Curb Emotional Eating: Think About the Future

National Eating Disorders Awareness Week: February 23 to March 1

emotional eatingThere may be more to stress eating than simply emotion, and according to University of Delaware Associate Professor Dr. Meryl Gardner, thinking about the future may help people make better food choices.[1]

Gardner and colleagues became interested in the why: “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?”1

They found that it had a lot to do with a person’s perspective of time. Gardner said, “In an evolutionary sense, it makes sense that when we feel uncomfortable or are in a bad mood, we know something is wrong and focus on what is close to us physically and what is close in time, in the here and now.”1

To understand more, Gardner and colleagues performed four laboratory experiments to examine whether or not people in a positive mood would prefer healthy food to indulgent food for long-term health benefits, as well as whether or not people in a negative mood would prefer indulgent foods to healthy foods for immediate mood management benefits.1

During the first study, Gardner and colleagues investigated the effects of a positive mood on the assessment of indulgent and health foods and they found that individuals in a positive mood preferred healthy foods over indulgent foods.1 They found that people in a positive mood also liked the idea of staying healthy in their old age, which is consistent with their hypothesis that time is important.1

“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.”1

During the second study, Gardner and colleagues found that individuals in a negative mood chose indulgent foods more than healthy foods.1

“Our manipulations of mood in the first two studies involved having participants read positive, negative, or neutral articles,” said Garner. “As it turned out, the positive articles involved someone who had a great life and achieved lots of goals, and the negative articles involved someone who had a sad life and did not achieve goals. So we wondered whether the findings were due to the manipulation having involved goal achievement or the manipulation having led to different moods.”1

Their third study was conducted to prove that the findings were not caused by differences in thinking regarding goal achievement.1 Gardner and colleagues used an unrelated manipulation to show that mood not only affects evaluations of healthy versus indulgent food, but also the actual consumption.1 They used raisins as health food and M&Ms as indulgent food, as they altered participants’ focus on the present versus the future, and measured how much of each food they consumed.1

The fourth study focused on the thoughts related to food choice, differentiating concrete (taste and enjoyment) versus abstract (nutrition and health-oriented) benefits.1

Overall, the studies found that individuals can select healthy or indulgent foods depending on their moods.1 Individuals who are in positive moods and make healthier food choices are often thinking more about the future health benefits, while people in negative moods who make indulgent choices are focusing more on immediate taste and sensory experience.1 Also, it was found that individuals who were in negative moods will actually make food choices influenced by nutrition and health when they are focusing on something other than the present, which can help reduce the consumption of indulgent foods.1

“If people in a bad mood typically choose to eat foods that have an immediate, indulgent reward, it might be more effective to encourage what we call mood repair motivation, or calling their attention to more innocuous way to enhance their mood,” said Gardner. “Instead of looking at nutrition and warning labels, try talking to friends or listening to music.”1

[1] Nauert, R. (2014). Future Focus Can Help Curb Emotional Eating. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 26, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/news/2014/02/19/future-focus-can-help-curb-emotional-eating/66117.html

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