Food Mood: How Our Feelings Influence What We Eat

Have you ever craved something sweet after a bad day? You’re certainly not alone, and what you might not realize is that each of your emotions warrants a specific craving. A common mistake we make is trusting that what we crave is what our body needs. However, we are often just satisfying emotional fluctuations to regain comfort and stability. At the very least, your cravings might serve as a diagnosis for specific negative sentiments or irregularities with your overall physical health. Or they act like a cool mood ring, right? Here are five scientific ways that explain how your mood affects your choice of food.

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We choose healthy options when we’re happy
According to Cornell University’s Food & Brand Lab, we tend to make healthier choices when we are happy, When we feel optimistic, it’s proven to be easier for us to conceptualize positive aspects of eating well for the long-term nutrition and we are less likely to make “rash” decisions like consuming sugar, which is harmful to us in the future. Another study specified that we choose healthy foods only if we think our happy mood will stick around, otherwise we will choose more indulgent items to keep the positivity flowing.

We opt for junk food when we feel down
Conversely, we tend to choose more immediately gratifying foods that taste good, like junk food, when we are feeling down. When we feel uncomfortable, we have a hard time thinking abstractly about future benefits for our body, like healthy options over tasty food. We seek an immediate solution to our unhappy state, and this can be in the form of chocolate for example, which has a track record of making us feel good. Our unpleasant moods lead us to think only in the ‘here and now’ and cause us to make mindless decisions about the food we choose to ingest.

We tend to consume more food when we are unhappy
Similar to number two, our inability to think past the present when we are in heated or gloomy states prevents us from making conscious decisions not only about what we put in our mouths but also about how much. Another study conducted by Cornell University professor Brian Wansink found that people who watched a sad movie ate 38 percent more popcorn than a group who also ate popcorn but watched a happy movie.

We also have potential to overeat when happy
This is part of the celebratory nature of our culture. When it’s a holiday or a birthday, we eat birthday cake or a large meal, and then maybe go out and have more appetizers with cocktails than we intended. We’ve learned to celebrate with food, and consequently, associate eating with happy occasions. As a result, some people have turned even everyday accomplishments into excuses to overindulge. According to one study, this type of eating is more common in men than women.

Our default is to eat comfort food
Dr. Leigh Gibson, a professor of psychology at the University of Roehampton in London, posits that through human history, energy-dense foods were ideal to eat just to survive. Healthy eating, he says, is a modern development because we now live longer. As a result, when we do choose healthy foods, it’s because of an emotional response.

Negative feelings lead to food cravings
According to Psychology Today, the food that we crave and typically eat can speak to the emotional and physical state of our bodies. They posit that food cravings are a sign that something is off balance and we need to pay attention. Sweet cravings or junk food cravings, Psychology Today indicates, are a sign that you are mentally and/or physically exhausted or that you are dealing with something difficult in your life. It can also mean that you are experiencing steady unpleasantness in general, such as boredom. This is because you’re seeking to raise serotonin levels to feel more upbeat. When you’re stressed or not content, your body thinks you’re going through trauma like a famine and increases cravings.

Specific emotions lead to different food cravings
Dr. Lisa Spangle, a Denver weight-loss specialist, developed a theory to explain the specific types of food we seek. If you crave crunchy food, something you can smash with your teeth, you may be what she calls “head hungry”—satisfying an urge stemming from anger, frustration or sadness. She further explains that “heart hunger”, a craving for comfort foods like ice cream, pasta and cinnamon rolls, for example, means that you are suffering from “empty” feelings like loneliness, depression or boredom.

The food-mood relationship goes both ways
Research shows that not only do your emotions influence your food choices, but the food you’ve previously consumed also affects your mood. Each factor plays off of the other. A study published in 2012 by Dr. Helen Hendy, a psychology professor at Penn State, demonstrated that what you eat affects your mood in subsequent days. The study observed 44 undergraduate students who chronicled what they ate and how they felt. Examining their experience, the study indicated that healthy eating led to more positive outlook exactly two days later, or negative sentiments in the same time period if they had eaten poorly. The correlation proved more noticeable with unhealthy foods. Taking note of this pattern is crucial to breaking the cycle and choosing your food accordingly.