Good-mood food

Date:10-08-2013 07:58:10 read:2

Good-mood food

It's really no surprise that we eat more when we're happy.


Asked on what occasions she drank champagne, Lily Bollinger used to say that she drank it when she was happy and when she was sad; in company and alone. 'Otherwise I never touch it – unless I’m thirsty.’

Most of us have a similar attitude to food, I suspect. We eat when we’re happy, and sad. Solitude and company are both occasions for food. Otherwise, we never touch the stuff – except when we are hungry.

The role of our moods in shaping eating patterns has long been studied by psychologists. But until very recently almost all research focused on bad moods. The term 'emotional eating’ referred to the way that negative feelings could trigger a binge. Experiments have shown that, if you induce anxiety by giving people an impossible puzzle to solve or forcing them to watch The Shining, they eat more afterwards.

There are two theories about why a bad mood has this effect. The first is that many of us – particularly the overweight – cannot distinguish hunger from unpleasant emotions. The second is that we use food – especially sugar – as a drug to calm ourselves down.

It’s only recently that psychology has recognised that happy moods can make us eat more too. A study was published earlier this year by Catharine Evers and colleagues from Utrecht University in the Netherlands on 'good-mood food’. It showed that a group of 70 students consumed significantly more snack foods (M&Ms, peanuts, wine gums) after being put in a good mood by watching a heartwarming film about a baby panda sneezing. After the film – which lasted just two and a half minutes – the students consumed 100 more calories than a control group who’d been shown a boring film about birds in the desert.

The thing I find most surprising is that the baby panda film was so universally loved. Was no one immune to its cuteness? As for the radical discovery that an enjoyable film encourages snacking, this is less astonishing. The whole economy of cinema snacks is founded on the premise that emotions on the screen can manipulate us to eat popcorn by the bucket.

It stands to reason that we eat more when we are happy. We are conditioned from childhood to use excess calories to celebrate, whether it’s birthday cake or the orgy of Easter chocolate. Besides, food tastes better when you are feeling chipper. The psychologist Michael Macht has done several experiments showing that chocolate tastes more delicious and 'stimulating’ in a state of joy than in a state of sadness.

So we eat more when we are happy as well as when we’re sad. Except for those whose appetites are dampened by strong emotion (which sounds enviable, but comes with its own problems). So what to do? We could avoid having fattening foods in the house, except when our mood is entirely neutral. Which is probably never. Or maybe we could condition ourselves to turn to better treats at times of heightened emotion. Instead of meeting joy with confectionery, buy yourself a punnet of juicy plums, a loaf of rye bread or some very good prosciutto. Then go and watch a film about baby pandas.

    Ever For Health Copy Rights 2013