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Emotional Eating and the Current Pandemic: Genetics and Environment

by Marianne Navada
emotional eating

More than a year into the pandemic, we know more about the mental health effects associated with COVID-19. A recent study published by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health looks at psychological stress and emotional eating as a result of lockdowns and living through a pandemic. Here’s what they found: 

  • More than half of the participants reported emotional eating, from increased appetite, food consumption, and snacking in-between meals. 
  • Women are more likely to practice emotional eating than men.
  • Financial worries and job insecurity affected likelihood of emotional eating. 

What Is Emotional Eating? 

Emotional eating occurs when one eats based on emotions and not because of hunger. When emotional eating, we favor hyper-palatable foods. These foods are high in fat, sugar, and calories. 

Although emotional eating happens during both positive and happy emotions, research focuses on how psychological depression triggers emotional eating. 

Dieting and Emotional Eating 

Dieters are more likely to practice emotional eating. “Dietary restraint refers to the cognitive effort to control food and calorie intake.” In fact this correlation might explain why women tend to emotional eat more than men, since women are more likely to go on diets. 

Nature vs. Nurture 

Genetic research hopes to advance our understanding of emotional eating. It is especially of interest since emotional eating when distressed seems to go against the body’s “natural response”. Scientists believe that “a reduction of food intake is considered the biologically natural response to distress”. The research generally focuses on gene variants that lead to altered levels of serotonin and dopamine activity. With a deficit in activity of the neurotransmitter dopamine, we experience less pleasure, and that includes a decreased gratification in food. As a result, we tend to eat more in order to fulfill our pleasure. 

However, research on twins in Great Britain shows that environment and not biology determines emotional eating. Formed during childhood, we learn emotional eating. Learning can stem from feeding habits such as emotional feeding. This can start from a child getting sweets when distressed, or just simply learning emotional eating from the people around them. These habits eventually carry on to adulthood.

What Researchers Agree On

Emotional eating might make us feel good for a short period of time, but it often leads to guilt and compromises our overall health. HelpGuide.org offers a detailed guide on how to deal with emotional eating.

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