Photo of a woman secretly eating cake
A bad mood can mean we forget to think about the longer term consequences of food choices

Why mood dictates your food choices

26 February, 2014

Natural Health News — Happy or sad, up or down, there’s a lot of research to show how our moods influence how much we eat.

But more recent studies have shown that negative moods and positive moods may actually lead to preferences for different kinds of foods. For example, given the choice between grapes or candy, someone in a good mood may be more inclined to choose the former while someone in a bad mood may be more likely to choose the latter.

In an article published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology scientists unpick what’s behind stress eating showing that it is more complex than first thought.

Why we eat

“We were interested in the ‘why,'” said one of the study’s authors Meryl Gardner, a University of Delaware associate professor. “Why when someone is in a bad mood will they choose to eat junk food, and why when someone is in a good mood will they make healthier food choices?”

The study found that a lot depends on our perspective of time.

When we feel unhappy or uncomfortable we naturally reach for the first thing that will make us feel better in the here and now. Our focus is on the short term and “we’re seeing the trees and not the forest, or how to do things and not why to do things”, says Gardner.

To get at the “why,” she and her colleagues conducted a series of experiments that merged theories about how people react to their moods and emotions and how they perceive time in order to explain food choice.

In one experiment, the researchers investigated the effect of a positive mood on evaluations of indulgent and health foods by examining a group of people from local parent-teacher associations (PTAs).

They found that, compared to control group participants in a relatively neutral mood, those in a positive mood evaluated healthy foods more favourably than indulgent foods.

A longer-term view

“We expect this is possibly because they put more weight on abstract, higher-level benefits like health and future well-being,” said Gardner. “The remaining question was whether individuals in a negative mood would act differently.”

Testing that question in a second study, the researchers found that people in a positive mood tended to take a more long term view and in addition to rating nutritious foods highly they also liked the idea of staying healthy in their old age. People in a negative mood were more focused on short-term comfort and more likely to prefer indulgent foods more than healthy foods.

“It suggests that positive mood makes people think about the future, and thinking about the future makes us think more abstractly,” said Gardner.

Two further experiments eliminated possible biases such as weight loss goals and simple preference for taste.

Finding comfort elsewhere

Ultimately, the findings demonstrate that we all have a tendency to select healthy or indulgent foods depending on our moods, but bad moods keep our focus on the short term, further influencing our choices.

An interesting finding of the research was that food didn’t have to be the only solution to a bad mood. Participants in a bad mood were open to other ways of helping themselves feel better in the short-term.

Grabbing something to eat has become an easy ‘cure’ in a culture where food choices are paraded in front of us at every turn.

But if your habit is to choose foods that have an immediate, indulgent reward, the researchers suggest, it might worthwhile trying a bit of mood repair motivation. In plain English, count to 10, think of the future and do something other than eat. “Instead of looking at nutrition and warning labels, try talking to friends or listening to music.” suggests Gardner

“People use food to either maintain a good mood or regain a good mood, and if you’re already in a good mood you tend to eat more healthfully than if you’re in a bad mood,” says Brian Wansink, a professor in Cornell’s Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management and co-author of the paper.

“The take away of this study is you can change mood and eat better. Before a snack or meal, think of something that makes you happy or grateful and you’ll eat less and better,” he adds.