The Surprising Way to Stop Emotional Eating

February 19, 2014
smiling can help stop emotional eating

It’s time to laugh in the face of emotional eating. Researchers studying the psychology of cravings at the University of Delaware recently discovered that turning your frown upside down can strengthen your willpower to turn away from decadent desserts and other junk foods.

In the soon-to-be-published new study, Meryl Gardner, PhD, and her team found that people in good moods had higher preferences for healthy food while people in bad moods picked junkier fare. But Gardner's research didn’t stop there. "As someone who finds myself going to the fridge when I have a rough day," she says, "I wondered, why is it that on a bad day, it’s the immediate pleasure that I look for, but on a good day it’s easier to say 'This isn’t what my doctor would want me to eat'?”


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To find out, Gardner and her team examined emotional eating with Temporal Construal Level Theory, which suggests that when people think about short-term situations, they focus on concrete details, but when they consider long-term situations, they focus on more abstract characteristics.

What does this mean for emotional eating? Gardner explains: “We gain information about the environment from our emotions. A bad mood tells us that something is wrong and that we should focus on the immediate situation.” Instead of thinking about abstract calories or the broad goal of wanting a healthy life, when we're feeling down, we're more likely to make decisions based on immediate sensations like smell and taste. “When I’m in a bad mood, I’ll listen to what my senses tell me about what is literally in front of my nose, and it smells so much better when I walk past the bakery than when I walk past the produce aisle,” said Gardner.

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So the next time you find yourself in a grumpy mood and reaching for processed snacks, remember that just looking at the nutrition label probably won’t stop you from diving into that bag of chips. “Labels are great,” Gardner said, “but they’re not the whole story when it comes to what we choose to eat.” Instead, Gardner’s research positions two alternatives to emotional eating.

First, she suggests, “We need to come up with our own set of non-food treats that will comfort us and make us feel good.” This could be watching a movie, listening to music, or talking to a friend— anything that’ll boost your mood without the extra calories.

Another way to combat emotional eating? Focus on the future. In one of Gardner's studies, simply thinking about their future houses influenced participants to eat fewer M&Ms than those who were asked to consider their current homes. Contemplating your future happy, healthy, fit self, for example, may make your daydreams a reality. By thinking more abstractly, you're better able to resist that glazed doughnut that your brain knows is bad for you, but your nose would argue otherwise.

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