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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Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.