Scientists have determined one of the most common strategies of coping with our emotions is a myth, ruling out “comfort eating”.
The study revealed the habit of eating foods that we feel may offer us some relief during periods of stress or heartache has no official link to relieving it.
Conducted at Cambridge University’s Eating Behaviour Unit, the study examined 85 women – 22 with anorexia, 33 with bulimia, and 30 controls.
During the experiment, the women were asked to perform maths exercises while experiencing small, unpredictable electric shocks, and were then invited to an “all you can eat” buffet.
They were told that if they failed the test, their data would be dismissed from the study.
They were also informed at times in the experiment that their results were “below average”, in order to heighten their levels of stress and possibly facilitate the need to comfort eat.
They discovered women who suffered from eating disorders would consume less in general than those who didn’t, challenging the theory that binge eating is triggered by an increase in stress and self-control.
The assumption that eating disorders result from stress has never been tested until now by the Journal of Neuroscience.
“The theory suggests that these women should have eaten more when they were stressed, but that’s actually not what we found,” said Dr Margaret Westwater, who led the research.
“Clearly, when we’re thinking about eating behaviour in these disorders, we need to take a more nuanced approach.”
“I think using the word comfort really gives a big insight, doesn’t it? We use comfort eating to regulate our moods,” she shared.
“It’s actually distressed eating when we’re using food under times of stress as a way of comforting our moods, regulating our moods, managing impulsivity, even managing our boredom. So they’re all sort of distressing psychological states.”
However, the Cambridge study found that after analysing the blood biomarkers taken from patients, those with anorexia had ghrelin, a hormone that told them their body was hungry when stressed.
There were also raised levels of peptide tyrosine tyrosine, a “satisfied hunger” hormone.
Patients with bulimia showed no differences in their levels.
Professor Paul Fletcher, an author at the department of psychiatry, said the relationship between “stress and binge-eating is very complicated.”
“It’s about the environment around us, our psychological state and how our body signals to us that we’re hungry or full,” he explained.
In a hope to better treat those suffering from an eating disorder, Fletcher added, “If we can get a better understanding of the mechanisms behind how our gut shapes those higher order cognitive processes related to self-control or decision-making, we may be in a better position to help people affected by these extremely debilitating illnesses.”
“To do this, we need to take a much more integrated approach to studying these illnesses.”
A study by Deloitte Access Economics found one million, or four per cent of the Australian population were experiencing an eating disorder at any time.
When combined with disordered eating, up to 16.3 per cent of Australians are grappling with unstable eating habits at any time.
Anyone needing support with eating disorders or body image issues is encouraged to contact the Butterfly National Helpline on 1800 33 4673 or firstname.lastname@example.org
For urgent support please contact Lifeline 13 11 14.