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.