Emotional Undereating

Most people have heard of emotional overeating, but what about the opposite? Emotional undereating, or eating less in response to stress or negative emotions, also occurs and may be relevant to the development of later eating disorders, particularly anorexia nervosa.

The average young child engages in emotional undereating more frequently than emotional overeating. However, by later in childhood, the frequency of emotional undereating decreases. By adulthood, only one out of three people eats less in response to stress, with the majority of people eating more in response to stress (Robert Sapolsky, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers). In reality, classifying people as either emotional undereaters or emotional overeaters is likely a gross simplification: for some people, negative emotions may have no impact on their eating, and for others, the type and severity of the emotion may affect whether they undereat or overeat. That said, emotional undereating does appear to be less common in adults and older children than in young children. Interestingly, animal research reveals that rats and other animals, like young children, tend to undereat when they’re stressed.

In adults, emotional undereating is related to weight status: not surprisingly, underweight adults are more likely to engage in emotional undereating than overweight adults. In contrast, emotional undereating doesn’t appear to be strongly linked to weight status in children: emotional undereating is only slightly more common among children who are low weight.

A group of researchers in Korea and England has started to explore the link between emotional undereating and eating disorders. Their study suggests that childhood emotional undereating may be more common among females who develop anorexia nervosa compared to females who develop bulimia nervosa or don’t develop an eating disorder. However, information on childhood eating habits was collected retrospectively (i.e., by asking women with and without anorexia to recall their childhood eating habits), which means we can’t be completely confident that there’s a link there. Going forward, we need more research on the link between emotional undereating and eating disorders, especially anorexia nervosa.

To learn more about this topic, here are some academic papers on emotional undereating:

Ashcroft, J., Semmler, C., Carnell, S., Van Jaarsveld, C. H. M., & Wardle, J. (2007). Continuity and stability of eating behaviour traits in children. European journal of clinical nutrition, 62, 985–990.

Geliebter, A., & Aversa, A. (2003). Emotional eating in overweight, normal weight, and underweight individuals. Eating Behaviors, 3, 341–347.

Kim, Y.-R., Heo, S. Y., Kang, H., Song, K. J., & Treasure, J. (2010). Childhood risk factors in Korean women with anorexia nervosa: Two sets of case-control studies with retrospective comparisons. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 43, 589–595.

Kim, Y.-R., Lim, S.-J., & Treasure, J. (2011). Different Patterns of Emotional Eating and Visuospatial Deficits Whereas Shared Risk Factors Related with Social Support between Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa. Psychiatry Investigation, 8, 9.

Wardle, J., Guthrie, C. A., Sanderson, S., & Rapoport, L. (2001). Development of the Children’s Eating Behaviour Questionnaire. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 42, 963–970.

Webber, L., Hill, C., Saxton, J., Van Jaarsveld, C. H. M., & Wardle, J. (2008). Eating behaviour and weight in children. International Journal of Obesity, 33, 21–28.

-Dr. Kristin Javaras

Photo: Jonathan Rubio