Eating is a common coping strategy in response to negative emotions such as sadness and stress. Many times we choose foods that are high in sugars, salts, or saturated fats. Emotional eating can become a habit whenever life gets tough. In the chapter, “Eat, Drink, and Be Sedentary,” Epel and others (2018) ask the question, “Does eating behavior have consistent effects on changing emotional experience?” In this blog post, I will review their findings and offer comments and recommendations.
Chronic Dieting and Effects
Chronic dieting refers to strategies to lower caloric intake, saying that you are on a diet, or chronic dietary restraint (the ability to restrain from eating to maintain a particular weight). Studies suggest that a significant reduction of calories below a standard calorie intake (e.g., at or below 1200 calories a day) over a sustained period of time can result in both negative and positive emotions such as:
Clinical Eating Disorders versus Chronic Dieting
You may be wondering where the line is between healthy and unhealthy dieting patterns. Presently, clinical psychology diagnoses include anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder. Generally speaking, these conditions reflect recurring episodes over time that are outside what is considered normal- such as persistent calorie intake restriction resulting in less than minimally normal body weight, eating an excessive amount of food than most would eat in a similar period of time under similar circumstances, or eating with a perceived loss of control even though not physically hungry. There may be distorted body image evaluation or emotional sequelae such as feeling disgusted with oneself, depressed, or very guilty afterwards.
In many cases, nutrition changes (or "diets") are required for medical reasons. In these situations, “chronic dieting” is recommended for some by medical professionals to reduce health risks/symptoms and to promote a better quality of life. Attention to portion size, meal composition, and intake of nutrients is important for everyone's health, regardless of the immediate impact upon emotion.
Immediate Effects of Comfort Food Upon Emotion
Does Chocolate Create Good Feelings and Lower Bad Feelings?
Generally speaking, the positive effects of food, such as chocolate, upon mood appear to last anywhere from 3-90 minutes. Once the mood boosting benefits wore off, they were replaced by feelings of guilt and return of negative emotions.
Will Eating or Bingeing on Comfort Foods Help My Mood?
Comfort foods such as chocolate, cookies, ice cream, and brownies brought comfort to emotions such as anger, fear, anxiety, and sadness. However, these positive emotional effects were not any greater than the positive emotional effects of eating non-comfort foods or no food at all (Wagner et al, 2014). Comfort foods may appear to have a positive emotional result in comparison to eating other foods because of the distraction or pleasure it provides when experiencing heightened stress levels. People who eat comfort foods may also feel better emotionally because they expect that the food will improve their mood.
Physiological Cause for Overeating Comfort Foods?
Cortisol hypo-reactivity is a medical symptom where the individual doesn’t produce enough of the cortisol stress hormone in response to high stress situations. Researchers consider that emotional eating may be a cause or a result of this condition. Low cortisol levels and hypo-reactivity may be due to primary adrenal insufficiency (Addison’s disease), autoimmune disease, impaired functioning of the pituitary gland, and some traumatic brain injury.
Fasting and Emotions
There is limited research on the effects of intermittent fasting upon emotions for the general population. One small study suggested a decrease in tension, anger, confusion, improvements in vigor as a result of the fasting. If indeed fasting results in negative emotions or stress response, behavioral or psychological coping strategies (e.g. socializing, doing art projects, or going out) may provide relief.
Women’s Menstrual Cycle, Food Cravings, and Mood
The urge for sweets, salty foods, and junk food is highest during the two weeks leading up to the start of the menstrual cycle due to increased progesterone hormone levels. Studies have found that women who experience increased depression, anger, and sleepiness during their menstrual cycles tend to eat more sweets. I was unable to find any studies looked at the effects of food choices on menstrual cycle related mood changes. However, it is recommended to reduce consumption of salty snacks and junk food to decrease physical premenstrual symptoms such as headache, increase in body weight, and water retention (Matsuura et al, July 2020). I believe that these changes can support positive mood, energy levels, emotional coping, and a positive mindset.
Family Lifestyle Habits
Children learn to use comfort foods as a way to self-soothe in their home environment. Families can help prevent childhood obesity and other health conditions in their children by developing healthy eating habits. When children or adolescents are stressed, they can be taught alternate ways to feel better such as relaxation and mindfulness strategies, distracting or calming activities, communicating their feelings, exercising, and journaling.
This is the last post in my series reviewing the effects of physical activity, sleep, and eating upon emotions. I've enjoyed sharing this information! Until next time, <3 be well !
Epel, E. et al (2018). Eat, drink, and be sedentary: A review of health behaviors’ effects on emotions and affective states, and implications for interventions. Handbook of Emotions, 4th edition. Guilford Press: New York.
Matsuura, Y., Inoue, A., Kidani, M. & Yasui, T. (July-September, 2020). Change in appetite and food craving during menstrual cycle in young students. International Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism, 12(2), 25-30.
Wagner, H. S., Ahlstrom, B. K., Vickers, Z., Redden, J., Mann, T., & Scherschel, H. (2014). The myth of comfort food. Health Psychology, 33(12), 1552-1557.
All blog posts from Dr. Soo Hoo are provided for educational and informational purposes only. As Dr. Soo Hoo is a licensed clinical and health psychologist, we must make it clear that nothing on the blog is intended to constitute medical or psychological advice, consultation, recommendation, diagnosis, or treatment. If you are concerned about your health, please seek appropriate care in your area.