Negative affect intensity is robustly related to binge eating, but the relationship between negative emotion differentiation (i.e., the ability to differentiate negatively-valenced emotions) and binge eating is unclear. Further, little is known about factors that might reduce emotion intensity and/or enhance emotion differentiation, thereby reducing binge eating. Self-compassion is consistently linked to less binge eating, which may be due to decreased negative affect and/or an enhanced ability to differentiate emotions. The current study examined the roles of negative emotion intensity, negative emotion differentiation, and self-compassion in binge eating using ecological momentary assessment.
Participants were 201 university students (52.2% female) who completed questionnaires assessing affect seven times a day, and engagement in loss of control (LOC) eating episodes at the end of each day, for 10 days. The average of sadness, fear, guilt, and hostility subscales represented negative emotion intensity; intraclass correlations across negative affect subscales defined negative emotion differentiation. Both daily (i.e., within-person) and trait (i.e., between-person) emotion variables were examined as predictors.
Between-person negative emotion intensity, but not negative emotion differentiation, significantly predicted LOC eating occurrence. Self-compassion had a significant effect on LOC eating frequency, and this relationship was partially mediated via negative emotion intensity, but not via negative emotion differentiation.
Lower levels of negative emotion intensity partially account for the relationship between greater self-compassion and less frequent LOC eating. These findings highlight the importance of cultivating self-compassion to down-regulate negative emotions and to reduce LOC eating.
Public significance statement
Our findings suggest that university students who approach their limitations compassionately experience fewer negative emotions in daily life and engage in less loss of control eating. Lower levels of negative affect partially explain this relationship between self-compassion and loss of control eating. These results highlight the importance of cultivating an understanding and a compassionate attitude toward oneself for reducing eating pathology.