Emotional Eating Diary Measure
For this independent project, I dug into the research behind emotional eating, conducted interviews with self-described emotional eaters, and developed a paper diary measure researchers and nutritionists could use to track the relationship between daily moods and eating behavior.
Emotional eating is the practice of eating in response to negative emotions, like stress or depression. A longtime problem in my own life and my family, I started my final semester at Lesley University looking at the most current research about this behavior. What I found was striking: while researchers were clear that the behavior exists, the results of several studies could not show that emotional eaters actually ate more during negative moods.
My instinct suggested that part of the problem was the nature of the studies, most of which focused on snacking as a way of telling if people "ate more," and many of which involved experimental manipulations that assumed emotional eaters would eat immediately in response to the negative mood stimuli. I began my research by recruiting a sample of 6 women, all self-described emotional eaters, from my personal network. Each woman completed an initial questionnaire (the Three-Factor Eating Questionnaire) to confirm emotional eater status, and was interviewed over Skype or in person about their experiences with emotional eating:
- When did these tendencies start? How long had they recognized them?
- What kinds of foods did they tend to reach for during an episode?
- How often did these episodes occur?
- What types of moods or incidents would tend to trigger an episode?
- What strategies had they developed for dealing with these tendencies?
After listening through and taking notes on the interviews, several themes emerged:
- Emotional eating was rarely a one-off pattern (i.e. grabbing a candy bar because it's a stressful day), but more often a recurring pattern that continued over weeks or months, accompanied by significant weight gain;
- Food preferences ranged from sweets (ice cream, baked goods) to junk food (pizza, chips and dip), but were often considered part of or replacement for a meal;
- All of the women preferred to eat alone, or when they felt anonymous (e.g. after the kids had gone to bed, when the roommate wasn't home, alone at a table in a coffee shop);
- Once they recognized what they were doing, they often were able to moderate, or even stop, their intake.
This led to the development of a new diary measure that focused on total intake, rather than snacking behavior, alongside information about daily moods and positive/negative events. This measure was developed and tested with five undergraduate students at Lesley University, and tested not only for usability from the participants' side (Were they able to keep up with it? What did they notice during the experience?), but also from the researcher's side (How hard was it to code mood or food intake data? Did the data give a decent ability to find patterns?) The results of the testing did not find statistically significant interactions between eating behavior and daily mood; however, all participants noted that they were able to see patterns in their own eating behavior as they considered their mood at the end of the day, suggesting that bringing awareness to one's mood in relationship to eating choices may be an effective way of managing emotional eating habits. The measure is available for use by nutritionists, holistic health counselors, and other professionals who deal with people who eat in response to depression. Files can be downloaded below.