Food, Mood + The Brain

Clinical Psychologist Subiaco Perth Eating mood disorder.png


Hi there, and a Happy New Year to you all. We’ve been a bit quiet here on the blogging front at The Skill Collective as we’ve been enjoying an extended holiday over the festive period.

The start of each new year often brings a host of resolutions, and not surprisingly, food often features heavily for many (as it did during our own festive celebrations!). From eating less or dieting, to sticking to a healthy eating plan, to have more control over eating, or to rely less on food for comfort, our relationship with food can at times be complicated.

So, naturally, this month we’re focusing on food and you, looking specifically at: (1) Food, mood, and the brain; (2) How to make diets work; and (3) What you need to know about eating disorders.

Let’s kick things off by looking at Food, Mood, and the Brain. Below we’re looking at reasons why we trip up when it comes to eating, and check out some tips to help your relationship with food.

Food and the brain

At its essence, the process of hunger and satiety goes a bit like this - our body signals to our brain when our energy stores are diminished, the brain releases chemicals to trigger a desire to eat, we eat to replenish our energy stores, and when we have had enough the brain signals for us to stop eating.[1] 

Of course, the food and brain relationship isn't that simple - we all recognise that there are triggers other than hunger that lead us to eat. Perhaps you eat because:

  • It’s breakfast time, lunch time, or dinner time (i.e. ‘structured’ meal times).

  • The thought of a particular food (e.g. chocolate, nachos, watermelon) has popped into your head and you have to act on it.

  • The food is just sitting there in front of you, staring you in the face (buffet, anyone?).

  • You’re working to a tight deadline and mindlessly snacking at the same time.

  • You’re bored and can’t think of anything else to do.

  • You’re upset and want to feel the comfort of a full tummy.

  • You’re stressed and looking to chew on something and/or procrastinate.

  • You’re out with your friends and they want cheesecake…now! It wouldn’t be polite if you didn’t join in, right?

Clearly, the relationship between food intake and the brain is a complex one that reaches far beyond simple hunger. There exist both external and internal cues that influence when we eat, what we eat, and how much we eat. Internal cues may include hunger, mood, and thoughts about food, while external cues may include seeing food, time of day, and even social cues.

Why we COMFORT EAT - turnING to food when we’RE UPSET

Emotions often act as a trigger for eating - research has shown that stress can trigger an increase in desire to eat, with a preference for high caloric foods including palatable, non-nutritious foods. [2],[3] 

Of course, the relationship between stress and eating isn’t a straightforward one. Whether you end up eating when you feel stressed is also determined by other psychological factors including how much restraint you exercise, how disinhibited you feel, and how effective your attempts to control eating are.[2],[3]

Furthermore, stress isn’t the only emotion linked with eating. Feeling down (upset, sad, worried, lonely, discouraged) and feeling agitated (on edge, irritated, angry, nervous) have also been identified as triggers for emotional eating.[4] 

Eating in response to emotions can often be an automatic process (Feel upset/angry/bored --> Reach for comfort food) and it may help to reflect on the origins of this behaviour:

  • Was it something that you developed when you were a child, where food was used as a reward to make you feel better?

  • Or was it a case of using food as a way of procrastinating, to avoid being stuck at your computer facing yet another assignment deadline?

By tuning in to how the Feel bad --> Eat relationship has evolved over the years you get that much closer to breaking the link.

Simple tips to help your relationship with food

Based on the link between food and the brain, and mood and food, here are some simple tips to keep in mind:

1. Be mindful of the internal and external cues that trigger your desire to eat. It isn’t always hunger, so tune in to exactly what is going on (stress, anxiety, boredom, social cues, timing).

2. Tune in to established patterns such as Feel bad --> Eat; examine where these come from and watch out for future triggers.

3. Find alternatives to help you manage negative moods rather than resort to eating.

4. Plan ahead if external cues trigger your food intake when you’re not hungry. For example, just because all your friends are having cheesecake at a coffee catch-up doesn’t mean that you have to as well. Think about making a simple swap with your food choice or suggest a different activity instead, one that doesn’t involve eating at a time when you’re not usually hungry. 

Keep an eye out for our next post which will be on how to make diets work.


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[1] Woods, S.C., Seeley, R.J., Porte, D., & Schwartz, M.W. (1998). Science, 280, 1378-1383.

[2] Groesz, L., McCoy, S., Carl, J., Saslow, L., Stewart, J., Adler, N., Laraia, B., & Epel, E. (2012). What is eating you? Stress and the drive to eat. Appetite, 58, 717-721.

[3] Adam, T.C., & Epel, E. (2007). Stress, eating and the reward system. Physiology & Behavior, 91, 449-458.

[4] Koball, A.M., Meers, M.R., Storfer-Isser, A., Dormoff, S.E., & Musher-Eizenman, D.R. (2012). Eating when bored: Revision of the Emotional Eating Scale with a focus on boredom. Health Psychology, 31, 521-524.