Examining the Relationships Among Obesity, Food Insecurity, Perceived Stress and Emotional Eating

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Nutrition and Food Systems

First Advisor

Carol L. Connell

Advisor Department

Nutrition and Food Systems


The relationship between food insecurity and obesity is a complex issue that has become the subject of research and policy debate. Numerous studies have been published attempting to describe the relationship between food insecurity and obesity; however, causation and potential mechanisms to better understand the relationship have not been established. Therefore, the purpose of this study was to examine the hypothesized relationships among food insecurity, obesity, stress and emotional eating and to determine if stress and emotional eating serve as moderating mechanisms for the food insecurity and obesity phenomenon. A cross-sectional study consisting of a survey of 636 participants in two regional Headstart centers in South Mississippi was utilized to address the study objectives. The survey instrument consisted of a 7-item Food Security Scale, the 10-item Perceived Stress Scale, and the 25-item Emotional Eating Scale. In addition, BMI calculated from measured height and weight was used for classifying weight status. Demographic variables included self-reported heights and weights, perceived weight status, age, educational level, income, race, number of members living in the household, marital status and participation in food assistance programs. Analyses of the data revealed 84 percent of the participants were African American; approximately 53 percent had either a high school education or less; more than 75 percent of participants earned less than $20,000 annually, while 87 percent lived in a household with at least five members. Single female head of household made up 60.5 percent of the households. A chi-square test of independence comparing women's perceptions to actual weight classification was significant (χ 2 ( N = 631, df = 9) = 93.22, p < .000) and further examination revealed that among participants, 45.4% of the women who perceived their weight status as normal were overweight and 76.6% of women who perceived their weight status as overweight were obese. Only 13.9 percent of obese participants perceived their weight accurately. Other interesting findings revealed approximately one-third (32.6 percent) of the participants reported fully food secure households. 26.4 percent of the participants were food insecure without hunger. The rate of food insecurity with hunger was 9.5 percent, more than twice the national average (3.9 percent). Multiple linear regression and moderation analyses were used to predict linear relationships between food insecurity, perceived stress, emotional eating and BMI of the female participants (n = 636). Among independent variables, perceived stress was the sole predictor of BMI [F (1,634) = 4.14, p = .042, R2 = .006]. There was no moderation noted between food insecurity, perceived stress, and emotional eating in relationship to BMI. Further investigation examining food insecurity, stress, emotional eating and obesity using qualitative research approaches to explore coping strategies and ethnic and cultural differences in eating behaviors may provide a more in-depth understanding of behaviors related to obesity.