Perceptions of emotional eating behavior: A qualitative study

Jessica Totin Bennett, University of Rhode Island


Problem statement. Obesity is a rising concern in the American population, as well as worldwide. Eating in response to emotion can lead to obesity if it results in an increase in energy consumption. This positive energy balance can subsequently result in weight gain if episodes occur more frequently or the amount consumed per episode increases. An individual's inability to control these episodes can create harmful relationships with food, others and most importantly oneself. ^ Background. Research has been conducted in attempt to understand why individuals use eating to cope with emotions. Few studies were found that qualitatively captured the phenomena outside of the realm of eating disorders. Due to the variability in emotions and eating behaviors, recording a clear picture through experience and perception is the first step towards finding a solution. ^ Objective. This study first aimed to understand the perceptions of emotional eating behaviors in college-aged individuals with the intent that the results could be used to develop intervention programs that would modify emotional eating and decrease weight gain in susceptible individuals. Second, this study aimed to discover the implications and significance of scoring high on an emotional eating instrument in relation to eating behavior. ^ Participants. 16 University of Rhode Island undergraduate students between the ages of 18–24 years old participated in the study. Individuals were excluded for: (a) previous diagnosis of an eating disorder by a professional; (b) BMI less than 21 or greater than 30; (c) nutrition majors; (d) pregnancy; (e) lactation; (f) smoking and (g) medications affecting appetite. ^ Methods. The study was of qualitative design using in-depth interviews. Interviews were unstructured in nature to allow each participant to guide discussion with elements that were most significant to that participant. The Weight Related Eating Questionnaire (WREQ) was used to assess emotional eating status. ^ Data collection & analysis. Each interview was tape-recorded in a private setting and transcribed. Participants reviewed summaries of their interviews for validation. First observations were recorded to generate new questions for subsequent interviews with the intent of answering the research questions. Patterns that emerged across general groups were further analyzed by gender allowing these observations to be the foundation for hypotheses. ^ Results. 16 students (8 females/8 males) were interviewed with an average BMI of 24.1 ± 1.2 and 24.8 ± 1.7, respectively. Average WREQ emotional eating constructs were 19.8 ± 2.5 and 15.5 ± 2.1 for females and males, respectively. Both genders increased food intake when stressed or bored regardless of hunger. ^ Conclusion. Coping with stress through eating was the greatest barrier towards healthful eating across genders. At the same time, boredom was also cited as an emotional eating enabler. This could be the result of undeveloped time management skills. As one progresses from young adulthood to adulthood, greater responsibilities (and thus more stress) are speculated to occur. Therefore, a multidisciplinary intervention focusing on emotional, stress and time management as well as dietary behaviors in the college population should be developed.^

Subject Area

Psychology, Behavioral|Health Sciences, Nutrition

Recommended Citation

Jessica Totin Bennett, "Perceptions of emotional eating behavior: A qualitative study" (2011). Dissertations and Master's Theses (Campus Access). Paper AAI1503002.