'Stress eating' and the consumption of 'comfort foods' have long been associated with negative emotions and moods. Yet researchers investigating the science behind these choices in relation to our emotions and mood have uncovered another fascinating twist to the story.
Writing in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, US-based researchers show there's more to stress eating than simply emotion.
"We were interested in the 'why,'" explained Professor Meryl Gardner from the University of Delaware, who led the study. "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?"
Working in partnership with Professor Brian Wansink of Cornell University the team found that a lot of food choices depend on our perspective of time, and how the idea of the future can be related to mood.
Whether it be happy or sad, there is a host of scientific evidence to suggest that our mood and emotional state play a key role in dictating the foods we choose to eat.
For example, if given the choice between grapes or chocolate candies, 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, said Gardner and her team.
To understand why this may occur, the team behind the new study explored the relationship between two different theories: that of affective regulation (how people react to their moods and emotions) and temporal construal (the perspective of time).
Gardner and her colleagues conducted four laboratory experiments to examine whether people in a positive mood would prefer healthy food to indulgent food for long-term health and well-being benefits and those in a negative mood would prefer indulgent foods to healthy foods for immediate, hedonistic mood management benefits.
In the first study, the researchers investigated the effect of a positive mood on evaluations of indulgent and health foods by examining 211 individuals from local parent-teacher associations (PTAs). They found that individuals in a positive mood, compared to control group participants in a relatively neutral mood, evaluated healthy foods more favourably than indulgent foods.
"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 using 315 undergraduates, the researchers found further support for their theory that individuals in a negative mood liked indulgent foods more than healthy foods.
According to Gardner, the finding that people in a positive mood liked the more nutritious options and also liked the idea of staying healthy in their old age is consistent with the hypothesis that time construal is important.
"It suggests that positive mood makes people think about the future, and thinking about the future makes us think more abstractly," said Gardner.
In order to prove the findings were not caused by differences in thinking about goal achievement, the researchers then conducted a third study with an unrelated manipulation to show that mood not only affects evaluations of nutritious versus indulgent foods but also affects actual consumption.
Using raisins as health food and M&M's as indulgent food, Gardner said they altered participants' focus on the present versus the future along with their mood and measured how much of each food they consumed.
Finally, in an effort to gain further insight into the underlying process, a fourth study focused specifically on the thoughts related to food choice, and differentiated concrete (taste/enjoyment-oriented) versus abstract (nutrition/health-oriented) benefits.
In this study Gardner and her partners found that individuals in negative moods will still make food choices influenced by temporal construal - which supports the idea that trying to focus on something other than the present can reduce the consumption of indulgent foods, said the team.
Source: Journal of Consumer Psychology
Published online ahead of print, doi: 10.1016/j.jcps.2014.01.002
"Better moods for better eating?: How mood influences food choice"
Authors: Meryl P. Gardner, Brian Wansink, Junyong Kim, Se-Bum Park