I can only assume that with the abundance of information that is at our fingertips today, we are quite aware of what is good food and what is bad! We know a diet of natural foods; meat, fish, vegetables, fruit and wholegrain foods are far better for us than a diet comprised of confectionary items loaded with sugar and fast food soaked in oil washed down with a fizzy drink, and yes that includes ‘diet’ drinks. We know smoking is bad for us, that too much sitting down can kill us and that we are currently fighting an uphill battle with regard to the obesity and diabetes epidemic.

Despite this, many continue to maintain the same day to day dietary and physical activity habits. With this in mind, questions circulate – what is it that urges you to consume food that negatively impacts upon your health even though you have the choice? Why does your food shop remain the same despite you hoping for physical change? Why do you decide that a 6.00a.m. rise for the gym is too early even though your day is predominantly sedentary?  The answers here are without a doubt a multi-factorial that involve a range of issues including money, environment, facilities, capabilities, knowledge, commercialisation and availability to name a few. These factors relate to the more socio-economic aspects that are involved in the choosing of foods and in the participation in physical activity. The purpose of this article is to focus on the psychology of food choice; what is happening within one self that allows these choices to be made with a focus on mood, emotions and cravings in relation to food consumption.

Mood

Mood is characterized as a psychological arousal state lasting at least several minutes and usually longer, with dimensions that relate to energy, tension and pleasure (Reid and Hammersley, 1999). Food can alter mood that is present and occurring both before and after its consumption. When hungry it is known that individuals are irritable and where food is ingested mood reaches a point of satiety, calmness, lethargy and sometimes a sleepy state. When mood and food consumption was randomly monitored over a week a ten varying time points throughout each day, eating a meal was more likely to elicit a positive mood than a negative one, at least in the short term (Macht et al., 2004). Therefore reaching a positive mood may be the motivation for certain food consumption.

Habit

The majority of people are very habitual in their food choice, portion size and timing of meals Due to this; people have adopted a set of beliefs and expectations about the impact their dietary habits will have on them. Because of this, often times, this can affect physiological change where habit is challenged i.e. during periods of dieting.  The effect of meal size on mood appears inconclusive while Gibson and Green (2002) state that meal size has little impact on mood unless too little is eaten. Macht, (1996) found that a larger meal prevented deterioration in mood in people being stressed by noise. With that, ‘breaking the habit’ may be for some the greatest physical barrier to certain foodstuff consumption. This is an important element where kids are concerned; avoiding the development of a habit for example of consuming fizzy drinks with meals would prevent the development of expectations where meals are consumed. Imposing a healthy habit such as water consumption would be of more benefit.

What is happening in the brain?

Research shows that eating activates neural substrates in a similar mechanism to drug abuse – of course with a vast differentiating degree. The most evidenced neural substrates of reward are the dopamine, opioid and benzodiazepine/y-aminobutryic acid neurotransmitter systems.  Endogenous opioid neuropeptides are released during stress and are known to be important for adaptive effects such as pain resistance. It appears they are also involved in motivational and reward processes in eating behaviour such as stimulation of appetite by palatable foods.

However it remains speculative to conclude that adults choose sweet, fatty, palatable foods for opioid-mediated relief of stress based on previously conducted trials (Shaham et al., 2000). In addition, ingestion of a sweet, fatty, energy-dense food repeatedly was found to down-regulate an opioid pathway where experimented with rats suggesting that an adaptation to chronic activation of this appetitive pathway (Kelley et al., 2003).

Similarly, over consumption of palatable energy-dense food may down-regulate dopamine-receptors since their availability in the brain (striatum to be specific), has been shown to inversely correlate with BMI (Wang et al., 2001). Along with this, a questionnaire measuring ‘sensitivity to reward’ was found to be less in obese than among overweight people (Davis et al., 2004). This finding from Davis et al. (2004) suggests that chronic overeating may eventually lead to a less sensitivity to reward, although this measure was also correlated to emotional eating.

TAKE HOME MESSAGE

  • Recognising your mood state and being aware that you do not need to over indulge just because you are feeling a little irritable would be a good start to controlling food consumption.
  • If you are a habitual character and this is working for you well then great. Otherwise, see the change of habit as a potential mechanism to improving what you eat and when you eat.
  • Portion sizes larger than needed do not elicit any greater psychological effect than a smaller portion, to a point of satisfaction, so, train yourself to meet this point.
  • Although you might think that bag of chips or those sweet tooth fixes will solve your day, perhaps this is not the desire but a habit. Try taking a stroll instead!

ReferencesShow all

Davis, C., Strachan, S. and Berkson, M. (2004) Sensitivity to reward: implications for overeating and overweight. Appetite, 42, pp. 131-138.

Gibson, E.L. and Green, M.W. (2002) Nutritional influences on cognitive function: mechanisms of susceptibility. Nutrition Research Reviews, 15, pp. 169-206.

Kelley, A.E., Will, M.J., Steininger, T.L., Zhang, M. and Haber, S.N. (2003) Restricted daily consumption of a highly palatable food (chocolate Ensure) alters striatal encephalin gene expression. European Journal of Neuroscience, 18, pp. 2592-2598.

Macht, M. (1996) Effects of high- and low- energy meals on hunger, physiological processes and reactions to emotional stress.Appetite, 39, pp. 147-158.

Macht, M., Haupt, C. and Salewsky, A. (2004) Emotions and eating in everyday life: application of the experience-sampling method. Ecology and Food Nutrtition, 43, pp. 327-337.

Reid, M. and Hammersley, R. (1999) The effects of carbohydrates on arousal. Nutrition Research Reviews, 12, pp. 3-23.

Shaham, Y., Erb, S. and Stewart, J. (2000) Stress-induced relapse to heroin and cocaine seeking in rats: a review. Brain Research. Brain Research Reviews, 33, pp. 13-33.

Wang, G.J., Volkow, N.D., Logan, J., Pappas, N.R., Wong, C.T., Zhu, W., Netusil, N. and Fowler, J.S. (2001) Brain dopamine and obesity. The Lancet, 357, pp. 354-357.

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