Anyone who has eaten when frustrated, angry, bored, worried, exhausted, lonely, or depressed—but not hungry—has engaged in emotional eating
(So that makes most of us.) And for most, the food eaten is less likely to be steamed broccoli, poached chicken breast, or fat-free yogurt and far more likely to be a member of the so-called carbohydrate junk food family.
We know this from studies carried out at the MIT clinical research center about 25 years ago. Emotional overeaters were offered a choice between protein snacks like miniature meatballs or luncheon meat and carbohydrate snacks like cookies and crackers. The choice was always the carbohydrate foods. The predictable choice of carbohydrates led to research confirming that the carbohydrates were chosen not from taste (the meatballs were delicious but ignored) but because eating crackers or cookies led to an increase in the mood-soothing activity of serotonin. Our conclusion, reinforced by many subsequent psychological studies, was that people used carbohydrates as a form of self-medication.
But how did we learn to do this? And indeed, did we learn to do this, or is medicating with food something we are born with?
Infants don’t eat to make their bad moods go away. They eat to make their hunger go away. And infants don’t eat when they are not hungry. Theoretically infants, especially those who are breastfed, do not overeat since it is almost impossible to get infants to swallow more milk when they are done feeding. The mouth closes, the head is turned away, and often sleep takes over.
So how does an infant who self-regulates her food intake turn into an emotional overeater? Some pediatric obesity researchers such as Savage, Birch, Marini, et. al.1 suggest that it is the mother’s fault. Mothers who interpret every sign of their infant’s distress as hunger will feed their infants too often. The baby may not eat but eventually, so the researchers surmise, the baby associates feeling bored, lonely, wet, annoyed or whatever emotions babies feel with being offered food.
This association seems to be strengthened when parents offer treats to the now older child to soothe her. Blisssett, Haycraft and Farrow measured cookie and chocolate consumption among preschool children when they were stressed in a research setting. Children whose mothers often gave them snacks to comfort them ate more sweet snacks than children whose mothers did not offer them snacks when they were upset.
But there is much unanswered about this assumption, i.e. that children will turn into emotional overeating adults because they were given treats as children to help them overcome distress, boredom, or anger.
Do children growing up in cultures where food is scarce become emotional eaters? They may worry as adults about not having enough food and hoard food or overeat because they learned as children that food is not always available. But is this emotional overeating?
Do all children in a family become emotional overeaters in response to being given comfort food while growing up? Often some children in a family overeat sweet or starchy junk food and others reject these items. What makes Sally, but not Sam, reach for cookies when experiencing a negative mood state? Why doesn’t Sam also use food to feel better?
Do children, and indeed adults feel comforted if given any food when upset or only specific foods? The answer is obvious, at least in our culture. Foods offered and eaten in times of stress tend to be tasty, sweet or starchy and often high in fat (cookies, chocolate, ice cream). If, theoretically, a toddler was always offered a piece of broccoli or spoonful of cottage cheese after bumping his head or feeling confined in a stroller, would he grow up and reach for the same foods when upset? Probably not, but this is testable. If a child grows up in a community where it is common to eat hot chili peppers or munch on dried seaweed or snack on avocado, then would these be comfort foods?
Are children nurtured from early infancy in a daycare center where meal and snack times are regulated and not dependent on a child’s mood less likely to become emotional overeaters?
Might children who are denied so-called tasty junk food because of their adverse effect on weight and health, feel compelled to eat such foods when they are old enough to get the food themselves? And might they overeat such foods to compensate for the years they were denied such treats?
Clearly much research has to be done before we understand whether an emotional overeater is born or made that way. Answers may come from studies in which self-defined emotional overeaters are given covertly a food that they tend to eat when stressed, and a food that is never eaten (crackers versus cottage cheese). Measurements of their emotional state before and following eating are measured. If the emotional overeater shows an improvement in mood to one or the other test food, then the change must have come about because of some change in the brain regulation of mood, and not because of taste or the anticipation that the food will help the mood.
And perhaps, eventually, we can find what in the food gives the child or adult an emotional hug, so we can strip away the calories and leave just the good feeling behind.