"I try to think before I eat, yet time after time, I find myself having just downed a whole box of cookies just because I've had a rough day," said Meryl Gardner, Ph.D., a consumer psychology expert at the University of Delaware. "I had wanted to make myself feel better, but 15 minutes later I'm feeling much worse. Why am I so short-sighted when I'm in a bad mood?"
Gardner's experience is a familiar one for anybody who struggles with emotional eating -- the act of eating usually rich, fatty foods for comfort during times of stress, boredom or worse. To gain more insight into why people turn to "comfort food," she conducted a series of four escalating experiments that examined how positive, negative and neutral moods affected food choice. Gardner also looked at how "temporal construal," a concept that involves focusing on either the present or the future, affected food choice.
Gardner found that when she elicited bad moods among the participants (by having them read a sad story or writing in detail about things that make them sad), they were much more likely to choose indulgent snacks over healthy ones. No surprise there -- bad moods indicate that there's a problem, and rich food is one way to feel better about that problem in the short-term. She also found that happier people were more likely to choose healthier snacks and were more likely to say they want to stay healthy as they grow older.
But Gardner also found that pushing people to contemplate the future -- by having them imagine details about their future home -- strongly mitigated the effect of a bad mood on food choices. Participants who were put in a bad mood but who were then encouraged to imagine their future home chose to eat less indulgent food, compared with participants with bad moods who were encouraged to describe their present homes.
"When you think about the future, you're taking in a bigger perspective," explained Gardner. "People think about what is important to them, not just what's on the tip of their forks."
Dieting is often described as a battle of wills between your present self and your future self. But Gardner's findings indicate that simply thinking about the future in a more abstract sense -- even if unrelated to food and/or health -- could be a more effective way to subconsciously motivate yourself to make healthier choices. The reason, Gardner guessed, is because an abstract sense of the future isn't burdened with emotional baggage that could come with thinking about your future self.
"To motivate myself [to choose a healthy option at a restaurant], I might think about my college reunion coming up -- but that could put me in a worse mood," Gardner said. "Instead of focusing on how I will look in five years, I'll think, 'How will this restaurant look in five years? What will this menu look like in five years?'"
Another finding was that participants who wrote detailed descriptions about things that made them happy ate 77 percent healthier than the other groups. Co-author Brian Wansink, Ph.D. of Cornell University, explains the finding in the video below:
Dietitians often recommend that getting to the root cause of your negative emotions -- or simply allowing yourself to feel that emotion, however difficult it may be -- could help people curb their emotional eating problems. In that sense, Gardner's future-minded findings could be seen as a form of escapism, or another way to avoid one's feelings -- and could be a "direction a dietitian may want to consider," she said. "It's something dietitians can work with and use as fuel for designing interventions."
Gardner's study, "Better Moods For Better Eating?" was published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology in collaboration with Wansink, Junyong Kim, Ph.D. of Hanyang University and Se-Bum Park, Ph.D. of Yonsei University.