“Comfort food” is ubiquitous these days, so much so that some might even argue it’s a mainstream diet. What’s less known is the science behind why we reach for that bag of chips or carton of ice cream. Exactly how does our emotional state correlate with our food choices, in other words?
In recent years, researchers have been investigating this question. Previous studies revealed a link between emotions and overeating, as well as how overeating can be a sign of a mental health condition like depression. What has remained more of a mystery, though, is the precise nature of the association between our mood and the foods we consume.
The Interplay Between Emotions and Food Choices
When a 2018 study in BMC Public Health set out to explore this association, it followed a group of first-year college students and tracked the foods they ate. The researchers also took note of the participants’ emotions, by conducting multiple assessments in a day across four randomly selected days. Emotions were classified as “positive,” “negative,” or “apathetic”:
- “Positive” emotions were feelings of happiness, relaxation, or motivation.
- “Negative” emotions referred to sadness, tiredness, or stress.
- “Apathetic” meant bored.
The results of the study confirmed previous findings that both positive and negative emotions have a big impact on food choices—but they also went further. This time researchers were able to draw a line between what study participants felt and ate. Here is what they found:
- Strikingly, both those with positive emotion and those with negative emotion (to a slightly lesser degree) were “more likely to consume meats/proteins.”
- Positive emotion also correlated with a greater likelihood to consume sweets and less likelihood to consume pizza or fast food.
- Meanwhile, no food choice associations were found in conjunction with apathetic emotions.
Other Foods We Love to Eat—When Stressed
Before the BMC Public Health study, other research had looked at emotionally driven food choices, but only those related to stress. In one study, for example, female college students said they not only ate more when they were under stress, but also gravitated to sweet or high-fat foods (pizza, casseroles, fast food, and burgers). Research elsewhere has come to a similar conclusion (that those under stress are more likely to consume high-sugar, high-fat foods).
Why the Appeal of Sugary and Fatty Foods During Stressful Times?
Why this appeal of foods that are high in fat and/or sugar during times of stress? The answer has as much to do with our brain as our body, according to a February 2019 article in Scientific American. It explained that while the brain only accounts for two percent of our body weight, it consumes roughly half of our daily carbohydrate requirements; and in the face of “acute stress,” the brain demands “some 12 percent more energy, leading many to reach for sugary snacks.” Why? Because carbohydrates are the body’s “quickest source of energy.”
Emotional Eating Not Just About Self-Discipline
This neurobiological rationale for certain food cravings in times of stress means that emotional eating isn’t just a matter of self-discipline. (The research on drug and alcohol addiction provides an interesting parallel here.) More research may shed light on the neurobiological roots of other emotionally driven food cravings (not just the stress-induced ones). For now, it can be constructive just to notice the next time that bag of chips or carton of ice cream beckons. It may be an opportunity for deeper self-connection and emotional self-awareness.