Study: Emotional Eating Doesn't Result in Weight Gain

Posted in: Diet & Nutrition
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Susan

Susan Ohtake, CPT

At some point, I think we’ve all drowned our sorrows with a pint of ice cream. Right?

Researchers at Penn State recently set out to determine: How much weight do we gain due to emotional eating?

The answer might surprise you!

Kummerspeck is the German word for fat gained by emotional eating.

It translates to: “Greif Bacon” or “Sorrow Fat.”

Think about that, for a minute. Some languages have a specific word just for the fat gained from emotional eating. That means it must actually happen right?

Well…apparently not!

Now, I’m not a psychologist, I’m a trainer. But…

Most people say that emotional eating happens in a cycle:

  1. Something upsetting happens.
  2. We get an urge to eat.
  3. We eat more than we know we should.
  4. We feel bad about how much we just ate.

That cycle repeats…because #4 upsets us and we just go back to eating again.

What I’m wondering is:

Should we worry about weight gain from emotional eating?

After what I’ve seen, I think the answer is: No.

First, emotional eating might be wired right into who we are.

Some researchers believe there’s a survival component behind emotional eating.

Take a bad breakup as an example…

Penn Sate psychology professor Marissa Harrison says that thousands of years ago, “Food was much scarcer in the ancestral environment, so if your partner abandoned you, it could have made gathering food much harder.”

She continued, “"If their partner left or abandoned them, they would be in trouble. And the same could have gone for men. With food not as plentiful in the ancestral world, it may have made sense for people to gorge to pack on the pounds."

I think that’s a strong point: Emotional eating might just be part of us.

But times have changed! Food is available just about everywhere now…

Which is why Penn State conducted two studies to see if emotional eating caused weight gain.

That brings me to the second reason I don’t think we should feel back about emotional eating:

“No Evidence for Weight Gain” After Break Ups

This surprised me because I always think about break-ups as prime time for emotional eating.

But psychologists at Penn State say there’s “no evidence for weight gain after romantic relationship dissolution.”

Their conclusion was published in the Journal of the Evolutionary Studies Consortium just a few months ago.

Here’s the recap:

  • In the first study, 62.7% of participants reported no weight change after break ups.
  • In the second study, 65.1% of study participants reported no weight change after break ups.
  • There was no difference in weight gain or weight loss between men and women.
  • The study concluded, “we found little evidence to support Kummerspeck, or weight gained from emotional eating, as a response to relationship dissolution.”

If you’re interested in reading the study, there’s a link at the bottom of this page.

What to Worry About Instead…

Now, in the long run, food is a super important part of staying healthy and reaching your goals.

And, no, it’s not a good idea to consistently “emotionally eat,” relieve stress, or reward yourself with food.

But the truth is, emotional eating might just be wired into who we are. Plus, in some studies…it seems like it might not matter!

So, here’s what I recommend worrying about instead:

  • Understand that emotional eating is natural and not your fault so you can STOP feeling guilty about it. For many of us, emotional eating can become a cycle. Break the cycle by recognizing that psychologists and researchers say it’s NOT your fault.

  • In some cases, emotional eating might not matter anyway when it comes to weight gain.

  • Get a workout in every day, even if it’s for just a few minutes. Exercise increases dopamine levels. Scientists believe that dopamine release might be the reason we feel like emotionally eating in the first place.

  • Use Metabolic Intensity Training to increase calorie burn at rest. Try shorter, more intense exercise efforts. These will help increase “afterburn” so your body burns more calories around the clock.

Now, based on what I’ve read…if emotional eating might be a natural, wired-in response we have—there might not be much we can do to control it.

So why not focus on what we can control? Like getting a great workout and burning more calories at rest after our workouts are over!

References:
  • Break-Up Kummerspeck? No Evidence for Weight Gain After Romantic Relationship Dissolution..: http://evostudies.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/Harrison-et-al_Vol8Iss1.pdf

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