Losing weight might have less to do with willpower, and more with upbringing

Jan. 10, 2017, 7 a.m. ·

New research says emotinal eating is a learned behavior from parents that develops in children over time. (Photo courtesy Flickr)

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Losing weight is always a popular New Year's resolution. Now, first-of-its-kind research out of Nebraska is saying our weight-loss success (or lack thereof) might have just as much to do with our upbringing as our willpower. NET News talked with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln clinical psychology graduate student who led this researcher: Katie Kidwell.

NET NEWS: How much of this becomes where there’s a will, there’s a way? Obviously this is a time of year where many people are looking to lose weight. Are we predisposed to maybe have a really hard time with that because of our parents?

KATIE KIDWELL: The good news is that once people become aware of emotional eating and their own habits they can make a plan to reduce emotional eating. So when we're talking about emotional eating, we're talking about when people are eating for emotional reasons, rather than for physical hunger. Usually when we are helping people figure out ways of coping with their emotions, we have them come up with a list of activities they could be doing instead of eating. That includes things like meditating, breathing, journaling, talking to a friend, (or) exercising. When people have that list of “this could be my go to activity” then they know what to do instead of eating for emotional reasons.

University of Nebraska-Lincoln clinical psychology graduate student and lead researcher Katie Kidwell. (Courtesy photo)

NET NEWS: Why do we have a tendency to turn to food when we’re stressed out?

KATIE KIDWELL: We often see people eating when they're bored, stressed, or worried as a coping mechanism to distract or reduce negative emotions that we feel every day.

NET NEWS: So because everyone seems to do it - or is tempted to anyway - is it just a part of who we are as human beings or is this a learned behavior?

KATIE KIDWELL: It appears that this is a developmental process that’s learned over the course of childhood and once children have learned to eat for emotional reasons they continue to do so into adolescence and adulthood. Why we know that this is a learned behavior is because other research has found that when very young children are stressed they lose their appetites. It’s a part of that ‘fight or flight’ reflex. But when older children face a stressful event they choose to eat. So that kind of shows that it's more of this learned behavior because young children are not eating and order children choose to.

NET NEWS: This brings to mind the childhood obesity epidemic in our country right now. How much does this become a part of that discussion?

KATIE KIDWELL: Emotional eating does contribute to weight gain - and it certainly doesn't explain all of the obesity epidemic - but it can lead to weight gain due to a couple of reasons. One is overeating. Even when someone is physically full, they still feel hungry and compelled to eat what they're eating for emotional reasons rather than because of physical hunger. Also, the food that people choose to eat when they're eating for emotional reasons aren’t the healthiest. Usually were choosing pasta, chips, or brownies rather than carrots.

NET NEWS: Is there an age where the child begins to learn these habits?

KATIE KIDWELL: There's research showing that parents feed their two-year-old toddlers for emotional reasons to soothe or reward them, and then by preschool all children start eating for emotional reasons. By adolescents you see a big increase in emotional eating because adolescents have more independence in choosing their own food and they spend more time unsupervised. Our research is finding that parents’ mental health when children are in preschool predicts their emotional eating all the way into adolescence.

NET NEWS: So this seems like it could almost be the by-product of a mother’s depression?

KATIE KIDWELL: So we found that when mothers are more depressed or more anxious, their children were more likely to emotionally eat. And the theory is that when parents are depressed, stressed, or anxious, they may use emotional eating to cope with their own emotions and then they might use emotional eating techniques like giving food to soothe or distract children or giving food as a reward. Then as children become more independent with food in early adolescence they continue the habits that they’ve used foods to deal with tough emotions.

NET NEWS: What do you think this research does for us moving forward?

KATIE KIDWELL: So this is one of the first studies to examine how parents’ and children’s mental health predicts their emotional eating. One of the big takeaway messages is that when we use food to numb emotions, we aren't using the healthiest coping skills. So we encourage families to become aware of why they are eating and to avoid feeding their children as a way to manage emotions. We also encourage people to eat when they're physically hungry and replace emotional eating with a healthier activity.