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‘A bit of compassion’: understanding weight and emotional eating

The temptation to soothe uncomfortable emotions and swallow our feelings with food, squashing them deep into our bellies, is familiar to many of us.

The flavours of sweet or salty or fatty foods simultaneously dull and distract, literally desensitising our bodies to stress, albeit providing only a brief reprieve.

Comfort eating is common, but the factors underlying it are contributing to the obesity epidemic.Credit:Alexandra Grablewski

While eating to manage stress and take the edge off anxiety or other emotions is very common – and women tend to do it more than men – not all those who do it become overweight.

New research, published in the journal Obesity, has explored whether the relationship between lower socioeconomic status and obesity is explained by psychological distress and subsequent emotional eating as a coping strategy.

Obesity, which affects nearly two in three Australian adults, is much more prevalent among the socioeconomically disadvantaged (in developed countries at least), so much so that being thin and eating healthy foods has become a status symbol. Along with the eye-watering expense of eating organic, fresh foods and frequenting pilates classes, there are more fast food outlets in disadvantaged areas along with a greater abundance of cheap, calorie‐dense foods.

Research into the obesity epidemic typically focuses on diet and physical activity, as well as the cost and availability of food to explain this disparity, but it rarely takes into account the pyschological factors.

The small study, a collaboration between the University of Liverpool in the UK and Australia’s Edith Cowan University, looked at distress levels and emotional eating among 150 adults from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds.

They found there was a higher prevalence of psychological distress among the socioeconomically disadvantaged which predicted a greater tendency towards emotional eating and a greater likelihood of being obese.

“What really mattered was whether that psychological distress gave rise to emotional eating as a way of coping,” explains study co-author, ECU’s Associate Professor Joanne Dickson. “That was the key factor.”

Interestingly, regardless of socioeconomic status, participants who used food as a coping mechanism put on weight, so it’s not only high levels of psychological distress that drive us to the bottom of the icecream container: boredom, stress and other negative emotions can too.

Dickson stresses that “other factors are involved” in the relationship between obesity and socioeconomic status.

The study's authors explain that “maladaptive” coping strategies, like comfort eating, coupled with “stress-induced disturbances” to metabolic signals, are thought to promote weight gain and obesity over time.

“The negative social, psychological, emotional, and behavioral consequences of obesity exacerbate psychological distress and maladaptive eating behaviours, thus creating a cyclic mechanism that perpetuates the difficulties.”

Professor Amanda Salis, from the University of Sydney, adds, “It’s not just emotional eating but the foods that you choose to eat or the foods that you can afford to eat or the foods that your body is driven to or how much exercise you have got time to do.”

So-called "obesity" genes may make people more driven to eat in general as well, Salis explains, and that's before we consider the availability of junk foods or eating to soothe emotional distress.

Research into the obesity epidemic … rarely takes into account the pyschological factors.

In terms of potential applications of such insights, Dickson says tackling obesity needs to incorporate psychological factors alongside the promotion of exercise and healthy eating.

“It's how to teach people positive coping strategies. Underlying [emotional eating] is trying to alleviate negative emotions.”

Salis agrees that understanding the interplay between psychological and physiological factors is important.

“We know obesity is a multi-factorial problem and there are many factors that are leading to obesity and need to be addressed in the treatment of obesity. None of these factors alone is the answer to everything or the cause of everything.”

She recalls seeing a friend recently who has gained weight.

“Her family said 'Oh, you’ve gained a lot of weight’ and were critical instead of ‘Oh, are you OK – what’s happening?’ A bit of compassion and thinking there might be something else there, there might be something going on.

“Emotional stress is something that can lead to overeating and weight gain. It’s something that intuitively we know in a way, but our society is very quick to judge people.”

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