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Journal article Open Access

Emotional eating in healthy individuals and patients with an eating disorder: evidence from psychometric, experimental and naturalistic studies

Reichenberger, Julia; Schnepper, Rebekka; Arend, Ann-Kathrin; Blechert, Jens

Emotional eating has traditionally been defined as (over)eating in response to negative emotions. Such overeating can impact general health because of excess energy intake and mental health, due to the risks of developing binge eating. Yet, there is still significant controversy on the validity of the emotional eating concept and several theories compete in explaining its mechanisms. The present paper examines the emotional eating construct by reviewing and integrating recent evidence from psychometric, experimental and naturalistic research. Several psychometric questionnaires are available and some suggest that emotions differ fundamentally in how they affect eating (i.e. overeating, undereating). However, the general validity of such questionnaires in predicting actual food intake in experimental studies is questioned and other eating styles such as restrained eating seem to be better predictors of increased food intake under negative emotions. Also, naturalistic studies, involving the repeated assessment of momentary emotions and eating behaviour in daily life, are split between studies supporting and studies contradicting emotional eating in healthy individuals. Individuals with clinical forms of overeating (i.e. binge eating) consistently show positive relationships between negative emotions and eating in daily life. We will conclude with a summary of the controversies around the emotional eating construct and provide recommendations for future research and treatment development.

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