Why are you an emotional eater? You learned it at home

A new study shows that environment, not genetics, determines behavioral patterns of eating in youth that persist throughout life.

Comfort food is a worldwide phenomenon. While there is no specific nutrient profile that determines what a comfort food is, it tends to be high in carbohydrates and sugar—there is a certain warmth to eating it. Cornbread, mac and cheese, casserole, grilled cheese, ice cream, but a few examples of American comfort foods. One common thread throughout these dishes is that we tend to relate them to childhood.


Such foods are emotional. We don’t need to eat them, but they soothe us. A new study from University College London shows that emotional eating is the result of environmental factors, not genetic ones, as was previously thought. You learn to eat that way at home.

For example, this list of Filipino comfort foods sounds delicious: purple yam ice cream, rice flour and coconut cream cake, oxtail stew with peanut butter, sweet bananas wrapped in lumpia, all foods I’d love to try but have never eaten. Growing up with plenty of grilled cheese sandwiches and mint chocolate chip ice cream, however, a certain nostalgia is achieved when eating them now. That's what my mother stocked at home. 

Which provides the basis of what this study of 398 British twins discovered. Half of the parents were selected due to their obesity, in order to better understand if there was a genetic link to emotional eating, or if it is entirely environmental. Dr Moritz Herle, who co-led the study, comments

Experiencing stress and negative emotions can have a different effect on appetite for different people. Some crave their favourite snack, whereas others lose their desire to eat altogether when feeling stressed or sad. This study supports our previous findings suggesting that children’s emotional over- and under-eating are mostly influenced by environmental factors completely shared by twin pairs and that genes are largely unimportant for emotional overeating in childhood.

Though we tend to relate emotional eating to overeating, the reverse is also true. Emotional relationships to food can also cause us to undereat. Both of these are problems that begin at home, the researchers write, which is why this trend sets up children for eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and binge eating later in life. Co-author Clare Llewellyn says that an answer is not readily apparent, however: 

We actually don't know a great deal about the physical and mental health consequences of emotional eating in childhood, because studies that track those children over many years haven’t been done.

Some of the signals that your child is emotional eating include the speed that they consume food, how soon they feel full, and eating for pleasure instead of hunger. Llewellyn notes that these trends begin at a young age, usually during pre-school, and can create lifelong behavioral patterns.

This isn’t the sole cause of eating disorders, states Beat, a UK-based eating disorder charity. They note that genes do play a role in obesity, which might make some people more susceptible to eating disorders. Blaming parents is not helpful, they continue

It is important to remember that families often provide vital support for eating disorder sufferers. And this research should not prompt anyone to blame parents. Families need to be empowered to help their loved ones and given information about eating disorders and sources of support.

Just as emotional eating is localized in the home, the mindset is also regional. My immigrant grandparents lived through the Depression; it makes sense that they told me to “clean my plate,” even when I was no longer hungry. Living through a time of scarcity in their youth, their behavioral pattern toward food persisted. 

This holds true in India as well, whereas in China cleaning your plate signals to the host that you’re still hungry. In communal eating regions, such as Ethiopia and northeastern Thailand, where everyone’s meal is set out in the middle and there are no plates, how much you eat is not a concern—although eating out of order sometimes is. America, king of all-you-can-eat buffets, makes overeating a sport.

There are myriad reasons for emotional eating, but as Beat says, education is paramount. Learning and teaching restraint—the Japanese practice an “80 percent full rule” called Hara Hachi Bu—is one useful practice. There will always be food that reminds us of home. That does not mean we have to indulge in them every time we’re feeling down.

Of course, just because you’re raised with certain behavioral patterns does not mean they're your destiny. According to Psychology Today, five keys to stop emotional eating include applying mindfulness to your eating habits, deriving pleasure from means other than eating, learning how to tolerate difficult feelings, stop hating your body, and working with, instead of against, your physiology.

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The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

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The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

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The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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