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How Mood Influences Food Choice

Do you have a tendency to reach for junk food or sweets instead of healthy options when you’re down in the dumps? If so, you’re not alone. Researchers at the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab Previous, armed with previous research that found that emotions affect eating, set out ot find out why this happens. Their paper will be published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

A rlease from the lab explains that the investigators “married the theories of affective regulation (how people react to their moods and emotions) and temporal construal (the perspective of time) to explain food choice” and notes that when people feel uncomfortable or are in a bad mood, they know something is wrong and focus on what is close in the here and now. The team hypothesized and demonstrated that this kind of thinking gets us to focus on the sensory qualities of our foods rather than factors that are abstract such as how nutritious the food is.  On the other hand, the team demonstrated that when people are in a good mood, they can take “a big picture perspective”.  This kind of thinking allows people to focus on the more abstract aspects of food, including how healthy it is.

The researchers studied these hypotheses in four laboratory experiments. In the first study, they investigated the effect of a positive mood on evaluations of indulgent and health foods by examining 211 individuals from local parent-teacher associations (PTAs).  Next they studied whether people whi had read a sad story that put them in a negative mood evaluated indulgent foods more positively and whether those who were in a positive mood indicated a desire to remain healthy into their old age. A total of 315 undergraduate students participated in this study. In the third study, involving 151 undergraduate students, the team altered participants’ focus on the present versus the future along with their mood and measured how much healthy and indulgent food they consumed. To get more direct insight into the underlying process, the fourth study, involving 110 university students, focused specifically on the thoughts related to food choice and differentiated concrete taste versus nutrition benefits.

Ultimately, the findings of all the studies combined demonstrated that individuals select healthy or indulgent foods depending on whether they are in a good or a bad mood, respectively. The findings also indicate the integral aspect of the time horizon, showing that individuals in positive moods who make healthier food choices are often thinking more about future health benefits than those in negative moods, who focus more on the immediate taste and sensory experience. Finally, the researchers found that trying to focus on something other than the present can reduce the consumption of indulgent foods when you’re in a bad mood.

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