By Jennifer Rock, dietetic intern from Teachers College, Columbia University.

For a long time now, overindulging in food has been linked with negative emotions. However, a recent set of studies conducted by researchers in the Netherlands suggest that positive emotions may have as much, or more influence on how many unhealthy snacks we eat.

 The Experiments:

Three experiments were conducted. In the first, experimental groups of college students were shown film clips to induce positive emotions, while in the control group they viewed film clips which caused no emotion.  Participants were then given three bowls of junk food (M&Ms, gummies, and coated peanuts), which were weighed before and after the experiment to determine how much they ate.

In the second experiment, students were asked to remember a pleasant memory (group one), negative memory (group 2), or neutral memory (control), and discuss it in detail. Bowls of chocolate, chips, biscuits, and crackers were offered and weighed similarly to the first experiment.

Finally, in the third experiment, participants were asked to keep a 7-day food diary that focused on their snacking and the emotions they felt during their snacking. 

The Results:

In experiments1 & 2 researchers found that positive emotions triggered a higher intake of food compared with neutral emotions. Also of note, experiment 2 revealed that there wasn’t a difference between intakes of the positive emotion group and the negative emotion group.

Experiment 3 hoped to examine this effect in a real-world setting, and found that snacking following positive emotions occurred an average of almost 11 times per week, compared with snacking consumed following negative emotions, which only occurred around 4 times per week!

The Takeaway:

Be aware of the importance you place on certain foods.

There are several theories as to why positive emotion may be linked to an overindulgence of junk food. One belief is that positive emotions and food intake are linked early in life as positive feelings become associated with eating more food (Patel & Schlundt, 2001). Many cultures place a great importance on food during special occasions, such as weddings and birthdays that are generally accompanied by positive emotions (Rozin, 1999). Take, for example, a birthday cake served for every birthday party during your child’s life.  Children bring cupcakes to school as a celebration and one could not possibly think of a party without the sweets and pizza and chips and cookies that accompany it.  As a result, positive emotions and eating may have become inherently connected.

This doesn’t mean you need to take away the birthday cake, but it may mean that you might need to rethink the other snacks you provide.  Bowls of fruit and plates of veggies with a healthy dip, or sandwiches may be a great choice for a kids’ party.  Happy events in a child’s life can also be teaching events, where positive feelings can be linked to positive healthy food experiences.

Make mealtime a happy time.

The second explanation of this link between snacking and positive emotions can be derived from the observation that socializing and eating are tightly connected. This places a great importance on meals as a family.  Meals shouldn’t be a time of stress and anxiety, although they can easily be so for families struggling to get their child to eat their vegetables! Taking the emphasis off of what your child is eating, and allowing them to choose their food for themselves while enjoying a happy family meal together is a great way to link positive emotions to a healthy meal.