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Mood and Unhealthy Foods

Although some disregulated eaters head toward food when they’re in a good mood, most emotional eating is done when we feel crummy. If you think that eating unhealthy food makes you feel better, think again. Research says it ain’t necessarily so.

Penn State researchers did a small study on 131 women to assess their moods before and after eating unhealthy foods, those high in salt, sugar, and saturated fat (Tufts Health and Nutrition Newsletter, 6/13, v. 31 #4). Their results: “If the women were in a bad mood” before they ate unhealthy food, eating made them feel even worse. Those who were in a good mood before eating bad food (“bad” is the study’s word, not mine), however, reported little change in their emotional state.

Okay, this is one small experiment that leaves us with lots of questions, too many for generalizing. The subjects were only 131 random women who did not necessarily have eating problems. Maybe the outcome would have been different if the women self-reported as disregulated eaters; men might have reacted totally differently as well. Perhaps women with ongoing eating problems, as opposed to study participants, would have eaten unhealthy foods and had their bad moods lifted. More research needs to be done on this subject to understand it better and get a more complete picture.

However, for the purposes of this blog and your recovery, my question is, Do you really feel better emotionally after eating foods that are high in sugar, salt and saturated fat? What is it that you do feel—happy, satisfied, joyous, relieved, energized, proud, delighted, pleased? My guess is that some of you feel numb or nothing at all (Isn’t that the purpose of eating mindlessly—to go unconscious?) and others feel pretty bummed about their misguided actions. From what I recall of my binge-eating days and from what I know to be true of clients, whatever “bad” feelings there are prior to eating unhealthy foods are replaced by other, equally “bad” feelings—shame, guilt, frustration, remorse, anger at yourself, disgust, contempt, and despair.

Make a mental list of the emotions you feel after eating unhealthy foods. My guess is that other than numb, which is not, by the way, a positive feeling, your list is going to be emotions no one ever would set out to feel. Yet, that’s the consequence every time emotions lead you to non-hunger eating. So many clients tell me, “I eat to feel better.” Really? That may be your intention, but it certainly isn’t the outcome, as we know from experience and, now, from the Penn State study.