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Why people eat junk food when they’re sad or lonely?

Posted April 28, 2019

Have you ever noticed that people start eating junk food after experiencing painful break ups? This phenomenon has been explored extensively in various movies and TV shows. And many people could testify that it is actually real – after breaking up, you want to binge on ice cream. But why? Scientists the University of New South Wales say that it is actually an interesting scientific phenomenon.

Sad people turn to unhealthy food because it is easily available and is believed to be comforting. Image credit: Rainer_Zenz via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Emotional events often end up with us overreacting and eating a lot of unhealthy food. We all do that but are not able to really explain why. We find that food comforting and improving our mood, but, interestingly, this phenomenon is researched not only by psychologists, but also by marketing researchers, who know it as ‘hedonic consumption’. It is a type of behaviour, motivated by the need to feel pleasure, enjoyment or fun. Emotions motivate your behaviour in many different ways. Particularly, sadness, which is felt in such moments as break ups, often leads to overconsumption.

This is actually not an entirely new concept. Sad people tend to binge on unhealthy food, making themselves even more miserable. That is why obese people often have long history of depression or even abuse. Break ups and other similar traumatic events are somewhat of a sudden shock, which leads to overconsumption. This is sometimes related to unhealthy snacks, but it can also be a retail therapy – an activity, introduced by pop culture. Various TV shows have popularized the idea that shopping is a lot of fun and is able to lift you up when you’re feeling down. On the other ends of the scale you will find happy people who turn to healthy food more often. But is hedonic consumption actually working? And what can be done to stop it?

Scientists say that providing more nutritional information about most popular snacks could curb hedonic consumption. People must be aware that their behaviour is driven by temporary emotional state, but will have long-term effects. Scientists say that eating and shopping does not really help to cope. It is a distraction rather than solution. Nitika Garg, researcher of the hedonic consumption, said: “Some research suggests hedonic consumption doesn’t help because it could lead to a vicious cycle of eating unhealthily and its associated guilt factors. Emotional consumption is usually food because it’s easily accessible and available to most people”.

You must learn to recognize your emotions and deal with them directly. Looking in food for comfort may lead to a vicious cycle, which will make you even sadder. Find the reason why you are emotionally distressed and deal with it rather than looking for a short yet harmful distraction.


Source: University of New South Wales

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