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Foods and moods

Foods and moods: How your mindset about the future may impact your eating habits, says a new study, according to the February 18, 2014 news release by Kathryn Meier, "Food & moods." Emotional eating is something with which we’re all familiar. Maybe you had had a rough week at work and all you want on Friday night is to plop down and watch a movie with a giant bowl of buttery popcorn. How do moods influence one's preference for foods? Emotional eating is influenced by changing moods, explains the abstract of a new study, "Better Moods for Better Eating? How Mood Influences Food Choice."

Foods and moods.
Anne Hart, photography.

The study's abstract looks at psychological distance. And it notes that mood influences the choice between healthy versus indulgent foods through its impact on temporal construal, which alters the weights people put on long-term health benefits versus short-term mood management benefits when making choices. And what is the temporal construal? It's a fancy theory that proposes temporal distance changes people's responses to future events by changing the way people mentally represent those events. To make the words clearer, "temporal construal" theory is a general theoretical framework that describes the effects of psychological distance on thinking, decision making, and behavior.

The greater the temporal distance, the more likely are events to be represented in terms of a few abstract features that convey the perceived essence of the events (high-level construals) rather than in terms of more concrete and incidental details of the events (low-level construals). For more information, check out the article, "Temporal construal." You also can check out the articles, "Temporal Construal Theory : SAGE Knowledge" or "Temporal Construal - NYU Psychology."

So, what if you’re a student stressed about a big exam and decide to munch on candy during study time. Or maybe your child’s birthday party is coming up and you’ve bought an ice cream cake to serve a small army to celebrate. Happy or sad, up or down, there’s a plethora of media in the world that tells us our moods often dictate the foods we choose to eat. Even seniors who have lost some sensation in the taste buds might prefer sweet, spicy, or salty foods to increase the taste of foods.

More recent studies, though, have shown that negative moods and positive moods may actually lead to preferences for different kinds of foods. For example, if given the choice between grapes or chocolate candies, someone in a good mood may be more inclined to choose the former while someone in a bad mood may be more likely to choose the latter.

What if we could make better choices in any emotional state?

A forthcoming article, "Better Moods for Better Eating? How Mood Influences Food Choice," in the Journal of Consumer Psychology by University of Delaware associate professor Meryl Gardner finds that there’s more to stress eating than simply emotion and in fact, thinking about the future may help people make better food choices. “We were interested in the ‘why,’” said Gardner. “Why when someone is in a bad mood will they choose to eat junk food and why when someone is in a good mood will they make healthier food choices?” Also, you may wish to check out the site, "Special Issue on Emotion, Self, and Identity: Implications for and Consequences of Consumer Behavior."

Gardner, with co-authors Brian Wansink of Cornell University, Junyong Kim of Hanyang University ERICA and Se-Bum Park of Yonsei University, found that a lot depends on our perspective of time. “In an evolutionary sense, it makes sense that when we feel uncomfortable or are in a bad mood, we know something is wrong and focus on what is close to us physically and what is close in time, in the here and now,” said Gardner. “We’re seeing the trees and not the forest, or how to do things and not why to do things.”

To get at the “why,” the researchers married the theories of affective regulation (how people react to their moods and emotions) and temporal construal (the perspective of time) to explain food choice.

They conducted four laboratory experiments to examine whether people in a positive mood would prefer healthy food to indulgent food for long-term health and well-being benefits and those in a negative mood would prefer indulgent foods to healthy foods for immediate, hedonistic mood management benefits.

In the first study, the researchers investigated the effect of a positive mood on evaluations of indulgent and health foods by examining 211 individuals from local parent-teacher associations (PTAs). The findings indicated individuals in a positive mood, compared to control group participants in a relatively neutral mood, evaluated healthy foods more favorably than indulgent foods.

“We expect this is possibly because they put more weight on abstract, higher-level benefits like health and future well-being,” explains Gardner, according to the news release. “The remaining question was whether individuals in a negative mood would act differently.”

Testing that question in a second study using 315 undergraduate students recruited from a large Midwestern university, the researchers found further support for their hypothesis that individuals in a negative mood liked indulgent foods more than healthy foods. According to Gardner, the finding that people in a positive mood liked the more nutritious options and also liked the idea of staying healthy in their old age is consistent with the hypothesis that time construal is important.

“It suggests that positive mood makes people think about the future, and thinking about the future makes us think more abstractly,” says Gardner in the news release. The researchers were then left to eliminate goal achievement as an alternative explanation.

“Our manipulations of mood in the first two studies involved having participants read positive, negative or neutral articles,” observes Gardner, according to the news release. “As it turned out, the positive articles involved someone who had a great life and achieved lots of goals, and the negative articles involved someone who had a sad life and did not achieve goals.

So the reviewers wondered whether the findings were due to the manipulation having involved goal achievement or the manipulation having led to different moods.” In order to prove the findings were not caused by differences in thinking about goal achievement, the researchers conducted a third study with an unrelated manipulation to show that mood not only affects evaluations of nutritious versus indulgent foods but also affects actual consumption.

Raisins were used as health food and M&Ms as indulgent food

Using raisins as health food and M&Ms as indulgent food, Gardner said they altered participants’ focus on the present versus the future along with their mood and measured how much of each food they consumed.

To get more insight into the underlying process, the fourth study focused specifically on the thoughts related to food choice, and differentiated concrete (taste/enjoyment-oriented) versus abstract (nutrition/health-oriented) benefits.

Ultimately, the findings of all the studies combined contribute to current research by demonstrating that individuals can select healthy or indulgent foods depending on their moods, an area previously under-represented in past clinical research on the role of healthy foods

The findings also indicate the integral aspect of the time horizon, showing that 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 the immediate taste and sensory experience.

Finally – and this is where it gets even more interesting – Gardner and her partners found that individuals in negative moods will still make food choices influenced by temporal construal which supports the idea that trying to focus on something other than the present can reduce the consumption of indulgent foods.

“If people in a bad mood typically choose to eat foods that have an immediate, indulgent reward, it might be more effective to encourage what we call mood repair motivation, or calling their attention to more innocuous ways to enhance their mood,” says Gardner, according to the news release. “Instead of looking at nutrition and warning labels, try talking to friends or listening to music.” So the next time you go to grab a snack, think about the future and you just might make a better food choice.

Inspiring healthier eating habits in children and adolescents

It's time that the nation starts influencing healthy eating habits in kids, such as having nutrition-based summer day camps where kids learn to grow, prepare, and eat healthier foods such as affordable fresh produce, especially for families priced out of being able to afford to buy fresh fruit and vegetables in local food markets and not having a yard to grow vegetables. You can check out the abstract of a study, "Influences on Shopping at Farmers' Markets Among Low-income Women." Kids also can learn about nutrition and how healthier food affects the body in the short and long term. Kids are eating too many salty snacks and sugar or fructose-sweetened beverages on a daily basis, sometimes several times a day, whether it's at school, after school, or during snack times.

You see TV adds showing kids drinking milk sweetened with chocolate syrups, strawberry or caramel flavorings instead of getting daily familiar use of unsweetened beverages. That daily sweet taste hooks kids on a craving for sweets by letting their brains secrete hormones in the pleasure/reward centers of their brains that coaxes them to come back for more of the sweet taste to make them feel good. Eating unhealthy becomes a habit because kids start getting picky unless the food has a sweet taste like cookies and ice cream. And healthy foods just aren't that sweet. See, "Your Brain on Sugar - WebMD."

If apples cost a dollar a pound, but you can buy five dollar burgers at a fast-food eatery for five dollars, which will parents most likely buy to stretch the neighborhood food budget to feed the family? It's cheaper to open a can of tuna fish and dump it in a huge pot of cooked noodles, adding a can of cream of chicken or mushroom soup to make it taste salty and add a flavor to wipe out the smell of fish in the stove top casserole.

After all, take a city such as Sacramento, which ranks high for urban gardening, according to news reports such as the article, "Sacramento ranks among best cities for urban gardening." Actually Washington DC ranks first, and Sacramento ranks as number five. Check out, "Sustainable Urban Gardens" or "Soil Born Farms In the News." So how does urban farming relate to a healthier lunchbox at school for Sacramento's kids and children across the country? See, "Analysis of Food References on TV That Target Young Adolescents."

The Healthy Lunchbox Challenge

The Healthy Lunchbox Challenge represents a low-cost, innovative way to influence the nutritional content of child and staff foods and beverages in summer day camps, known as "SDCs." Healthy Lunchbox Challenge helps influence healthy eating habits in children, according to a new study, "Healthy Eating in Summer Day Camps: The Healthy Lunchbox Challenge," published online January 21, 2014, in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, Elsevier Health Sciences.

During the school year, 21 million children receive free or reduced-price lunches, yet less than 10% of those children participate in the Department of Agriculture's Summer Food Service Program. This discrepancy places responsibility for food choices during the summer on parents. Previous efforts to improve the healthfulness of foods and beverages provided by parents have resulted in little to no improvement in the amount of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and/or water. See, "Top U.S. Cities for Urban Gardening."

You can listen to the audio podcast, Download MP3 here, where Falon Tilley and Michael W. Beets discuss the successful implementation of the Healthy Lunchbox Challenge, an innovative theory and incentive-based program, at four large-scale, community-based summer day camps. They observed significant increases in the amount of healthy food brought by children, as well as decreases in untargeted foods such as sugar-sweetened beverages and salty snacks.

The Healthy Lunchbox Challenge (HLC), is an innovative theory and incentive-based program, at four large-scale, community-based summer day camps

To address the issues of food selection and rapid weight gain among children observed in the summertime, a group of researchers from the University of South Carolina used summer day camps as a unique opportunity to influence food and beverage choices of the children attending. By implementing the Healthy Lunchbox Challenge (HLC), an innovative theory and incentive-based program, at four large-scale, community-based summer day camps, Michael W. Beets, MEd, MPH, PhD, and colleagues noted significant increases in the amount of healthy food brought by children as well as decreases in untargeted foods such as sugar-sweetened beverages and salty snacks.

The HLC is a low-cost program requiring minimal resources. In the current study, two intervention components were developed: parent and staff education, as well as an incentive program for children. For education, parents and staff were given the HLC mission and procedures, as well as, a guide to choosing healthy foods and beverages. Incentives, identified by the summer day camps, were distributed based on points accumulated by the children and staff for bringing fruits, vegetables, and water.

Half of the children observed were eligible for free or reduced price school lunches

Among the nearly 2,000 children observed, of which 50% were eligible for free or reduced lunch, researchers noted increases of 12% for fresh fruit, 11% for vegetables, and 14% for water brought, on average from baseline to posttest. Likewise, they observed decreases of 15% and 13% in the amount of chips and non-100% juices brought, respectively. For the staff, of which more than 200 were observed, researchers noted an increase in fruit and vegetables brought of 18% and 13%, respectively, and decreases of 31% for chips and 6.4% for soda.

"With over 14 million children attending summer day camps, introduction of the HLC can serve as a way to influence the eating habits of children during the summer," explains lead author Falon Tilley, MS, Department of Exercise Science, Arnold School of Public Health, University of South Carolina, according to the February 18, 2014 news release, Healthy Lunchbox Challenge helps influence healthy eating habits in children. "These findings have important implications for summer day camps and other child care settings where there is minimal control over the foods brought on-site."

The researchers believe the HLC can be easily implemented in summer day camps and consequently influence the eating behavior of children. However, further research is needed to determine the success of HLC in other settings. Future research should also explore additional modes of education for parents and any other barriers to implementation. You also may be interested in looking at the abstract of another study, "Fruit and Vegetable Consumption of WIC Participants in Atlanta."

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