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Dysfunctional Eating May Be Rooted in Early Life Experiences

Dysfunctional eating habits in overweight and obese adults may be deeply rooted in one’s personality traits due to early life experiences, according to a new study published in the journal Heliyon. As a result, weight loss interventions like surgery and cognitive-behavior therapy (CBT) might not be enough to guarantee long-term success.

“While the biological and environmental causes of obesity are well known, psychological determinants that might indicate chronic predispositions are less clear,” said lead investigator Barbara Basile, Ph.D., Association of Cognitive Psychology (APC), School of Cognitive Psychotherapy (SPC), Rome, Italy.

“The results of our study suggest that dysfunctional eating patterns and habits associated with overweight and obesity are deeply rooted within patients’ personality features and current interventions are not enough to guarantee a long-lasting effect.”

Dysfunctional coping strategies can develop across the life span but tend to originate in early childhood and adolescence, where emotional core needs, such as love and nurturance, safety, acceptance, autonomy, limits setting, etc., may not have been adequately satisfied by caregivers and significant others.

The dysfunctional patterns observed in obesity are linked to coping mechanisms resulting in self-defeating thoughts and emotion-avoidant food attitudes and behaviors.

The research involved 75 normal, overweight, and obese patients. Overweight and obese adults reported more maladaptive and dysfunctional coping strategies when compared to normal-weight individuals.

Among participants, overeating and binging behaviors served as self-soothing strategies when they experienced feelings of abandonment (the belief that others will be unavailable or unpredictable in their support or connection); dependence/incompetence (the belief that one has failed, or will fail in important life areas of achievement); and subjugation (the belief that one must surrender control to others), as well as to quiet internalized “punitive parent” voices (inner dialogue that is self-blaming, punishing, and abusive that causes one to detach emotionally and reject help).

Frequent binging was tied to belief patterns of abandonment, enmeshment (being excessively emotionally involved and connected with others at the expense of full individuation or normal social development); and failure (the belief that one always fails in important life areas of achievement).

Binging was also found in those who react impulsively with anger and frustration and by those with a punitive parent inner dialogue.

The researchers believe that this deeper understanding of the emotional and psychological functioning of obese patients, and recognizing the impact of early life experiences, might help clinicians promote the long-term efficacy of psychological interventions in overeating related pathologies.

Source: Elsevier


Dysfunctional Eating May Be Rooted in Early Life Experiences

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2019). Dysfunctional Eating May Be Rooted in Early Life Experiences. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 26, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 20 Sep 2019 (Originally: 20 Sep 2019)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 20 Sep 2019
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