Food and Your Mood

Why moods can tempt you to indulge -- and what to do about it

By Pamela Donegan
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD

It's one of those days. Deadlines looming. Meetings all morning. The boss on a rampage. Your assistant out sick. Your inbox overflowing. And it's only Monday afternoon!

You're overwhelmed and exhausted, and all you can think about is that candy bar stashed in your desk drawer. You reach for it, your mouth watering in anticipation. You're sure it's just the thing to boost your energy and calm your nerves.

But is it really? Not according to Robert Thayer, PhD, professor of psychology at California State University in Long Beach and author of Calm Energy: How People Regulate Mood with Food and Exercise. Thayer's research has shown that the boost in mood people get from sweet snacks like your candy bar is short lived at best.

"In fact, in one study, we found that people were more tense and tired an hour after they had eaten a candy bar than before it," says Thayer.

So why do we crave sweet snacks at times of stress? For one, they taste great. OK, that's a no-brainer, but a megadose of sugar does more than tickle your taste buds. It actually stimulates your brain's pleasure center while temporarily lowering your body's sensitivity to pain. Healthcare professionals who work with newborns often take advantage of this by putting sugar drops on an infant's tongue to ease the distress caused by medical procedures.

It isn't just the sugar, though. High-fat content in food also creates pleasurable sensations and lessens pain. In a 1997 study in Britain, volunteers who ate high-fat pancakes an hour and a half before dunking their hands into ice-cold water reported less discomfort than others who had eaten equally caloric, but low-fat, pancakes.