Emotional eating and weight regulation: a qualitative study of compensatory behaviors and concerns

J Eat Disord. 2018 Sep 14:6:23. doi: 10.1186/s40337-018-0210-6. eCollection 2018.


Background: Emotional eating, or overeating in response to negative emotions, is a behavior endorsed by both normal weight and people with overweight/obesity. For some individuals, emotional eating contributes to weight gain and difficulties losing weight. However, there are also many who engage in emotional eating who maintain a normal weight. Little is known about the mechanisms by which these individuals are able to regulate their weight.

Methods: The present study seeks to gain insight into the behaviors of individuals of normal weight who engage in emotional eating through a series of one-on-one, 1-h long, qualitative interviews. Interviews were semi-structured and guided by questions pertaining to participants' compensatory behaviors used to regulate weight and concerns regarding their emotional eating. All interviews were transcribed and then objected to a thematic analysis of their content.

Results: The results of this analysis showed that participants endorsed using physical activity, controlling their eating behaviors, and engaging in alternative stress reduction and coping strategies to mitigate the effects of their emotional eating. They reported concern over the effects of emotional eating on their weight, body image, and health and saw this behavior as an unhealthy coping mechanism that was difficult to control.

Conclusions: These results suggest that programs promoting exercise, mindful eating, emotion regulation, and positive body image could have a positive effect on emotional eaters who struggle to maintain a healthy weight.

Keywords: Compensatory behaviors; Eating behaviors; Emotional eating; Normal weight; Qualitative research.