Based on the popular maxim, “you are what you eat,” it is easy to see how our food choices affect our physical bodies and so, too, our mental state. But does it also work in reverse, where our decision to eat certain foods may be based on our current state of mind? According to a recent University of Delaware study, a positive mood helps us focus on our long-term goals, such as health, and so leads to a greater preference for nutritious foods. “Mood influences the choice between healthy versus indulgent foods through its impact on temporal construal,” wrote the authors in their study. When you are in an upbeat frame of mind, then, you may not necessarily eat less, but you may just be able to avoid the more decadent fare.

In previous studies, Brian Wansink, professor of marketing, Cornell University, and his team of researchers found that mood affected how much people ate. In one study, for instance, 38 secretaries viewed one of two movies, where one film was generally happy, while the other was bleak and depressing. The team of researchers discovered that those who viewed the depressing movie ate 38 percent more hot buttery popcorn when compared to the viewers of the happy movie. In his work, Wansink has returned again and again to a common theme: Most people don’t overeat because of extreme hunger, people overeat because of the influence of other factors, including “family and friends, packages and plates, names and numbers, labels and lights, colors and candles, shapes and smells, distractions and distances, cupboards and containers.” He refers to this phenomenon as "mindless eating" and on his website, Wansink explains. “Our studies show that the average person makes around 250 decisions about food every day — breakfast or no breakfast? Pop-tart or bagel? Part of it or all of it? Kitchen or car? Yet out of these 200+ food decisions, most we cannot really explain.” The key to getting a handle on food is to become aware of the series of choices you make each and every day.

In his current study, he and his colleagues conducted four experiments that further explored this issue of unconscious decision-making by placing mood in the spotlight. What the team discovered is that a negative mood increased the importance of immediate, concrete goals in participants’ minds so through food, they attempted to deal with their urgent needs, including mood management. This inability to focus beyond the here and now, then, is what led participants to choose more indulgent comfort foods rather than a more nutritious meal.

Source: Gardner MP, Wansink B, Kim J, Park S-B. Better Moods for Better Eating?: How Mood Influences Food Choice. Journal of Consumer Psychology. 2014.