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Parents Influence Children’s Tendency to Comfort Eat

‌‌‌‌Investigating why people ‘comfort’ eat

Findings from a research project at NUI Galway have provided new insights into the underlying causes of comfort eating. Comfort or emotional eating happens when we are not hungry but perhaps in need of stress relief or a reward. The study of over 500 people traced individuals eating habits back to their early childhood and particularly their parents responses to their emotions.

Dr Jonathan Egan of NUI Galway presented the findings at the 44th Annual Psychological Society of Ireland Conference in Kilkenny yesterday (13 November).

While the wide availability of convenience foods and an increasingly sedentary lifestyle are recognised as significant contributing factors to the spike in obesity rates, research is finding that psychosocial factors in childhood, such as abuse, lack of parental support, depression, may also play a role.

“For many, if you are unable to express your emotions, the ‘solution’ is to comfort eat”, explains Dr Egan. “Children learn from an early age what emotions are acceptable within the household or not. If parents are caring and responsive to their children’s needs, while still being authoritative, our research indicates this leads to a healthy relationship with food. However, when a parent is overly dictatorial – ‘my way or the highway’ – children’s relationships with food can altered right into adulthood.”

Combined with findings on the influence of permissive parenting, it seems that the degree of warmth and/or caring in the parent-child interaction may be of particular relevance in the development of attitudes towards expressing emotion. Healthcare professionals may play an important role in reinforcing the advantages of authoritative parenting and warmth and/or caring in the home, and communicating messages to parents regarding the importance of tolerance of emotional expression.

The research looked at the relationship between a range of factors, such as how people learned to cope with their emotions in childhood, or how people relate to others, and how this influences eating patterns and BMI in adulthood.

High fat and high sugar comfort food are often particularly popular with emotional eaters. Dr Egan explains, “biologically such foods reduce the activity of the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-adrenal axis in the brain, which in turn dampens the stress response and activates the brains reward centres. This also makes the likelihood of similar (compulsive) behaviour more likely in the future.

The findings suggest that health professionals should routinely assess broad childhood experiences (including invalidation) when working with individuals around weight management. Furthermore, the findings point to the importance for health care professionals to promote authoritative parenting in childhood, as it is protective against overweight and obesity in adulthood.

Dr Egan also pointed that: “Mindfulness and being able to recognise internal and external changes within and without your body seem also to be protective suggestions lots for treatment strategies.”

Dr Egan worked with Roisín Finnegan, Andrea Gibbons and Lorraine McDonagh on the research which was funded by the Millennium Research Fund at NUI Galway.

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