The Association between Attachment Styles and Food

Posted on November 24, 2018

It is hardly surprising knowledge to learn that some people manage negative emotions by binge-eating, usually of the junk food variety. Some of them may even be close friends and family members around us, and it appears to be increasingly common. What is interesting, however, are the reasons that compel people to view binge-eating as a strategy to managing unwanted emotions.

A possible explanation that has been raised to explain this phenomenon is the role of adult attachment styles. We start to develop an attachment style from childhood, which is the type of relationship and attachment we form with our primary caregivers. We continue to hold this attachment style even throughout adulthood.

One primary characteristic that is particularly relevant to understanding what compels some people to binge-eat is the extent of their fear and anxiety of potential abandonment by the people they have grown attached to. A recent meta-analysis of studies showed that a person’s level of attachment anxiety (AA) positively correlates with unhealthy eating behaviours, meaning that higher levels of AA corresponded with an increase of unhealthy eating behaviours. In addition, levels of AA has also been associated with increased likelihood of weight loss surgery, with patients undergoing such surgeries reporting higher levels of AA than a matched lean population. This correlation is believed to be partly explained by the tendency to overeat.

People who are high in AA tend to exhibit a stronger negativity bias in processing information, and also find it harder to regulate negative emotions, i.e. they are less able to self-soothe compared to someone who scores lower on AA. This may go back to inconsistent affectionate and nurturant behavior from the original caregiver, resulting in AA because the person perceives uncertainty in getting care and concern when the need arises. As a result, the higher levels of uncertainty in someone with AA compared to someone else who is securely attached, contributes to their inability to self-soothe in troubling times.

A recent study showed that people with high reported levels of AA were less able to disengage with negative or upsetting stimuli, i.e. they were less able to move on, compared to people with secure attachment. This meant persistently high levels of negative emotions due to poor emotional regulation, which then introduced the use of food as a coping strategy.

However, the researchers cautioned that attachment theory is only one of the many factors that can contribute to binge-eating and potential obesity problems. Furthermore, the study design does not allow for causation effects to be inferred, only a possible correlational relationship between the two variables, and even then, the direction of the relationship has to undergo further examinations before any conclusion can be reached.

Category(s):Adult psychological development, Eating Disorders

Source material from Medical Xpress