‘Dis-comfort eating’: An investigation into the use of food as a coping strategy for the management of chronic pain

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Journal Article
Appetite, 2019, 140 pp. 288 - 297
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© 2019 Objectives: Chronic pain and obesity are major public health concerns. Animal and human models have demonstrated that eating high-sugar nutrient-dense foods confers analgesic effects. Moreover, recent research suggests that people with chronic pain may “comfort eat” to cope with their pain. Given the harmful impact of obesity on chronic pain, it is critical to determine whether pain elicits comfort eating amongst individuals with chronic pain to ensure that this potentially maladaptive pain coping strategy is not overlooked in chronic pain treatment. Therefore, this study aimed to: determine whether chronic pain intensity predicts pain-induced comfort eating and identify mediators of this relationship; to determine whether pain-induced comfort eating predicts elevated BMI; and to establish whether BMI predicts chronic pain interference. Methods: This study utilised a cross-sectional online survey design and a sample of 151 adults with chronic pain. Results: Over three-quarters of this chronic pain sample reported engaging in pain-induced comfort eating. Chronic pain intensity did not significantly predict pain-induced comfort eating. However, there was a significant indirect effect of chronic pain intensity on pain-induced comfort eating through stress—but not experiential avoidance or pain catastrophising. As predicted, pain-induced comfort eating significantly predicted increased BMI, and BMI in turn significantly predicted greater chronic pain interference. Discussion: This study indicates that pain-induced comfort eating is both common and harmful amongst individuals with chronic pain, across the entire BMI spectrum. Pain-induced comfort eating and stress have emerged as promising chronic pain treatment targets. The findings are discussed and interpreted in light of extant research and theory, as well as limitations of the current study. Future research directions and clinical implications are also considered.
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