Doctoral defence: Hedvig Sultson “Refining the constructs of positive and negative emotional eating”

On 7 October at 14:15 Hedvig Sultson will defend her doctoral thesis “Refining the constructs of positive and negative emotional eating” for obtaining the degree of Doctor of Philosophy (in Psychology).

Associate Professor Kirsti Akkermann, University of Tartu
Professor Kairi Kreegipuu, University of Tartu

Dr. Julia Reichenberger, Paris Lodron University of Salzburg (Austria)

Dysregulated eating could be viewed on a continuum, with normal eating behaviour on one end, binge eating on the other end, and overeating in the middle of the continuum. Binge eating refers to consuming an excessive amount of food within a short period of time that is accompanied by a feeling of loss of control over eating. In addition to over- and binge eating, emotional eating could also be considered a dysregulated eating behaviour. Emotional eating refers to the tendency to eat in response to various negative emotions, usually with an intent to alleviate negative affect. Lately, the concept of positive emotional eating has also emerged, although its relation with eating disorder psyhopathology is unclear. As dysregulated eating behaviours are also seen in community samples and as they represent risk factors for developing an eating disorder, the aim of this doctoral dissertation was to explore the construct of emotional eating, while differentiating between eating in response to positive and negative emotions, and to further investigate their associations with eating pathology and emotion regulation difficulties. We found important similarities as well as differences between positive and negative emotional eating. Namely, eating in response to negative emotions was more closely related to binge eating, general eating pathology, and difficulties with regulating emotions. Positive emotional eating, however, was associated with overeating, which suggests that eating in response to positive emotions might not itself be pathological. However, individuals who endorsed primarily positive emotional eating were characterized by increased difficulties in regulating their impulses and emotions in general compared to individuals without emotional eating. These results indicate that difficulties in managing one’s emotions – be it positive or negative – might be a risk factor for the development and maintenance of dysregulated eating. Interestingly, positive emotional eating appeared to be more pronounced in men, pointing towards important sex differences in emotional eating. In conclusion, we clarified the construct of emotional eating by further confirming that eating in response to negative emotions is an important risk factor for eating disorder psychopathology. We also clarified the role of positive emotions in eating behaviours by showing that its relationship with dysregulated eating is multifaceted and therefore in need of further research.

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