The spotlight on obesity has been glowing brightly for some time now. Obesity rates are climbing, with more than 70% of American’s meeting criteria for being overweight or obese, and since 1980 childhood rates has tripled.
Where does emotional eating fit in that picture? Commonly referred to as the tendency to consume food in response to negative or diffuse emotional states, researchers have commonly characterized emotional eating as a complex, psychologically driven and dysfunctional coping mechanism, whereby eating can provide temporary comfort and relief from a preceding aversive experience.
Unsatisfying romantic relationships and attachment insecurity may serve as risk factors for emotional eating and food may function to satisfy an individual’s emotional needs.
We decided to use a novel approach of exploring whether individuals, who prefer to express and receive love in certain ways, are particularly vulnerable to using food for self-gratification.
Gary Chapman (1992) proposed a love language typology, based on the metaphor of an emotional “love tank”; when a person feels emotionally close and loved by his/her significant other, his/her love tank is suggested to be full. Conversely, if an individual perceives his/her emotional needs are unsatisfied, his/her love tank will be empty. However, according to Chapman, people are not unanimous in what fills their love tank or, more specifically, what makes them feel emotionally satisfied. Hence, it is suggested people have preferred methods of emotional communication, which Chapman refers to as “love languages”. Chapman identified five love languages: Words of affirmation (verbal compliments and statements of appreciation), quality time (focused attention and quality conversation), receiving gifts (tangible gifts and physical symbols of love), acts of service (doing favours for one another) and physical touch (from putting a hand on one’s shoulder to intercourse).
226 healthy weight, overweight and obese adults participated - 197 were female (87.2%) and 29 were male (12.8%). They answered a battery of measures about attachment style, preferred love language, eating behavior and relationship satisfaction.
What did we find?
Inconsistent with expectations, secure, dismissive-avoidant and fearful-avoidant attachment did not significantly predict emotional eating in the present study.
Perceived hunger fully mediated the relationship between attachment-related anxiety and emotional eating, indicating negative affect may be associated with emotional eating via the misperception of the physical sensations of emotional arousal for hunger signals. This finding is particularly important in managing emotional eating, as it may suggest whether or not people experiencing attachment-related anxiety perceive themselves as hungry is a more important predictor of emotional eating than the aversive emotional experience itself.
Love languages were examined in the present study to determine whether certain methods of emotional communication significantly predicted emotional eating. Specifically, it was hypothesized the love language of physical touch would be a significant positive predictor of emotional eating. However, this hypothesis was not supported. Although no preliminary hypotheses were made regarding Chapman’s remaining four languages of love, no significant relationship between these methods of relational communication and emotional eating were observed.
Although our results indicate methods of emotional communication may not play an important role in the prediction of emotional eating, an apparent need to identify methods of satisfying peoples’ emotional cravings remains.
We do believe future experimental research should clarify whether an intervention based on Chapman’s love languages can be used to reduce emotional eating symptoms by enhancing relational satisfaction and reducing attachment-related stressors.
To read the full study see here.