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Lockdown eating habits providing food for thought

It only takes a quick glance at social media to see the central role that food has played in our lives during the coronavirus lockdown.

Hundreds of McDonald's sites have opened this week
Hundreds of McDonald's sites have opened this week

Facebook and Twitter are awash with people sharing images of their new-found home baking expertise, or telling the world how much they are missing going out for fast food – while tucking into takeaways more often.

Our relationship with food – particularly how our emotions impact on the way we eat – is the subject of a new study led by the University of Wolverhampton.

Researchers are currently compiling data on people's eating habits during the pandemic, which they say has created the perfect setting for a "natural experiment" due to the whole country experiencing enforced social isolation.

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They hope their findings will enable them to help people manage their 'emotional eating' – the term used to describe when people eat for reasons other than to satisfy hunger.

It could just make us think twice about reaching for the 14" deep pan pizza or the tub of ice cream when we feel stressed out, guiding us instead towards a more healthy lifestyle.

Professor Tracey Devonport

Professor Tracey Devonport, from the University of Wolverhampton, has been working with Dr Montse Ruiz from the University of Jyväskylä in Finland and Dr Jo Chen-Wilson from the University of Northampton to develop the project.

She said: "We know that food and emotions are a big part of people's experience of social isolation.

"Recent months have seen changed access to fast food and eating out.

"People are also having to do things that create more intense emotions, such as trying to home school while working from home and facing job uncertainty, all while being separated from friends and family.

"This is an emotional time, which has created the perfect opportunity to examine the relationship between emotions and eating."

Professor Devonport has previously conducted reviews of past studies into emotional eating, finding that the majority of research has focused on negative emotions, such as anxiety.

This, she says, has led to an assumption that unpleasant emotions lead to emotional eating, which is reflected in the widespread use of terms such as "comfort eating".

People have queued up for their fast food fix since restaurants such as McDonald's reopened

On the other side of the coin is there is a link between feelings of happiness or pleasure and emotional eating.

"We are conditioned from birth to consume food around pleasant occasions, such as weddings, births and anniversaries, so it becomes a conditioned response of, 'this is going to be great, let's eat'," Prof Devonport continued.

"We have gone into this completely open-minded, because we want to challenge these preconceived notions and see if it they hold up.

"On an individual level, once we realise which of the emotions tend to be our trigger for eating, we can take steps to manage it."

We are conditioned from birth to consume food around pleasant occasions such as weddings, says Professor Tracey Devonpor

Professor Devonport said one of the key issues that had emerged so far was that people don't give much thought to their emotions when they eat.

"It is a subconscious thing and they only realise what they are doing when they stop and think about it," she said.

"We're trying to get people to think about how they feel when they go to the fridge to get a snack. When you look at that over a period of days patterns start to emerge.

"We are looking to create that lightbulb moment where people realise what it is that makes them crave a certain type of food.

"This type of 'mindful' eating can have a big impact for someone who may want to lose weight, for example. If you know you eat in response to stress, you can start to think of other things you might be able to do instead when you feel that particular emotion.

"We are not saying emotional eating is bad and can be eliminated, but it needs to be part of a wider portfolio of things we use to manage our emotions."

Professor Devonport said they hope to publish a number of papers on the back of the research, with the first one looking at behavioural changes over the different stages of the lockdown. It is due in August or September.

Cultural differences will also be explored, with the survey rolled out in other countries including Australia, Canada, the USA and China.

Participants aged 18 or over are asked to complete a 10-minute survey on their eating habits, before submitting a short daily diary for six days where they reflect on the emotions that led to their strongest cravings to eat.

Visit to take part in the survey.

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