You know the clichéd movie scene all too well: the leading actress buries her sorrows in a pint of ice cream after a break-up. It’s common knowledge that we sometimes use food to soothe ourselves when we’re feeling bad, but it’s less clear exactly why. Does the yummy taste of the food serve as a mood lifter? Or, does eating temporarily distract us from negative feelings, providing a short-term escape?
One job that researchers in the field of eating disorders have is to identify these types of assumptions and hypotheses about emotions and eating and test them. Is it actually true that people eat when they’re feeling down? How about when it’s more than indulging in that extra dessert- are eating binges related to emotional states? And what about other eating disordered behaviors, like purging?
How do researchers figure out the relationships between emotions and behaviors?
There are a lot of different methods that scientists can use to figure out how emotions and behaviors might be linked, for example through questionnaires, interviews, and experiments. One very powerful way to examine the connections between emotions and eating behaviors is a method called ecological momentary assessment, referred to as EMA for short. With EMA, a research participant receives a smartphone or similar electronic device from researchers that is carried for the duration of the study (often a few weeks). At various times throughout the day, the device prompts the individual to log into a program and record whether he or she has engaged in any eating disordered behaviors, like binge eating, purging, or excessive exercise, since the last time she logged in. The study participant might also be asked to identify and rate the intensity of different emotions. Once all the data is gathered, researchers can go back and see how mood and eating disordered behaviors changed throughout the day and week, and how they might be related to each other.
The Latest Research
Members of our research team recently attended the annual conference of the Eating Disorders Research Society in San Diego, CA, where we learned about some of the current research examining the links between moods and eating disordered behaviors. Researchers from North Dakota, Minnesota, and Illinois collected EMA data from women with anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa over a two week period and then looked at ratings of emotions in the hours leading up to and following binge eating and purging. In their study sample, binge eating and purging were both immediately preceded by strong negative emotions and also negative feelings much earlier in the day. They also found that when people binged or purged, they tended to feel better (that is, to report lower levels of negative emotions), but only for a few hours immediately following the behavior.
This same team of researchers also looked at the relationships between positive emotions and eating disordered behaviors in their sample. People can experience high levels of positive and negative emotions simultaneously (e.g., being anxious and excited at the same time) and they can also feel low levels of positive and negative emotions at the same time (e.g., feeling “blah”). The investigators wondered if the occurrence of binge eating and purging might be related to times when people were experiencing low levels of positive emotions. They found that this was not the case. Binge eating and purging were not related to high or low levels of positive emotions either before or after these behaviors. Instead, researchers confirmed that it was only high levels of negative emotions that predicted later binge eating and purging.
What does it all mean?
These studies improve our understanding of the relationship between moods and eating behaviors as they occur throughout the day. The findings suggest that learning to identify negative emotions in the moment and to try using alternative strategies to cope with these feelings (like mindfulness techniques, reaching out to others for support, or challenging the thoughts associated with the feelings) could likely be helpful to anyone who struggles with unhealthy eating behaviors (or, of course, a full-fledged eating disorder).
Good research helps to answer important questions but it also often inspires many new ones. For example, are there certain types of negative emotions that are related to binge eating more than others? Do negative emotions impact the types of foods that people choose? At the Columbia Center for Eating Disorders, we are hoping to help answer these types of related questions through a series of imaging studies. For more information on our current research opportunities, please call our main line at 646-774-8066.