Scientists seek secret of comfort eating

Galway researchers believe need for food may stem for childhood

Researchers at NUI Galway say ice cream is a favourite for comfort eaters.   Photograph: Frank Miller/The Irish Times

Researchers at NUI Galway say ice cream is a favourite for comfort eaters. Photograph: Frank Miller/The Irish Times

 

BRIAN McDONALD

Researchers are finally hoping to unlock the secret of why we turn to comfort eating.

A team at NUI Galway is now looking for volunteers to give them an insight into the real need for late night snacks or why we binge or our favourite food at other times.

The researchers reckon that our need for comfort eating - chocolate, ice cream or ready to eat, convenience foods are favourites with most people - may stem from childhood. And it has less to do with satisfying hunger than meeting a need for stress relief or a reward.

The Galway study aims to examine the influence of emotional factors in childhood on comfort eating and weight. They have devised a questionnaire which investigates these issues, and will also be conducting individual interviews.

“We’re hoping to explore 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”, said Roisín Finnegan, a trainee clinical psychologist who is carrying out this research under the supervision of Dr Jonathan Egan, lecturer in psychology at NUI Galway.

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 to date has revealed that psychosocial factors in childhood, such as abuse, lack of parental support, and depression, may also play a role.

“We believe that children growing up in an environment where they feel unable to express their emotions may turn to food as a source of comfort,” said Dr Egan.

“This pattern of coping with emotion through food continues into adulthood, and may well contribute to weight problems. These are just some of the factors we’re interested in investigating further as part of this research.

“We’re also interested in the concept of mindfulness, and how the ability to attend to how one is feeling in the present moment may act as an antidote to emotional eating.”

Volunteers taking part in the project have to be over 18 and interviews will take place in Laois, Offaly, Longford and Westmeath. The research is being funded by the Millennium Research Fund at NUI Galway and further detail are available at https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/comforteating