Emotional overeating due to psychological stress may drive the pervasive link between poverty and obesity, according to a new study published in the journal Obesity.

“Our findings suggest that experiencing psychological distress associated with living in lower socioeconomic circumstances is associated with emotional eating to cope which in turn is associated with obesity,” said study leader Dr. Charlotte Hardman from the University of Liverpool in England.

“The reason for socioeconomic disparities in obesity levels is often attributed to the greater availability of low-cost, calorie-dense foods in more deprived areas relative to more affluent neighborhoods. However, there is limited evidence for an association between local food environments and obesity, indicating psychological and emotional factors may also play a role.”

The study, conducted by a research team from the University of Liverpool and Edith Cowan University (ECU) in Australia, involved 150 participants from North West England from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds.

The volunteers completed questionnaires measuring psychological distress, emotional overeating, and resilience. They reported their income and education level as an indicator of socioeconomic status and their height and weight in order to calculate body mass index (BMI).

The findings reveal that lower SES was linked to higher psychological distress and higher distress was tied to greater emotional eating, which in turn predicted higher BMI.

“This finding suggests that it is not distress per se, but people’s coping strategies for dealing with distress that may be critical in explaining the link between socioeconomic disadvantage and body weight,” said Hardman.

Importantly, higher SES was also associated with emotional eating; however, this pathway was not in response to significant psychological distress.

“It is, therefore, possible that participants with higher SES may be eating in response to other emotions not directly related to coping with distress, for example, boredom,” said Dr. Joanne Dickson from ECU.

“Almost 2 in 3 Australian adults were recorded as being overweight or having obesity in 2014-15, and in England, 61 percent of adults were recorded as being overweight or having obesity in 2016. The high prevalence of obesity in many countries worldwide is a major concern, and the development of effective intervention and preventive approaches is at the forefront of national health agendas.”

“This study indicates an important role for psychological and emotional factors in eating behavior and body weight regulation, particularly for those of lower SES. Further, it is less clear what factors explain the emotional eating for those of higher SES.”

Source: University of Liverpool