PTSD and Emotional Eating

Could emotional eating caused by PTSD be connected with the high obesity rate among veterans?


Nearly 80% of veterans are overweight or obese. According to researchers from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland and Yale School of Medicine in Connecticut, obesity is more common among veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) compared with that in other veterans in the VHA (47% vs 41%). Moreover, they say, veterans with PTSD lose less weight during weight-loss treatment than do those without comorbid mental health conditions. PTSD also has been associated with night eating, food addiction, binge eating, and eating as a coping strategy. In a national survey, veterans who self-reported a diagnosis of PTSD were more likely to endorse eating because of emotions or stress.

The researchers conducted a study of 126 veterans referred to the MOVE! Weight Management Program at VA Connecticut Healthcare System. Although it replicates and extends findings from other studies, they believe theirs is the first study examining emotional eating among veterans seeking obesity treatment.

The veterans were given the Yale Emotional Overeating Questionnaire (YEOQ), which assesses how often the respondent has eaten an unusually large amount of food in response to anxiety, sadness, loneliness, tiredness, anger, happiness, boredom, guilt, and physical pain. The researchers also used the Primary Care PTSD Screen to test for PTSD.

A positive PTSD screen was associated with significantly higher scores on the YEOQ overall as well as higher scores on each individual item. Higher scores on the PTSD screen also were associated with more frequent emotional eating for all emotions.

The researchers note that findings about the predictive validity of emotional eating questionnaires have been mixed. Although emotions may influence eating patterns, other mechanisms could be at work, such as general concern about, or lack of control over, eating.

However, the researchers suggest that veterans with PTSD may need specific attention given to alternative coping strategies when facing difficult emotions as part of weight loss treatment.

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