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Children make unhealthy food choices based on their emotions

Children are making unhealthy food choices based on their emotions, and this is particularly the case on weekends, according to a new study published by Elsevier. The research is the latest in a growing collection of studies that have linked negative emotions to excessive calorie intake and poor diet quality.

“Children are more likely to consume unhealthy foods on weekends when meals and snacks are less structured and supervised than on school days,” said study lead author Christine Hotaru Naya of the University of Southern California. “We also focused on snack choices where children often make their own decisions.”

The analysis was focused on nearly 200 children in third through sixth grades. The children used a mobile app to respond to questions seven times per day. They were asked if they were feeling sad, stressed, or mad. 

The participants were also asked to report whether they had made any unhealthy eating choices from among fried foods, sweets, and sugary beverages over the previous two hours. Out of all of the food types examined, sweet food consumption was reported the most often – followed by chips, fries, and sugary beverages.

The experts identified three negative mood patterns among the children – stable low; early increasing and late decreasing; and early decreasing and late increasing. 

“We found fried food consumption to be higher on days with more variable emotional patterns than days with consistent low negative mood,” said Naya. “These results align with other studies that have found the negative mood to positively predict children’s fatty food intake.” Sweet food and soda consumption did not follow the same patterns in this study.

According to study co-author Daniel Chu, the research has several strengths, including that the results can be widely applied and tested in the family home. The results indicate that mornings and evenings are vulnerable periods when the change in negative emotions could influence food choices.

“More studies are needed for us to understand the relationship between a child’s emotions and their food choices, but this is a good start on that path to recognizing how to approach food choices with a person’s mood and emotions in mind,” said Naya. 

“We could improve our current interventions to be individually tailored to the environmental, social, emotional, and cognitive contexts in which unhealthy eating occurs.”

The study is published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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