How Mood Affects Food

This week Nutrition Diva, Monica Reinagel, joins the Savvy Psychologist to reveal how our emotions affect what we eat.  

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
7-minute read
Episode #18

Today we have a very special guest with us. Please welcome my new friend and fellow Quick and Dirty Tips podcast host, Monica Reinagel, otherwise known as Nutrition Diva.  .

Savvy Psychologist: Today, I’m going to take full advantage of having Nutrition Diva here to ask questions I’ve had for a long time about the connection between food and mood. And I’ll bet you a kale smoothie you probably have the same questions, too.  First, why is it so hard to make healthy food choices when we're in a bad mood, stressed, or in a hurry? How can we do better during these times?

Nutrition Diva: First of all, your observation is right on the money, Ellen. It is really hard to make healthy food choices when we’re emotionally off-kilter and a number of different factors—both psychological and physiological—come into play.

Let’s start with the physiological aspects. We’ve all heard of “stress hormones,” chemicals that our bodies produce when we’re under emotional or psychological pressure – or when we don’t get enough sleep. When we experience ongoing, psychosocial stress—feeling overextended or under-appreciated, having to deal with difficult people, feeling out of control, and that sort of thing—our adrenal glands increase production of a hormone called cortisol.

One of the effects of cortisol is that it increases appetite, particularly for foods that are high in fat and sugar. So when your boss chews you out for something that’s not your fault, it’s no coincidence that you find yourself heading to the vending machine for a king-size chocolate bar.

One way to combat cortisol-fueled stress eating is to make sure you’re getting enough sleep. People who are chronically under-rested have higher cortisol levels—and increased appetite. Regular exercise, meditation, spending time with friends, and other stress-management tools are also helpful. These practices don’t necessarily remove stressors from your life, but they can help you—and your hormones—be a bit more resilient to life’s inevitable stresses.

In addition to affecting our hormones levels, bad moods also affect our cognitive and decision-making processes. Meryl Gardner and her colleagues at Cornell University have demonstrated that when you’re in a good mood, you’re more likely to make healthy food choices. Why?

To a certain extent, making healthy food choices involves making a short-term sacrifice (such as forgoing that second or third chocolate chip cookie) for future benefits (like feeling good when we step on the scale or get the results of our cholesterol test). But when we’re in a bad mood, those future rewards just seem less compelling than the concrete but short-lived pay-off from eating the cookie.

The good news is that it works both ways! Gardner’s group found that taking steps to improve your mood before you make a food choice can help you make better choices. Try thinking of something that you’re grateful for, something that makes you happy, or something you’re looking forward to—and you may find it easier to choose a healthier option.

People who are chronically under-rested have higher cortisol levels—and increased appetite. 

Finally, in a harried and hurried world, a lot of our poor food choices really boil down to poor planning. You can’t eat healthy food if there’s no healthy food in the house. And waiting until you’re half-starved to start thinking about what you’re going to eat doesn’t tend to lead to great decision making, either. Deciding when and what you’re going eat (and taking steps to procure and prepare it) ahead of time can make a huge difference in how well you eat. I have more strategies in my episode called The Power of Planning.

SP: I do pretty well on the planning, but who knew that sleep and food were so connected?  That gives me yet another reason to get to bed earlier. Next up: what are the most common problematic mindsets around food, and what can we do about them?  For example, more than once, I’ve caught myself thinking "It's healthy, so I can eat more!"  


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.