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Comfort eating: An observational study of affect in the hours immediately before, and after, snacking


Franja, S and Wahl, DR and Elliston, KG and Ferguson, SG, Comfort eating: An observational study of affect in the hours immediately before, and after, snacking, British Journal of Health Psychology, 26 pp. 825-838. ISSN 1359-107X (2021) [Refereed Article]

Copyright Statement

© 2021 The British Psychological Society

DOI: doi:10.1111/bjhp.12505


Objective: ‘Comfort eating’ has been used to explain real-world food choices, suggesting that individuals are drawn to energy-dense (‘unhealthy’) snacks when experiencing negative affect. However, this concept has rarely been studied, particularly in real-world settings. Similarly, the effects of snacking on subsequent affect are also poorly understood. The present study aimed to examine the association between affect and snacking in daily life.

Methods: One hundred and forty-one adults recorded their food intake in real time for ~14 days using a study issued mobile phone. Participants also responded to randomly timed assessments. During both types of assessments, participants indicated their current level of affect. By anchoring off snacking events, the trajectory of affect in the hours leading up to – and following – snacking was explored.

Results: In the three hours leading up to a healthy snack, affect was stable. In contrast, affect fell during the hours leading up to an unhealthy snack. The interaction between snack type and time was significant. A similar, but opposite, pattern was seen following snacking: where affect decreased after unhealthy snacking, affect increased following healthy snack intake.

Conclusion: The findings are consistent with the hypothesis of comfort eating, with unhealthy snacking being preceded by worsening affect. Unhealthy snacking did not, however, lead to affect improvements afterwards, which questions the ‘effectiveness’ of comfort eating. The intake of healthy snacks however was associated with positive affective experiences. These findings could function as a component of interventions aiming at improving dietary behaviours.

Item Details

Item Type:Refereed Article
Keywords:affect, comfort eating, eating behaviour, ecological momentary assessment, food choice
Research Division:Psychology
Research Group:Clinical and health psychology
Research Field:Health psychology
Objective Division:Health
Objective Group:Public health (excl. specific population health)
Objective Field:Overweight and obesity
UTAS Author:Franja, S (Ms Stefania Franja)
UTAS Author:Elliston, KG (Ms Katherine Elliston)
UTAS Author:Ferguson, SG (Professor Stuart Ferguson)
ID Code:142291
Year Published:2021
Web of Science® Times Cited:5
Deposited By:Medicine
Deposited On:2021-01-06
Last Modified:2022-01-14

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