Journal article Open Access
In today’s society, obesity rates are rising as food intake is no longer only a response to physiological hunger signals that ensure survival. Eating can represent a reward, a response to boredom, or stress reduction and emotion regulation. While most people decrease food intake in response to stress or negative emotions, some do the opposite. Yet, it is unclear who shows emotional overeating under which circumstances. Emotion regulation theories describe emotional overeating as a learned strategy to down-regulate negative emotions. Cognitive theories, by contrast, attribute emotional overeating to perceived diet breaches in individuals who chronically attempt to diet. After consuming “forbidden foods”, they eat more than individuals who do not restrict their food intake. This laboratory study investigated emotional overeating by exposing individuals to a personalized emotion induction while showing images of palatable foods. Outcome variables indexed cue reactivity to food images through picture ratings (valence, desire to eat), facial expressions (electromyography of the corrugator supercilii muscle), and brain reactivity by detecting event-related potentials (ERPs) by means of electroencephalography (EEG). The influence of emotion condition (negative, neutral) and individual differences (self-reported trait emotional and restrained eating) on outcome variables was assessed. Valence ratings and appetitive reactions of the corrugator muscle to food pictures showed a relative increase in the negative condition for individuals with higher emotional eating scores, with the opposite pattern in lower scores. Desire to eat ratings showed a similar pattern in individuals who showed a strong response to the emotion induction manipulation, indicative of a dose-response relationship. Although no differences between conditions were found for ratings or corrugator activity with restrained eating as a predictor, an ERP at P300 showed increased activation when viewing food compared to objects in the negative condition. Findings support emotion regulation theories: Emotional eaters showed an appetitive reaction in rating patterns and corrugator activity. EEG findings (increased P300) suggest a motivated attention toward food in restrained eaters, which supports cognitive theories. However, this did not translate to other variables, which might demonstrate successful restraint. Future studies may follow up on these findings by investigating eating disorders with emotion regulation difficulties.