Documentary Explores Link Between Mood and Diet

Story at-a-glance -

  • PBS documentary reveals food psychology secrets that may change your approach to eating
  • The size of your plate and utensils, as well as the color of your placemat, may be psychologically priming you to overeat
  • Food psychologist suggests science-based strategies for tricking your body into desiring healthier foods and smaller portions

By Dr. Mercola

The connection between your food and your mood has been the focus of occasional scientific inquiry over the past couple of decades.

Your diet can have a pronounced biochemical effect on your mental health, but the reverse is also true—your emotional state can influence the foods you choose, as well as being a major force behind food cravings.

Dr. Brian Wansink1 of Cornell University, author of more than 200 articles and books about the psychology of eating, is featured in the PBS documentary "Food on the Brain." 

This program explores the psychology of eating and provides tips and tricks for making better food choices when faced with the overwhelming number of products in supermarkets today.

Your Foods Influence Your Moods—And Vice Versa

The average supermarket now carries 43,844 different products.2 How can you even begin to make good choices when there are so many products from which to choose? Going shopping can be overwhelming.

Shoppers report that an abundance of choice can make decision-making difficult, and five percent of shoppers will simply walk away empty-handed when the scope of choices makes selection too overwhelming.3

Research has shown that an unprocessed food based diet, including fermented foods to optimize your gut flora, supports positive mood and optimal mental health.

For example, dark chocolate, berries, coffee, bananas, omega-3 fats, and turmeric (curcumin) tend to boost your mood, whereas sugar, wheat (gluten), and processed foods have been linked to poor mood.

But the influence also works in the other direction. Studies show that your emotional state may significantly control the types of foods you choose, as well as how much food you're inclined to eat.

Could Avoiding Overeating Be as Simple as Thinking Happy Thoughts?

A series of fascinating studies4 by Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab (run by Dr. Wansink) were designed to explain the mechanisms by which negative and positive moods influence your food choices.

Researchers found that individuals select healthy or "indulgent" foods depending on whether they're in a good or a bad mood, respectively. They discovered that if you think about what you're grateful for, you'll eat up to 77 percent healthier.

Why would this be?

Individuals in positive moods who make healthier food choices are often thinking more about future health benefits than those in negative moods, who focus more on immediate taste and sensory experience. Researchers wrote:

"When people are in a good mood, things seem okay and they can take a big picture perspective. This kind of thinking allows people to focus on the more abstract aspects of food, including how healthy it is...

Conceptually, when people feel uncomfortable or are in a bad mood, they know something is wrong and focus on what is close in the here and now.

We hypothesized and demonstrated that this kind of thinking gets us to focus on the sensory qualities of our foods – not things that are more abstract like how nutritious the food is."

The research team suggests that if you're in a bad mood and you want to reduce your temptation to overeat, or not eat the wrong thing, try focusing on something other than the present. If you want to change your eating, change your thoughts—think of something you're grateful for.

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Comfort Foods May Not Be So Comforting After All

The healing power of comfort food may be overrated, if you believe the results of a recent study.5 Researchers at the University of Minnesota found that indulging in comfort food has little effect on how quickly you recover from a bad mood.

The study was funded by NASA in hopes of finding a way to improve the mood of astronauts on space missions. Astronauts tend to lose weight in space, where work demands are high and the food is generally bleak and uninspiring.

Individuals who didn't soothe themselves with food found their moods bouncing back just as quickly as those who indulged in "comfort food."6 Even when comfort food helped with mood, the effects were short-lived.

In a previous study,7 Dr. Wansink's research team found that, contrary to popular belief, people tend to eat "comfort foods" as a reward, rather than in response to sadness or stress.

About 86 percent of those surveyed reported seeking out comfort foods when they were in a happy mood, as opposed to 36 percent reporting eating comfort foods when feeling down.

Tips and Strategies to Prevent Overeating

Being mindful of your eating is important, but sometimes mindfulness alone isn't enough. Many human behaviors are driven by unconscious emotions, and eating patterns are no exception. There are ways to clear out these unconscious emotions, which I'll be addressing shortly, but it's also nice to have a few psychological tools to "trick" your body into eating less. Dr. Wansink discusses a few of these in the featured documentary.

Smaller Plates Equal Smaller Portions

Although calorie counting is not an effective approach to weight loss, portion control can be important, particularly if you are inactive or have a sluggish metabolism. Westerners typically consume much larger portions than they need. One way to control portions with minimal effort is by using smaller plates. This seems to work by way of an optical illusion—food portions appear larger on a smaller plate, which tricks your brain into serving and eating smaller portions.8

Plate size has been found to affect how much you eat by 25 percent! Interestingly, the same applies to glassware and utensils. If you want to reduce your intake of sweetened drinks or alcohol, use tall, thin glasses instead of short, wide ones. Similarly, using a smaller fork9 and cutting your food into smaller pieces10 seems to reduce consumption.

If you're using larger plates, choose plates of a color that contrasts greatly with your food, but with a color similar to the tablecloth. Dr. Wansink also mentions a "half-plate" rule. He says, "It doesn't matter what you eat as long as half your plate consists of fresh vegetables and fruits."

I would generally agree, provided you're not consuming junk food or processed foods. Remember also that a large portion of those vegetables are best consumed raw. Make sure to drink plenty of pure filtered or spring water every day, as sometimes thirst masquerades as hunger.

A 2010 study found that drinking two cups of water prior to meals is an effective way to reduce food intake, especially for middle-aged and older adults.11 Another scientific review concluded that drinking ice water prior to a meal, in lieu of a sweetened beverage, may result in your eating less.

Slow Down Your Eating by Chewing Thoroughly

When it comes to eating, you might want to put on the brakes a bit. A recent study12 shows that eating more slowly can decrease your food consumption and prevent overeating. When you eat too quickly, your body doesn't have time to go through its natural appetite signaling process or proper digestion.

You should chew until each bite liquefies, or loses all of its texture, before swallowing. Prior studies have found that eating more slowly and chewing your food more completely led to decreased intake, improved absorption of nutrients, better appetite regulation, and higher satiety. Besides being its own "portion control" mechanism, thorough chewing has other benefits:

  • Signaling: Chewing sends vital signals to your body to start preparing for digestion; chewing starts the secretion of hormones, activates taste receptors, prepares your stomach lining for secretion of hydrochloric acid, and prepares your pancreas for secretion of enzymes and bicarbonate13
  • Digestion: Your food gets more exposure to your saliva, which contains digestive enzymes necessary for the first phase of digestion; saliva also helps lubricate your food so its passage is easier on your esophagus
  • Passage of food: Chewing relaxes the pylorus, a muscle at the base of your stomach that controls the passage of food into your small intestine; saliva helps the pylorus to operate with ease
  • Dental health: Chewing strengthens your teeth and jaw, and helps prevent plaque buildup and tooth decay
  • Gut flora: Chewing discourages food-borne bacteria from entering your gut on plus-sized food particles; overgrowth of detrimental bacteria in your gut may lead to gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, cramping, and other digestive problems

Vigorous Exercise May Suppress Your Appetite

A common assumption about exercise is that it will cause you to eat more, but science now suggests the opposite may be true. Studies shows that exercise, particularly 45 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous exercise in the morning, seems to reduce food cravings both immediately and throughout the day, leading to suppression of appetite and decreased food intake—even lingering into the next day.14

Previous research suggests exercise may also help control your body weight by altering hormones released by your gut after a meal. Exercise is particularly beneficial if done on an empty stomach, which is why I'm an enthusiastic proponent of intermittent fasting, and exercising in the morning while still in a fasted state.

You've probably heard that skipping breakfast will cause you to overeat, but studies suggest eating breakfast might actually increase your hunger. In the morning, you experience your cortisol peak—that is, the time of day when your cortisol levels (a major stress hormone) reach their daily peak.

This cortisol peak impacts your insulin secretion in such a way that eating at this time leads to a large and rapid insulin release and a corresponding rapid drop in blood sugar, more so than when you eat at other times of the day—which will make you feel hungry. Exercising while fasting also helps your body learn how to burn fat for fuel, helping to prevent weight gain and insulin resistance. Once you are not insulin resistant, eating breakfast is fine.

Tapping into the Power of Imagination

Never underestimate the power of your mind. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University determined that you'll actually eat less of a certain food after imagining eating it. This doesn't work if you just picture the food—you have to imagine eating thefood. This reverses the decades-old concern that thinking about a desirable food causes you to crave it and eat more of it.

Mental effort can actually result in physical changes to your mind and body—for example, using your imagination can increase your muscle strength without ever lifting a barbell. Lead author Carey Morewedge said the following about using your thoughts to reduce food cravings:15

"These findings suggest that trying to suppress one's thoughts of desired foods in order to curb cravings for those foods is a fundamentally flawed strategy... Our studies found that instead, people who repeatedly imagined the consumption of a morsel of food — such as an M&M or cube of cheese — subsequently consumed less of that food than did people who imagined consuming the food a few times or performed a different but similarly engaging task.

We think these findings will help develop future interventions to reduce cravings for things such as unhealthy food, drugs and cigarettes, and hope they will help us learn how to help people make healthier food choices."

Professor Joachim Vosgerau added:

"Habituation is one of the fundamental processes that determine how much we consume of a food or product, when to stop consuming it, and when to switch to consuming another food or product. Our findings show that habituation is not only governed by the sensory inputs of sight, smell, sound and touch, but also by how the consumption experience is mentally represented.

To some extent, merely imagining an experience is a substitute for actual experience. The difference between imagining and experiencing may be smaller than previously assumed."

Manage Food Cravings with EFT

When it comes to harnessing the power of your mind, there is probably no better tool than EFT, which stands for Emotional Freedom Technique (tapping). EFT is a form of energy psychology that helps you clear out unwanted emotions that can get in the way of achieving your health goals.

And EFT can help with a sudden attack of the munchies. While food cravings certainly feel physical, they're often rooted in unconscious emotions. Food works to temporarily suppress unpleasant feelings, and cravings are a powerful distraction!

By tapping on the craving itself, you can reduce your stress and release some of the emotions driving the cravings—and once you accomplish this, it's likely the craving will fade. Although tapping is often effective at reducing or eliminating cravings in the moment, it may not be sufficient to eliminate them permanently.

For permanent change, you might have to delve deeper into the emotional underpinnings of your eating behaviors. But the good news is, EFT is typically quite effective on both levels!  If you want to learn more about EFT, please take a look at a few of our previous articles. The following will get you off to a good start:

Food for Thought

When navigating the thousands of food choices available today, it's important to remain grounded and mindful of your ultimate health goals. There's a powerful link between your brain, thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, and being aware of these connections is the first step in taking control of undesirable eating patterns.

If you're wondering why you aren't doing the things you know you "should" be doing, then, the next step may be to examine your personal eating psychology. Armed with a few tools, you'll get yourself back in the driver's seat again, instead of allowing unconscious emotions to drive your health downhill.