Food and mood manipulation
Comfort food brings to mind meals that are warm, rich and flavorful. These go-to foods in times of stress evoke an atmosphere of relaxation and pleasant memories. However, the sights, smells or even flavors of the food aren’t the only reasons people feel good eating such meals—the fat helps as well.
Belgian and British researchers wanted to understand how fat affects mood, but they didn’t want to bias the results by invoking the senses. Working with a dozen volunteers, they used feeding tubes to get either a fatty solution or a control into people’s stomachs, and then monitored for any mood changes using brain scans.
Interplay among emotions
“These findings increase our understanding of the interplay among emotions, hunger, food intake and meal-induced sensations in health,” wrote the team led by University of Leuken, Belgium researcher Lukas Van Oudenhove, “which may have important implications for a wide range of disorders, including obesity, eating disorders and depression.”
After the volunteers had received the solutions, they listened to music that conveyed either sad or neutral emotions while looking at images that evoked the same emotions. The researchers then asked the participants to indicate how full or how hungry they felt, and to rate their moods.
The results indicated that the people who’d heard the sad music and were moved to feel the same way also felt hungry. However, the volunteers who’d been given the fat solution and heard the sad music didn’t feel as hungry as the others who were given the control solution. In short, the researchers said, the way people responded to the negative emotions in their environment was altered both mentally and physically.
Understanding how food affects mood is crucial because according to the World Health Organization, more than 300 million people around the world are obese, and controlling this condition involves more than just figuring out why people eat candy bars all day.
For example, another, unrelated study presented at a conference on eating and drinking behaviors held mid-July in Switzerland considered the saying not to go shopping on an empty stomach. Those who’ve heard the warning but have ended up at the supermarket during lunch or on the way home before dinner may have found themselves buying more than expected during such trips. The reason: higher levels of the gut hormone ghrelin were found to be associated with an increased willingness to pay for food because they triggered a part of the brain that rewarded people with positive emotions.
In a commentary from researchers from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases in the United States regarding the work from Van Oudenhove and his colleagues, Giovanni Cizza and Kristina Rother noted that the information gained from such studies, even with limitations such as the small number of participants, leads to a better understanding of the relationship between the food and the mind, and therefore the body as well.
“An attraction to comfort foods that alleviate stress and to deficient restorative sleep” cannot be blamed for the global overweight and obesity issues, they said. “Before indiscriminately engaging in mood-manipulating techniques, whether swallowing a pill or eating a hamburger, we need to interrogate ourselves on the evolutionary origins of emotions.”
The paper from Van Oudenhove and his colleagues, as well as the commentary from Cizza and Rother, were published in the August issue of the Journal of Clinical Investigation.
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