“I try to think before I eat, yet time after time, I find myself having just downed a whole box of cookies just because I’ve had a rough day,” said Meryl Gardner, Ph.D., a consumer psychology expert at the University of Delaware. “I had wanted to make myself feel better, but 15 minutes later I’m feeling much worse. Why am I so short-sighted when I’m in a bad mood?”

Gardner’s experience is a familiar one for anybody who struggles with emotional eating — the act of eating usually rich, fatty foods for comfort during times of stress, boredom or worse. To gain more insight into why people turn to “comfort food,” she conducted a series of four escalating experiments that examined how positive, negative and neutral moods affected food choice. Gardner also looked at how “temporal construal,” a concept that involves focusing on either the present or the future, affected food choice.

Gardner found that when she elicited bad moods among the participants (by having them read a sad story or writing in detail about things that make them sad), they were much more likely to choose indulgent snacks over healthy ones. No surprise there — bad moods indicate that there’s a problem, and rich food is one way to feel better about that problem in the short-term. She also found that happier people were more likely to choose healthier snacks and were more likely to say they want to stay healthy as they grow older.

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