Marketing professor publishes study on mood and food choices

Emotional Eating
KIRK SMITH/THE REVIEW
Rachel Coyne enjoying pizza and ice cream at her home in Newark, Del.

BY
STAFF REPORTER

Amy Wilcoxon, nutrition counselor with Student Health Services, said students should think before they open the fridge.

“They should ask themselves, ‘Why am I opening the refrigerator?’” she said. “Is it because I’m hungry or is it because I’m stressed out? Most of our unhealthy eating is not purposeful. It’s, there’s a plate of cookies here, so I’m going to eat them.”

Meryl Gardner, associate professor of marketing, published a study on the relationship between mood and food choices on Jan. 25 in the Journal of Consumer Psychology that has since received attention from national and international publications, including Prevention, Men’s Health and Women’s Health. The study, “Better Moods for Better Eating? How Mood Influences Food Choice,” details the results of four experiments in which subjects were asked to rate their moods, then given a choice of foods. Subjects in good moods made healthier choices than those in bad moods, she said.

Gardner said her study builds on previous research, but also on her own behavior. She said she noticed herself making worse food choices when she was having a bad day. Afterwards, she said she would feel guilty and embarrassed.

“I see myself using food as my personal drug of choice,” Gardner said. “I’d have a rough day, and then I’d eat an entire box of cookies. And afterwards I’d say, ‘Why did I do that?’”

In her study, Gardner said subjects rated how they were feeling and were asked to focus on either the present or the future. The subjects were given M&Ms and raisins, Gardner said, and the researchers counted how many of each they ate. She said subjects who were asked to think about where they might be living in ten years, ate fewer M&Ms and more raisins—even if they were in a bad mood.

This finding surprised her, she said.

“I realized that thinking about the future could help us,” Gardner said. “When we’re in a bad mood, make choices that are better for us long-term.”

Wilcoxon said Gardner’s findings make sense.

“A lot of people use food to cope,” she said. “Studies show that food, especially junk food, activates dopamine, which is the pleasure chemical in the brain. So people will go for that to make themselves feel better.”

Wilcoxon said the stresses of college life—a new environment, busy schedules and lack of sleep—make students particularly prone to unhealthy eating habits. However, some people do not have this problem, she said.

“Not everybody is an emotional eater,” Wilcoxon said. “Some people are wired to eat when they’re under stress, and some aren’t.”

Gnanadesikan Somasundaram said he is one of those people. A freshman environmental engineering major, Somasundaram said he does not eat when he is in a bad mood.

“I’m usually the opposite,” Somasundaram said. “If I’m upset, I don’t eat, I skip meals.”

Somasundaram said he is a vegetarian, so his food options are often restricted, causing him to skip a meal and eat something that fits his diet later on.

Cristina Sulzer, a freshman with an athletic training interest, said for the most part, her mood and stress level do not affect what she eats. Occasionally, she said she does eat emotionally.

“If I’m really stressed, I’ll have a treat, order a pizza or something,” Sulzer said. “I feel better for a little bit. Then I’m like, I have to go to the gym.”

Gardner said people are too hard on themselves when they make unhealthy food choices.

“We tend to beat ourselves up,” she said. “We make these choices, then we go, Why am I doing something I know is so stupid? But it’s natural, and it’s normal, and it’s controllable.”

The takeaway from her research, Gardner said, is to think about innocuous things—not stressful things— in the future.

“The future tends to be more ‘why’ oriented,” Gardner said. “Present thinking is all about the ‘how.’”

When people are in the grocery store, Gardner said they should ask themselves ‘why’ they are buying a particular food.

Wilcoxon echoes Gardner’s advice. Students can help themselves make better choices by being aware of what they’re eating, she said.

Students should find alternate ways to make themselves feel better besides eating, Wilcoxon said. Exercise and sleep are important, as is eating a balanced diet.

Somasundaram said he never feels guilty about what he eats. He has a naturally fast metabolism and has never had to worry much about his weight, he said. He also plays basketball and flag football.

Besides, he said, being a vegetarian already eliminates a lot of unhealthy choices.

“You only have one life,” Somasundaram said. “Just enjoy it while you can.”

Sulzer said she agrees.

“Everyone needs to indulge sometimes,” she said. “Not giving yourself that indulgence puts you in a worse mood. Some emotional eating is OK, as long as you have it under control.”

Gardner said her studies prove that people are capable of conquering emotional eating.

“Just take a little step back and see the bigger picture,” Gardner said. “Recognize what you’re doing and know that you can think more long-term.””

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