That was the question that stuck with me most after leaving the paper session “Influences on Healthy Eating Decisions.”
According to the research led by Anthony G. Salerno, PhD, feeling safe may encourage people to eat larger amounts of unhealthy foods, outside of their awareness. “Feelings of safety increase people’s perception that they are protected from danger, which consequently decreases their sensitivity to harmful behaviors,” he said. Unhealthy eating is one of them, and can lead to harmful consequences. When people feel safe, they are less sensitive to these harmful consequences and are more likely to consume unhealthy foods, which can lead to weight gain and obesity.
This implies that our environment can play a crucial role in our determination of adhering to a healthy eating pattern. However, does that mean that you should move to an unsafe neighborhood to shed the pounds more easily? I’d say not so fast.
I caught up with Dr. Salerno this week, and here is what he had to say:
“While it obviously would not be a good idea for people to start seeking out harmful environments, I do think people may benefit from being mindful of the fact that just because they are in a safe environment, it does not mean that this protects them from their own unsafe behaviors. In general, it is of great importance to a person’s psychological well-being that they feel safe. However, people should also be mindful of the fact that feeling safe can sometimes increase our willingness to engage in behaviors with potentially harmful consequences (in this case the consumption of unhealthy food). So by simply being aware of the influence of safety on our behavior, we are more likely to undermine the undesirable consequences it has on us.”
Stress is also linked to overeating, weight gain and obesity. The evidence that feeling safe may be a contributing factor when it comes to food choices and weight makes me wonder, where is the balance between the two when it comes to eating healthy? Constant stress can lead to suboptimal food choices, but so can the feeling of safety, according to Salerno. So does a golden mean between how we feel on a regular basis regarding our safety, and how much (as well as how healthy) we eat even exist?
While this may be more of a philosophical question, I think that it might be the intensity of the feelings that prompts the consumption of unhealthy foods. In other words, feeling very secure and at ease, as well as feeling very stressed, could be leading to overeating and weight gain. It is also important to recognize other behaviors and feelings that accompany feeling safe or stressed, which can also be contributors to unhealthy eating.
After all, eating is much more than merely satisfying hunger. We eat in response to a variety of emotions, both positive and negative. It is thus essential to recognize our feelings that trigger eating and overeating. Once eating triggers are identified, further steps can be taken to break the emotional eating habit and adopt a healthier eating pattern, which in turn can help reduce overweight and obesity.
Have more thoughts on this topic? Reply below. Dr. Salerno is also happy to answer questions via email. You can reach him at Anthony.firstname.lastname@example.org
Nicole Avena, PhD studies appetite and addiction at the NY Obesity Research Center, at Columbia University. You can learn more about her work at DrNicoleAvena.com. She can also be found on Twitter and Facebook, or on her Psychology Today blog.