Thu. Nov 26th, 2020

Some are 'emotional eaters' and enjoy the taste of food more when sad

3 min read

Comfort eating is not just a cliche: Some people are ’emotional eaters’ and enjoy the taste of food more when they’re feeling down, study shows

  • Female students reaction to food was studied under different emotional states 
  • They found emotional eaters found food tastier and eat more when feeling down
  • This didn’t apply to restrictive eaters who only became more aware of their food
  • Authors hope to use the findings to spot early warning signs of eating disorders 

Comfort eating when you’re feeling down is such a cliche it is a staple of popular culture – now scientists have discovered that there is some truth to it.

Researchers found that ’emotional eaters’ – those who eat when sad – preferred the taste of food and had a larger appetite when they were feeling negative emotions.

The study, by the University of Salzburg, studied the way 80 female students responded to food images while under different emotional states.

Overeating when feeling down ‘is a serious problem’ for emotional eaters and can lead to the development of eating disorders, according to the study authors.

Researchers hope they can use the findings from this study to identify people at risk of developing an eating disorder and new treatment techniques.

Researchers found that ’emotional eaters’ – those who eat when sad – preferred the taste of food and had a larger appetite when they were feeling negative emotions. Stock image

‘Even at a healthy BMI, emotional overeating can be a problem,’ says Rebekka Schnepper of the University of Salzburg in Austria, who co-authored 

The authors wanted to find out just how big of an impact different emotional states had on how much people would eat and their enjoyment of the food. 

Schnepper discovered that emotional eaters had a stronger appetite response and found food to be more pleasant when experiencing negative emotions compared to when they felt neutral emotions.

Restrictive eaters, on the other hand, appeared more attentive towards food when they were feeling negative emotions but it didn’t influence their appetite. 

For restrictive eaters there was also no significant change in appetite between feeling neutral and feeling negative emotions.

The team say the findings could help them develop new techniques to help regulate emotional eating and to treat eating disorders – they say this could involve not relying on eating as a remedy for negative emotions. 

‘There are different and conflicting theories on which trait eating style best predicts overeating in response to negative emotions,’ said Schnepper.

‘We aimed to clarify which traits predict emotional overeating,’ the author added.

The team worked with 80 female students at the University of Salzburg, all of whom were of average body mass index (BMI). 

During the lab sessions, the volunteers were read scripts in order to induce either a neutral or a negative emotional response. 

The negative scripts related to recent events from the participant’s personal life during which they experienced challenging emotions, while the neutral scripts related to subjects such as brushing one’s teeth. 

The participants were then shown images of appetising food and neutral objects.

The study, by the University of Salzburg, studied the way 80 female students responded to food images while under different emotional states. Stock image

During this process their brains were scanned, facial expressions recorded and participants were asked to answer questions on their emotional state. 

They found that motional eaters frowned less when shown images of food after being read the negative script compared to when they read the neutral script.

This is an indication of a stronger appetite response linked to negative emotions.

The study authors chose to only test female participants since women are more prone to eating disorders.

Given the limited subject pool, as well as the controlled conditions, Schnepper says it isn’t possible to draw conclusions for men or long-term eating behaviour.

Nevertheless, the study furthers our understanding of emotional overeating, and the findings may help in the early detection and treatment of eating disorders. 

The findings have been published in the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience. 

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