Whether it’s napping off a pound of turkey after a Thanksgiving feast or staying up all night after a cookies and ice cream binge, there’s no denying the effects food has on our psyches. But do we ever think about how it works the other way around? Do we choose to eat strawberries because we know they’re packed with healthy antioxidants, or is our decision the result of unconscious temporary impulses unbeknownst to our minds? Recent research has delved into discovering why we let our emotions dictate what we put into our diet, putting a new perspective on the old phrase, “you are what you eat.”
Professors from the University of Delaware set up experiments to help understand why people resort to junk food or excess eating when faced with levels of stress and disappointment. The researchers conducted various experiments that tested which foods people wanted to eat depending on what mood they were in. The researchers offered participants a bowl of raisins as “health” food or M&M’s for “indulgent” food. The first test featured 211 subjects who self reported that they were very satisfied with their life and extremely goal orientated and found that they evaluated the raisins more favorably than those who self reported unsatisfactory perceptions of their lives. Those who were exhibiting signs of self-frustration expressed a preference toward the M&M’s.
While the study failed to fully answer the question of why our emotions affect our impulses to eat healthy or not, the test did explore the concept of how our food decisions may depend on our perceptions of time. Meryl Gardner, a professor at the University of Delaware and author of the study, found the combination of mood and long or short term thinking was the real motivation for what we choose to eat.
“When you’re in a good mood, you take a longer-term perspective,” Gardner said in an interview with The Atlantic. “You see the forest, not the trees. When you’re focused on the near term, when you’re looking at what’s in front of your nose, you respond with what’s going to give you quick pleasure.”
The relationship between what we eat and how we feel becomes more complex when focusing on how specific foods affect our emotions. Additionally, a 1983 study found that after a heavy carbohydrate meal, women tended to report a greater urge to sleep while men generally stated they experienced a sense of “calmness.” Skipping meals, especially breakfast, can not only raise your cholesterol and blood pressure by 27 percent, according to a 2013 study from the Harvard School of Public Health, but also impact your morning energy levels and thus mood.
No matter what our dietary habits or eating impulses are, eating healthy regardless of your mood is the only way to cut calories and lower cholesterol. So next time you’re feeling sour, stay away from the gummy worms calling your name and stick with the fruits and veggies, because if you eat healthy, odds are you’ll be healthy.