Why Emotional Eating Can Beat a Bad Mood

Some foods may help melt away sadness

If ever there were a diet saboteur, bad moods are enemy number-one. After all, how many of us have ever taken solace in a bowl of veggies or fruit salad after being dumped? Instead, we drown our sorrows in more fattening choices like ice cream, brownies and cupcakes. Even though sadness usurps our desire to do just about anything else, it does make us want to eat. And, according to a new study in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, there’s a reason why we all crave the same kind of crappy snacks when our mood takes a nosedive: fatty food helps us feel better.

In a study engineered to take all the fun out of emotional eating, researchers pumped saturated fat into participants’ stomachs after making them feel utterly dejected by playing heartbreaking music and showing them pictures of sad people. The study’s subjects were also hooked up to brain scan monitors known as fMRIs. The researchers found that minutes after the fat hit the volunteers’ stomachs, their moods improved, and their neurons perked up, too.

Though this study specifically examined the effects of fat on mood, past research has found similar mood-boosting effects with carbohydrates. When our stress level is sky-high, our body releases the hormone cortisol, which hikes insulin levels and makes us crave sugary carbohydrates. Research shows that even minor annoyances like losing our keys or having to sit in a noisy room is enough to trigger stress-fueled snacking. When eaten, carbohydrates stimulate the reward system of the brain, triggering the release of the feel-good chemical serotonin, which promotes relaxation.

Unfortunately, eating to your heart’s content when you’re feeling miserable probably isn’t going to do your waistline (or your heart) any favors. High levels of stress are already linked to a greater risk of heart disease and more abdominal fat -- a deadly combination. What’s more, a Georgetown University study on mice found that when fed the same diet, the stressed animals gained twice as much fat as the non-stressed mice! So it probably goes without saying that eating bad-for-you food isn’t the wisest coping strategy, since it isn’t going to permanently rid you of bad moods or stress (if only). And the only lasting effect it’s likely to have is on your arteries -- and your dress size.

While this study focused on saturated fat, other research suggests that good fats like fish oil may help ward off anxiety and depression. So the next time you find yourself in a foul mood, try to forget the cupcakes and splurge on some high-quality sushi instead (or give iVillage’s Stress-Reduction Diet a try).

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