New Study Looks At The Emotion-Appetite Connection

mindbodygreen Editorial Assistant By Sarah Regan
mindbodygreen Editorial Assistant

Sarah Regan is a writer, registered yoga instructor, and Editorial Assistant at mindbodygreen. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from SUNY Oswego, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Research Looks At Why Some People Are Prone to Emotional Eating

Image by Santi Nunez / Stocksy

There's a reason we call it comfort food; in times of discomfort, anxiety, and other negative emotions, it's not out of the ordinary to reach for your favorite treats in an effort to self-soothe. And according to new research by the University of Salzburg and the University of Luxembourg, there's actually a biological explanation for why some people may be inclined to emotionally overeat. Here's what it found.

The design of the study.

For the study, the researchers asked 80 women between the ages of 16 and 50 to look at images of food and neutral images after discussions that evoked either negative or neutral emotions. The women they studied were split into two categories: emotional eaters and restrictive eaters who did not seem to emotionally eat.

Researchers then tracked the relationship between participants' emotions, appetite response, and eating habits when looking at each image. To study their appetite response, they used participants' self-reported data and recorded their facial expressions and brain activity.

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What the findings tell us.

Through the data, the researchers determined that emotional eaters actually had a stronger appetite when they felt negative emotions. They also frowned less when looking at pictures of food during this negative emotional state. The appetite of restrictive eaters didn't appear to change much whether they had negative or neutral emotions. This suggests that negative emotions elicit a stronger hunger response in emotional eaters.

The findings indicate mindfulness and other ways to emotionally regulate could help combat the potential health risks of emotional overeating.

"Even at a healthy BMI, emotional overeating can be a problem," says co-author Rebekka Schnepper. Emotional eating affects up to 34% of adults, according to the American Psychological Association and, when taken too far, is considered a risk factor for binge eating and bulimia.

How this can help people who want to cut back on unhealthy emotional eating.

"When trying to improve eating behavior, emotion regulation strategies that do not rely on eating as a remedy for negative emotions seem promising," Schnepper says.

For anyone struggling with emotional eating, this can be easier said than done. But like many matters of health, it starts inside. Here are 11 possible reasons for your negative emotions and ideas on how to soothe them with tools other than food.

All this is to say that there's absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying your favorite comfort foods here and there. But if you find yourself turning to food as a coping mechanism again and again, it might be time to kick-start a new mindfulness practice or healthy habit like journaling to take the place of emotionally eating.

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