Research: The Link Between Our Food and Our Mood

Emotional Eating photo

Last week we took a look at how the food we eat can affect our moods, for better or for worse. This week let’s take a look at some of the research supporting this link, research that is very solid. To put it simply, the better you eat, the better your overall mood, and vice versa. This relationship between the foods we eat and our emotions is not a new interest for researchers. Researchers have long had an interest in this reciprocal interaction.

It’s a cycle – people who are in a good psychological state will make better food choices and people who regularly make good food choices will be, for the most part, in a better psychological state. And, of course, the vice versa is also true.

Emotions and Focus

Research has shown when people are in a bad mood or upset or uncomfortable, they tend to focus more on the present. Their thinking is more specific and present-centered. Therefore their food choices will not be based on how nutritious the food is or is not. The focus will be on sensory factors – how the food tastes. Conversely, people who are in good moods or in a good psychological place are more apt to have an abstract focus, meaning they can concentrate more on the long-term factors such as how nutritious a food choice is.

Do We Eat What We See?

A Cornell University study looked at the effects of watching a sad movie or show on food choices, including how often watchers ate while watching. This study found that people watching sad movies make poorer food choices of what to eat, and they also ate more often, possibly in compensation for their feelings of sadness. Another finding was that movie-goers watching a sad movie consumed about 28% more popcorn than those watching a happier movie.

A 2014 research study found there’s also a link between watchers of adventure and action movies and calories eaten, with the condition that the food is nearby and easily available. People basically eat at the same pace of the movie or show they’re watching.

Eating Affects Our Day

Not only have clear links between meals and emotions been established by research, but study participants have reported changes in energy, concentration and happiness levels specifically. Eating is both a physical and a social activity and while emotions play huge roles in both types of activity, they are more pronounced in social settings.

Food Addictions

There is also a great deal of research on food addictions. This addiction, of course, plays a crucial role in weight gain and obesity. Intensifying the issue is how food is used to cover or numb emotional pain. Food can be used to numb anxiety and yet can definitely cause or exacerbate anxiety.

Early Starts

A 2012 Psychology Today article discusses struggles with food and how they usually start early in life. There are links between food issues and, for example, childhood abuse. Citing an experience of a contestant on “The Biggest Loser,” who was physically abused as a child, the article talks about how his abuse led to his overeating in an effort to “get bigger” which meant “being safer.” There are women who were sexually abused when younger feeling safer by gaining a lot of weight. This weight gain is a form of protection, a way of ensuring no unwanted male attention comes their way ever again.  The research cited in this article shows how we learn how to “feed” ourselves based on our treatment by parents and caretakers.

Parental/Caregiver Influences

We have so many factors that intertwine with our relationship with food. These factors include parental care and nurturance, care and love from caretakers, childhood and teenage experiences, the presence of abuse whether physical or emotional or sexual, our own psychological make-up, etc.

Eating Disorders

Studies of eating disorders have found people suffering from these disorders, whether suffering from anorexia, bulimia, overeating or etc., have a profound disregard of their own values and goals in relation to their health, appearance, and lifestyle. Food is not used the way it’s supposed to be used – as fuel and, occasionally, as social tools. With eating disorders food is used to punish, to beat up, to control, to feed a cycle of self-hatred and self-protection. The “inner critic” that we all have that from time to time makes itself heard is the main voice a person with eating disorders hears. That’s the voice they’re using food to respond to.

Emotional Eating – Why Can’t We Stop?

In a 2013 article, Jennifer Kromberg, PsyD, discusses five reasons why people find it so hard to stop emotional eating.

  • Unawareness

This is “unconscious eating” and is simply not being conscious of your eating behaviors or the reasons behind them. An example is continuing to pick at your food even after you’re finished eating. See this site to learn more about mindful eating.

  • Pleasure

Deriving pleasure from food and eating is normal and healthy. It becomes not normal and unhealthy when food becomes your ONLY pleasure. There are physiological reasons behind this as well as emotional: sugars and fats release opioids in the brain. Opioids, as most of us know, are the “feel good” ingredients in drugs such as heroin, cocaine, and other narcotics. This intensifies the battle with emotional eating. Eating that bowl of ice cream can provide you with “happy” effects just as real as the effects of drugs.

  • Difficult Feelings

Again, having difficult feelings is normal. Not fun, but it is normal. The problem arises when we’re incapable of tolerating difficult emotions. It’s human to avoid bad feelings and situations that feel bad. Emotional eating occurs when we cannot tolerate these bad feelings. We eat to soothe ourselves. It’s best to learn how to deal with painful and difficult emotions and situations instead of trying to numb or cover them.

  • Body Hate

Self-hatred is the foundation of many destructive behaviors, from drug and alcohol use to dangerous behaviors and additions, including eating disorders. This is where the cycle of emotional eating is painfully obvious. The more you hate yourself the worse your food choices and the worse your food choices the more you hate yourself. This calls for intense work on the mind and body.

  • Physiology

Emotional eating very often stems from physiological factors, such as becoming too tired or too hungry. This can lead to poor food choices including emotional eating.


The research on emotional eating is as varied and complex as the subject. But it also overwhelmingly supports the correlation between our moods and our eating choices. Your food affects your mood and your mood affects your food so start now breaking the negative cycle and feeding your POSITIVE, GOOD emotions!

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Post by Andrea Rogers