Eating a meal, any meal, reliably makes an animal, any animal, calmer and more lethargic. This means humans, too. Hunger makes animals alert and irritable, which explains why couples always fight about where to eat dinner. This emotional response encourages the animals to find food.
But all this is only in the broadest, most primal “eating = good, not eating = bad” way. The details of the relationship between foods and moods end up being a little contradictory and a lot complicated.
What we tend to think of as “emotional eating” is a specific kind of eating and a specific kind of emotion—eating sugary, fatty, carb-y, unhealthy foods as a coping mechanism for feeling upset. In reality, “emotional eating” is a much broader term.
“We eat for a variety of different emotions and we eat in a variety of different circumstances which are in turn connected with emotions,” Meryl Gardner, a marketing professor at the University of Delaware, says.
Gardner was the lead author on a new study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, which looked at food choice and mood, adding to a fairly extensive body of research that already exists on the interplay between moods and foods.
There seems to be a clear, fairly consistent connection between negative emotions and unhealthy foods, though there are individual variations for what kind of snack people want. In a bad mood, people’s hands tend to float to the cookie jar, the candy bag, the snack drawer. What’s less clear is what foods we’re drawn to in a positive mood.
Some studies say we still want treats. A 1992 study and a 2002 study (one on women, one on men) found that joy led to increased consumption of indulgent foods. A 2013 study in Appetite titled “Happy Eating: The underestimated role of overeating in a positive mood” points out the potential for increased consumption (in this case of chips and chocolate) when we’re feeling good.
Other research says just the opposite—that we’re more likely to eschew the sugar/carb rush when happy. In 2010, researchers found that people in a positive mood were more likely to choose grapes over chocolate than those in a neutral mood. Another study offers a qualification, finding that people would choose healthy foods if they felt like their good mood was going to stick around; if not, they might eat more indulgent foods, to keep the good vibes going.
Gardner’s study also found a connection between negative moods and unhealthy foods, and positive moods and healthy foods, but she and her team introduced the element of time into the equation as well. They had participants think about either the present or the future (by describing their current residence, or a possible future residence). They found that regardless of mood, long-term, future-focused thinking led to healthier choices.
“When you’re in a good mood, you take a longer-term perspective,” Gardner says. “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. And that’s triggered very much by bad moods. But we can fight that.”
Dr. Leigh Gibson, a psychology professor at the University of Roehampton in London, disagrees, though he says he finds those results interesting. “I’m not sure that’s the way people normally go about their daily eating,” he says. “For habitual behaviors like eating, there tends to be an intention-behavior gap. We have all these wonderful intentions, but when it comes down to it, we’re exposed to energy-dense foods when we find ourselves hungry.”
It does seem unlikely that most of us would take the time to describe our future homes to ourselves before deciding on pizza or a salad for lunch. And as previously noted, there is little consensus on what we typically crave when we’re happy.
Part of the reason why it seems our moods rarely drive us toward healthy foods, Gibson says, is that for much of human history, energy-dense foods, or what we now consider comfort foods, were the ideal thing to eat.
“We didn’t evolve as homo sapiens by eating healthy, because all we had to do was reproduce and survive until our mid-20’s,” he says. “We were quite happily sucking the marrow out of bones. We were just getting energy, protein, the basic nutrients we needed, but we didn’t have to live too long. Healthy eating is a modern, cultural thing that we now need, because we’re living so long… You could almost say the default is comfort eating.”
We’re not constantly shoveling mashed potatoes into our mouths (at least not most of the time), so of course this doesn’t mean that humans don’t ever choose healthy foods, just that when we do, it might not be in response to our emotions.