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How Mood Affects Eating

Although many of you undoubtedly engage in non-hunger eating when you’re in a positive (aka good) mood, it’s more likely that you act on your cravings when you’re in a negative (aka bad) mood. So says Robert E. Thayer, Ph.D. in his book CALM ENERGY: HOW PEOPLE REGULATE MOOD WITH FOOD AND EXERCISE (2001, Oxford University Press, NY). To learn more about his research, read on.

Thayer teaches readers to recognize what they’re looking for when they engage in non-hunger eating and how to find these same benefits through exercise. I’m not about to lecture you on the subject—and neither does he—but he makes the argument that you are not looking for nutrients when you’re not hungry. Mostly, he says, you’re reacting to your mood. And not just any mood, but a negative one. He maintains that, “Tiredness and tension usually underlie negative moods, and they cause overindulgence as people attempt to self-regulate these deficits…”

Do you know when you’re tense or tired or are you so disconnected from your body that you fail to know it? Most disregulated eaters tend to be worriers and I bet you’re one too. If so, you likely carry chronic low-level tension in your body without realizing it, and are probably more aware of being tired than of being tense. Thayer calls tenseness “a vestige of the primitive freeze response”—when we felt fear, we had to stop and literally freeze movement to figure out what was going on. Our body instinctively reacts to protect internal organs, hunching over and trying to shrink in size. Of course, we no longer need this protection today because we lack the ominous threats of yesteryear.

Many of you try—and fail—to drag yourselves to the gym after work when you’re exhausted. Thayer explains why: “Low energy makes exercise unattractive, but when your energy is high, you’re more likely to want to exercise.” Therefore, to get into a regular exercise routine, choose times when your energy is high, not low—mornings, lunchtime or on weekends. Moreover, if you’re not generally into being active, note the times you do get the urge, especially if you’re in a good mood when this happens.
He also suggests keeping an energy diary and noting how your energy level, that is, tiredness, tension correspond to the times when you have an urge to eat. Note your true hunger level at these times: a hint is that you crave real food, not sweets and treats.

Thayer’s book is a good read, but fairly technical. It contains some practical ideas and will help you better understand the connection between mood and food.

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