Eating is a universal experience, but each of us has our own relationship to food, and it can change, depending on our emotional state.
When we're in a good mood, we’re more likely to make healthy choices. For example, one study found that people in a good mood were more likely to choose grapes, rather than M&Ms.
This may be because they were motivated to stay in a good mood, so they wanted to avoid temptation.
Also, people in a good mood are more likely to resist temptation in order to achieve long-term goals, like better health.
Strangely, the association the scientists noticed only applied to participants who were feeling calm and positive.
Any excitement or adrenaline, due to upbeat music, for example, made people more likely to choose the M&Ms. This is likely because being excited or stressed uses up mental energy. At that point, it’s harder to make thoughtful decisions.
Frustration can also affect our food choices.
Scientists in another study gave one group a set of solvable anagram puzzles and another group unsolvable puzzles.
While the participants were working on their puzzles, the scientists offered them a selection of healthy and unhealthy snacks.
Those with the solvable puzzles were less frustrated and ate more healthy snacks. Those with unsolvable puzzles were more frustrated and ate more unhealthy snacks.
This could be because when we’re stressed, we’re more likely to break our dietary "rules."
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How does this research apply to real life?
When we experience negative emotions, we sometimes turn to food for comfort, particularly food high in sugar and fat.
Eating more in response to negative emotions, such as anxiety, frustration, or anger, is called emotional eating.
Interestingly, studies show that more females than males report emotional eating. Females tend to eat more in response to negative emotions, whereas males tend to eat more in response to positive ones.
Research suggests that this may be because females tend to be more concerned about their health than males. Females, therefore, may prioritize health when choosing what to eat, whereas males may prioritize enjoyment.
In other words, females may have more rules in place to break.
This may mean that when females are stressed, they’re even more tempted by foods that they’d usually consider unhealthy and wouldn’t eat.
The mood-food connection
While our moods influence our food choices, our food choices can also influence our moods.
It seems like making healthy food choices can improve our mood.
A study in Australia looked at 12,000 individuals over 2 years. It concluded that eating 8 portions of fruits and vegetables a day gave the same happiness and well-being benefits as going from unemployed to employed.
This research suggests that when we’re stressed, it’s even more important to prioritize a nutritious diet — it can protect our mental health and keep our moods stable.
What’s the impact of the mood-food connection?
There are two different strands to consider. First, we know that stress can cause us to make poor food choices. Second, we’re learning that making good food choices can promote happiness and well-being.
And given the long-term stress that many of us experience, it can be easy to get stuck in a negative mood-food cycle.
What’s the solution?
Because stress can cause us to break our own rules about food, removing stress would be a clear solution.
There are some useful techniques we can use to reduce our stress levels.
But removing stress entirely is unrealistic. Nor would you want to, as moderate stress has some powerful benefits. Scientists have found that rats under moderate short-term stress performed better on a memory test.
So, another way to deal with the mood-food issue might be to change how you view food. This is called mindful eating.
It allows you to pay more attention to your internal hunger cues and to notice when you feel full. A review of five studies found that mindfulness meditation effectively reduced emotional eating in adults.
This ZOE article gives detailed instructions about how to eat mindfully. But here are some quick tips that are most relevant to reducing eating caused by stress:
Move away from stress while eating. If the source of your stress is work-related, for example, eat away from your workspace.
Stop to consider. Before eating, particularly between meals, ask yourself why you’re eating. Are you hungry? Or are you stressed? Take note of your answer to help you notice your patterns and triggers.
Take your time. Eating slowly allows your body time to realize when it’s full.
We’re all different, and there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to food. But studies suggest that mindful eating can be beneficial.
What happens when stress is more permanent?
Chronic stress — when you feel constantly pressured and overwhelmed — can cause significant problems, and it can alter the way our brains make decisions about food.
In one study, researchers performed functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans on the brains of 30 women.
This technique gave the scientists live updates about which parts of the participants’ brains were activated when they saw different food and nonfood items.
When participants with higher stress levels saw high-calorie food, brain regions linked with reward and immediate gratification were activated, and brain regions linked with planning and emotional control were deactivated.
In women with lower stress levels, the brain regions linked with emotional regulation and control were activated when they viewed high-calorie food.
These findings suggest that women who are more stressed tend toward habitual emotion-driven eating behaviors, whereas women who are less stressed are prone to more goal-driven eating behaviors.
In a nutshell, it means that when we’re under less stress, we’re able to think more rationally about our food choices.
The more stressed participants also ate more food overall in a buffet of sweet and salty snacks.
Can mindful eating still work?
Mindful eating may still be effective, despite these neurological responses.
One review looked at several studies, some of which used fMRI scans during mindfulness training to see how this training affected the brain.
The researchers concluded that mindfulness might calm down activity in the brain region linked with emotional responses — the amygdala. This may then reduce emotional cues to eat.
They also found that an 8-week mindfulness program caused an increase in gray matter concentration in brain regions linked with emotional regulation.
Gray matter is the tissue in our brain that processes information.
This research suggests that mindfulness can train your brain to think more rationally about food choices.
However, it’s important to be kind to yourself when you’re trying to train your brain.
Remember that your brain’s responses to food have been programmed over many years, so it’s difficult to change these responses quickly. Also, mindful eating might not work for everyone.
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When is this most relevant?
We’re more at risk of stress during periods of change, so this advice might be most useful to people in transitional periods.
Moving from high school to university is one stage when young people are particularly at risk of emotional eating.
A study found that when first-year university students feel stressed, they tend to consume more energy drinks, salty snacks, and fast food.
The good news is that students who arrive at university with food preparation skills are less likely to experience these changes in their eating behavior.
In another example: Studies found a link between stress and emotional eating during the COVID-19 pandemic. Various factors, including boredom, may have contributed to this pattern.
Some people find that mindful eating is especially useful during stressful periods.
Mindful eating is centered around awareness. Being aware of your personal triggers and sensitivities can go a long way toward helping you combat the effects of stress and emotional eating.
So, the next time you’re choosing between two foods, check in with yourself and see how you’re feeling. It may help you make a better choice.
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