Whether you binge on a pint of double chocolate salted caramel ice cream following a bitter break-up, or celebrate a promotion by feasting with friends, you eat when emotions run high. Both sadness and happiness seem to lead to eating, either as a comfort mechanism or as an exhibition of celebration and joy.
Research has shown that negative moods can increase attention to food cues and even appraisal of one’s appetite. To research this further, participants had negative moods induced with sad movie clips and depressing music. After the mood induction, they are asked to view a series of images, some containing food and some with no food connection. Meanwhile, an eye-tracker follows their pupil gaze to track and record exactly what images they are looking at and for how long. A study by Hepworth, Mogg, Brignell, & Bradley (2010) did something similar and found that not only did the negative mood induction increase participants’ attention to food, it also amplified how hungry they reported to be. This led researchers to the conclusion that because attention to food and subjective appetite were correlated, they likely reflect the same underlying mechanism, which in this case is thought to be a food reward system of sorts. Say you are watching The Notebook, the sadness increases the reward value of food as a way to combat this feeling. You feel more hungry because you are more motivated to eat in hopes of making yourself feel better (Hepworth, Mogg, Brigness, & Bradley, 2010).
Stress is another factor that comes into play with emotional eating. A 2014 study by Tan & Chow at the University of Wisconsin (where emotional eating likely involves cheese, right?) looked at the connection between stress, emotional eating and eating dysregulation. Eating dysregulation was marked by behaviours such as not knowing how much to eat until you are full, not knowing when to stop eating and continuing to eat when you know that you are full. They found that the relationship between stress and emotional eating was mediated by such eating dysregulation (Tan & Chow, 2014). In other words, stress did not directly lead to eating more food. Instead, stress caused participants to have poorer regulation and control over feelings of hunger and satiety, leading to more emotional eating, or (named quite appropriately), “mindless” eating. If you are stressed and do not know that you are full – or do not care – there is nothing stopping you from eating more.
Knowing that negative effect can contribute to some not-so-healthy eating habits, there are a couple tactics that can empower you in combating that batch of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. First and foremost, simply knowing that you are more vulnerable to reaching for a bag of chips instead of an apple when you are unhappy is a good place to start. However, not everyone is aware of exactly what they are feeling at any given time, a condition called “alexithymia.” For those who have difficulties identifying their feelings, overeating may occur if they mistake emotional signals as hunger signals, in which case, additional training might be required to help them increase their sensitivity to such cues.
Other aspects of personality influence emotional eating, as well. Those who suppress their emotions in their day-to-day lives have shown to consume greater quantities of food in emotional states than those who are more open (Evers, Stok, & de Ridder, 2010). Asking participants to reappraise their emotions instead of suppressing them actually helped them to eat less. Rather than the emotions themselves causing emotional eating, the way in which these emotions are regulated is what matters.
Next time you find yourself surveying the fridge and cupboards for a snack because of extra pressure at work, or waking up at midnight to bake some brownies because you cannot sleep, take a second to think about what is causing you to want to do so in the first place. Are you actually hungry or is food just a superficial fix to a bigger problem? Either way, it is probably more about your emotions than it is the food.