Health Matters 7/26: Emotional eating in adolescents

By Katie Gaffney, R.D.

Intense emotional experiences and stressful events affect everyone differently, including adolescents who are especially vulnerable to the ups and downs that typify the teenage years.

Sometimes these emotions can have an impact on eating and can cause adolescents – girls and boys – to turn to food as a way of making themselves feel better.

However, while a pint of ice cream or a plate of fries may bring immediate comfort after a failed math test or a falling out with a friend, the effect is often temporary.

And while it might feel good in the moment, using food to cope with uncomfortable feelings can become a habit that can have physical and mental health consequences into adulthood.

The Adolescent Program’s Emotional Eating Track at Penn Medicine Princeton House Behavioral Health helps teens understand the connection between emotions and eating behaviors, while offering alternative coping strategies for a healthier life.

Recognizing emotional eating

Almost everyone seeks solace in a piece of chocolate cake or a bag of potato chips at some point in their lives, but regularly using food to deal with emotions can have negative impacts – whether you’re a teenager or an adult.

Emotional eating typically involves eating richer, highly palatable foods, which can displace foods with other nutrients.

In fact, foods high in fat, sugar and salt can become more appealing when you’re under stress, in a bad mood or feel bad about yourself, according to the National Institutes of Health.

What’s more is once you’ve used these foods to soothe your emotions, you’ll likely crave them any time you feel bad; making it harder to resist them the next time you feel upset.

Over time, this could result in health problems, such as high cholesterol and heart disease, even in teens.

Additionally and just as importantly, emotional eating inhibits adolescents from developing healthy ways of dealing with their feelings, which ultimately perpetuates the problem.

Signs of emotional eating, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians include:

  • Eating in response to emotions, not to satisfy hunger
  • Feeling an urgent need to eat
  • Craving a specific food or type of food
  • Eating a larger amount of food than usual
  • Eating at unusual times of day (for example, late at night)
  • Rapid weight gain
  • Feeling embarrassed or guilty about eating
  • “Sneaking” food during high-stress times
  • Hiding empty containers of food

Causes of Emotional Eating

Adolescence is an emotional time for both girls and boys as they gain increased independence and responsibility, and face heightened scrutiny and pressure from their peers, intensified by social media. Not to mention the hormonal changes that accompany this phase of life.

Difficulty managing these feelings can lead to emotional eating, which can be triggered by:

  • Stress
  • Boredom
  • Depression
  • Loneliness
  • Loss
  • Frustration
  • Resentment
  • Insecurity
  • Anger

Moreover, in addition to having trouble managing emotions, other risk factors for emotional eating include:

  • Being unhappy with your body. This applies to teens of all genders.
  • If you feel deprived of food, you may be frustrated and tempted to emotionally eat.

Coping Strategies

The first step for teens in preventing emotional eating is to check in with themselves and their emotions and ask whether they’re eating because they’re hungry or for some other reason.

Also, they can themselves ask what they need right at that moment. Maybe it’s a friend to talk to. Maybe it’s some time alone. Or maybe it is actually a bag of chips, which is OK every once in a while.

Here are some other strategies to prevent emotional eating:

  • Do something you enjoy – whether reading a book, taking a walk or soaking in the tub.
  • In addition to keeping you physically healthy, exercise can also help keep you mentally healthy.
  • Eat slowly. Pay attention to the food you’re eating and avoid eating in front of the TV or computer.
  • Keep a journal. Writing is a healthy outlet for emotions and feelings.
  • Don’t deprive yourself. Eating a healthy diet is important, but depriving yourself can lead to emotional eating. Eat healthy, satisfying foods and save room for the occasional treat.

When to Get Help

It can be hard for parents to differentiate between what is normal teenage behavior and what may be signs of a problem. Looking out for trends – for instance, if your teen reaches for the cookie jar whenever they have a big test or event coming up – can help.

Also, if your teen’s relationship with food is getting in the way of their normal activities, it may be time to seek advice from a professional.

Emotional eating can be a problem in and of itself, but there may also be more significant underlying issues, such as depression or trauma.

The Adolescent Program’s Emotional Eating Track at Penn Medicine Princeton House Behavioral Health offers a comprehensive evaluation by a board-certified psychiatrist, an individualized treatment plan, evidence-based treatment, group and individual therapy, medication management, nutritional counseling and supportive meals, family therapy, psychoeducation groups, and expressive therapies like yoga, art, and writing.

The program, which is offered at Princeton House’s Princeton location, helps participants to:

  • Reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety, bipolar disorders and traumatic disorders
  • Understand the connection between disordered eating and emotions
  • Learn dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) skills for healthier coping strategies
  • Understand body image issues
  • Address any co-occurring substance abuse issues
  • Increase self-compassion
  • Increase skills to manage feelings in order to more effectively function in life

Depending on needs, treatment options include a partial hospital program for six hours a day five days a week or an intensive outpatient program for three hours a day three days a week.

For more information about the Adolescent Emotional Eating Program at Princeton House, visit or call 1-888-437-1610.

Katie Gaffney, R.D., is a registered dietitian with Penn Medicine Princeton House Behavioral Health.