Does How You Feel Affect What You Eat?

The holidays are here and with them come all the traditional holiday treats, and for many of us- the traditional holiday stress. When Aunt Karen starts bothering you about who you voted for or when Uncle Joe asks what you’re going to do with your life after you get your degree, does your blood pressure start to rise and your arm start to reach for the candied yams? Or maybe you’re someone who reacts to feeling upset by trying even harder to eat healthy and loading up your plate with the contents of the veggie platter. In your own experience, what is the relationship between the mood you’re in and the food you eat?

What Do We Know About Emotions and Eating?

In the field of eating disorders research, people are very interested in learning more about the relationships between emotions and eating. So far, we know that there is some relationship between mood and food, although the relationship seems to vary depending on the type of emotion experienced, the type and amount of food involved, and whether or not you have an eating disorder. For example, there is some evidence suggesting that negative emotions, and guilt in particular, may get stronger in the moments leading up to binge episodes in many individuals with bulimia nervosa. In those without eating disorders, the picture is a bit hazier, and it may be that some people eat less when feeling down. In fact, a change in appetite in either direction (becoming more or less hungry than usual) can be a symptom of depression.

There is also some evidence that many individuals with bulimia nervosa eat very restrictively when not bingeing- for example, trying to limit themselves to foods they consider healthy. In contrast, foods eaten during binge episodes may be foods that an individual considers unhealthy in some way- be that high fat, high sugar, high carb, or simply high calorie. These relationships are not entirely clear and researchers are still trying to figure out the how’s and why’s of food and mood.

Impact on Eating Disorders Treatment

Clarifying the types of relationships between food and mood can help clinicians and researchers design more effective treatments for eating disorders. For example, in recent years researchers have been developing treatments for bulimia nervosa and other eating disorders which help patients to (1) identify the links between their emotions and their eating disordered behavior and (2) develop effective strategies to regulate emotions instead of relying on eating disordered behaviors. Two prominent treatments that address the links between disordered eating and emotions are Integrative Cognitive-Affective Therapy (ICAT) and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). While these treatments and others have been very helpful for many, there is still much that we don’t know.

Our Research

As part of my post-doctoral research fellowship, I am working with my colleagues at the Columbia University Medical Center to learn more about the relationships between emotions and food choices in individuals with bulimia nervosa and those without an eating disorder (that is, healthy controls). In the first phase of our research, we recruited women with bulimia nervosa to take part in a functional MRI. Using this type of imaging, we were able to scan participants’ brains while they experienced different emotions to learn more about the mental roadmap of feelings. In our latest study, for which we are currently recruiting, we’re asking participants to come to our offices on two separate afternoons to listen to music, write about different past emotional experiences, and take part in a computerized food choice task. In the food choice task, study participants rate pictures of foods and choose which foods they’d like to eat as a snack. Following the computer task, individuals are asked to eat a snack in our eating laboratory. We’re interested in examining the relationships between emotions and food choice decision-making.

If you or someone you know struggles with bulimia nervosa and would like to learn more about participating in this and/or other studies , please contact our program (or call 646-774-8066). Those who are determined to be eligible for our studies are eligible to receive treatment at no cost in exchange for their contribution to science. Individuals without eating disorders who are eligible to take part in our research as control subjects receive monetary compensation for their time and participation.

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