Com­fort Eat­ing is Trig­gered by Nur­ture

Premier Magazine (South AFrica) - - Contents -

Text: Moritz Herle, PHD can­di­date at the De­part­ment of Be­havioural Sci­ence & Health, University Col­lege Lon­don, UCL; Ali­son Fildes University Academic Fel­low, University of Leeds; Clare Llewellyn Lec­turer in Be­havioural Obe­sity Re­search, UCL; Silje Steins­bekk As­so­ciate pro­fes­sor, Nor­we­gian University of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy Im­age © istockphoto.com

The por­trayal of a heart­bro­ken woman de­vour­ing a tub of ice cream un­der a du­vet is a well-es­tab­lished tele­vi­sion cliché – think Brid­get Jones. That’s prob­a­bly be­cause it’s ac­tu­ally quite a com­mon be­hav­iour: 38% of adults say that they eat more when stressed or sad.

You may be all too fa­mil­iar with the sce­nario: you’ve had a par­tic­u­larly gru­elling day at work, or you’re in the throes of a dev­as­tat­ing breakup, and you reach for your favourite food for com­fort. Sci­en­tists call this ten­dency “emo­tional overeat­ing”, re­act­ing to neg­a­tive emo­tions such as stress or sad­ness, with the de­sire to eat highly palat­able food. The prob­lem is that it in­creases your risk of be­com­ing over­weight: reg­u­larly eat­ing a large num­ber of ad­di­tional calo­ries for rea­sons other than hunger will do your waist­line no favours.

We know from pre­vi­ous re­search that a ten­dency to eat for com­fort be­gins in early child­hood, but we know very lit­tle about where this ac­tu­ally comes from, es­pe­cially dur­ing the im­por­tant for­ma­tive years. To find out more, we re­cently con­ducted two stud­ies of emo­tional overeat­ing in chil­dren from the United King­dom and Nor­way. In one study of Bri­tish twins, we looked to see if this ten­dency is shaped more by our early en­vi­ron­men­tal ex­pe­ri­ences, or ge­netic pre­dis­po­si­tion. In the other study of Nor­we­gian chil­dren, we looked to see if par­ents play a role by of­fer­ing food as a source of com­fort to their young chil­dren. Fix­ing the Prob­lem

It is use­ful to un­der­stand how our ten­den­cies are shaped; this knowl­edge pro­vides guid­ance about where to fo­cus ef­forts to stop prob­lem be­hav­iour from de­vel­op­ing in the first place. A pow­er­ful method for un­der­stand­ing how genes and en­vi­ron­ments shape our traits is com­par­ing iden­ti­cal and non-iden­ti­cal twin pairs.

Iden­ti­cal twins share 100% of their genes, while non-iden­ti­cal twins share about half of their genes – the same pro­por­tion as reg­u­lar sib­lings. But both types of twins are raised in the same en­vi­ron­ment and share sim­i­lar ex­pe­ri­ences. For ex­am­ple, they are the same age and raised in the same home. Re­searchers can there­fore com­pare how sim­i­lar the two types of twins are to es­tab­lish the ex­tent to which genes and en­vi­ron­ments shape emo­tional overeat­ing (or any other trait of in­ter­est).

If iden­ti­cal pairs are more sim­i­lar to each other in be­hav­iours (such as emo­tional overeat­ing) than non-iden­ti­cal twin pairs, this in­di­cates that genes play a role. How­ever, if both types of twins show equiv­a­lent sim­i­lar­ity, it can be im­plied that the en­vi­ron­men­tal ex­pe­ri­ences shared com­pletely by twin pairs, such as up­bring­ing, are more im­por­tant in in­flu­enc­ing be­hav­iours.

To find out about the role of genes and en­vi­ron­ments in shap­ing emo­tional overeat­ing in child­hood we an­a­lysed data from the Gemini study, a large study of over 2,400 Bri­tish fam­i­lies with twins born in 2007. Par­ents rated their twins’ ten­den­cies to emo­tion­ally overeat when they were tod­dlers (16 months), and again when they were five-years-old. Re­sults showed that the most im­por­tant in­flu­ence on the ten­dency to com­fort eat as a child was the en­vi­ron­men­tal ex­pe­ri­ences shared by twins. Genes were unim­por­tant.

Us­ing Food to Soothe

Early en­vi­ron­men­tal ex­pe­ri­ences that lead to com­fort eat­ing are likely to in­volve early feed­ing ex­pe­ri­ences. Many par­ents use food to soothe their child’s dis­tress – such as of­fer­ing a favourite food for com­fort when their child has hurt them­selves. Re­searchers call this “emo­tional feed­ing”. But us­ing food to soothe may in­ad­ver­tently teach the child to ap­ply the same tac­tics them­selves when in dis­tress.

A child who is re­peat­edly fed when he or she is up­set or ex­presses neg­a­tive emo­tions learns that eat­ing helps to reg­u­late emo­tions, and so might learn to com­fort eat. To test this the­ory we stud­ied par­ents’ emo­tional feed­ing and their chil­dren’s emo­tional overeat­ing in nearly 1,000 fam­i­lies from Trond­heim, Nor­way.

Par­ents rated their ten­dency to of­fer their chil­dren sweets or snacks to calm them down or cheer them up, as well as their chil­dren’s ten­dency to emo­tion­ally overeat. Par­ents an­swered these ques­tions sev­eral times when their chil­dren were six-, eight-, and 10-years-old.

Our anal­y­sis of the re­sults showed that emo­tional feed­ing does en­cour­age chil­dren to emo­tional overeat­ing ten­den­cies. Chil­dren whose par­ents often used food to soothe them dis­played more emo­tional overeat­ing as time went on.

The dis­cov­ery that com­fort eat­ing in child­hood is learned, not in­her­ited, sug­gests that it can be pre­vented. We need to help par­ents find al­ter­na­tive strate­gies for com­fort­ing their dis­tressed child in healthy and nur­tur­ing ways. Of course, the next stage of re­search would be to find the al­ter­na­tives that can work best.

This ar­ti­cle was orig­i­nally pub­lished on The Con­ver­sa­tion.

You may be all too fa­mil­iar with the sce­nario: you’ve had a par­tic­u­larly gru­elling day at work, or you’re in the throes of a dev­as­tat­ing breakup, and you reach for your favourite food for com­fort. Sci­en­tists call this ten­dency ‘emo­tional overeat­ing’.

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