Perceptions of emotional eating behavior. A qualitative study of college students

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Approximately one-third of college students are overweight or obese and the average student gains 5kg during college. Previous research has identified a relationship between emotional eating and weight gain in young adults, but outside the realm of eating disorders, few studies qualitatively capture why individuals cope with emotions by eating. Exploratory qualitative research was conducted, including 3-day food journals and indepth interviews, with proportionate quota sampling of eight male and eight female undergraduate students to gain an understanding of students' perceptions of their emotional eating behaviors. Participants were purposively selected based on their emotional eating scores on the Weight Related Eating Questionnaire from a larger survey assessing student eating behaviors. Participants' (n=16) mean age was 19.6±1.0years and all self-reported their race to be white. Mean Body Mass Index (BMI) for females and males was 24.1±1.2kg/m2 and 24.8±1.7kg/m2, respectively. Findings from the qualitative analyses indicated gender differences and similarities. Females identified stress as the primary trigger for emotional eating, frequently followed by guilt. Males were primarily triggered by unpleasant feelings such as boredom or anxiety turning to food as a distraction; however, males were less likely to experience guilt after an emotional eating episode than females. During emotional eating episodes, both genders chose what they defined as unhealthful foods. These findings indicate a multidisciplinary intervention focusing on emotion and stress management in addition to dietary behavior change should be developed to reduce the potential for weight gain associated with emotional eating in the college-aged population. © 2012 Elsevier Ltd.

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