and one of these situations was disturbing for the children. Researchers found that if parents often used food to soothe their child’s emotions and their child was highly emotional, the children ate five times more calories when feeling monotonous than when they were in a neutral mood (21 kcal).

Boredom is a commonly experienced emotion in children, likely to consume extra calories in response to being bored throughout the day if children eat more calories in one instance of boredom in a laboratory (a four-minute period). “One week, or one year, is potentially very significant in an abundant food environment.”

Dr. Rebecca Stone

Previous research on what might influence children’s eating behavior has been based on questionnaires, combining all negative moods, including sadness, anger and anxiety. Boredom is easy to identify, and usually easy to correct, so helping parents deal with children’s boredom without consuming food would be a potentially helpful way to reduce less healthy eating.

Dr. Stone emphasizes that the experience of boredom is important in the development of children’s sense of self and creativity, so does not suggest that children should avoid or avoid being bored. Instead, she suggests that children learn to experience boredom without turning to food, and parents can try to divert their child’s attention away from food when feeling bored, or reorganize the home food environment so that children do not turn to food. When they are bored.

Professor Farrow said:

“It’s generally assumed that children gravitate towards food when they’re bored, and that some children are more likely to do so than others. This is the first study to test this experimentally in the laboratory. Where children seem to have individual differences in terms of their eating when bored , it’s helpful to know that the feeding habits that adults use around food can make this phenomenon more likely. While it’s tempting to use food as a tool to comfort children, research suggests that emotional feeding can “lead to greater emotional eating in the future.” goes It’s important that parents and caregivers are aware that this short-term solution can create future challenges.”

The research team is interested in exploring other negative mood states in children and developing counseling and support for families to find effective ways to manage challenges around children’s eating behaviors.


Journal Reference:

Stone, RA, etc (2023). Emotional eating following a laboratory mood induction: Interactions between parental feeding practices and infant mood. Food quality and choice.

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