Boy breaks up with girl. Girl goes home and cries. Girl’s best friend brings over a pint of ice cream, and girl drowns her sorrows in the whole tub.
The stereotype may have been exhausted approximately forever ago, but new research suggests there’s science behind this classic romcom scenario. According to the study, mildly depressed people can’t tell the difference between high- and low-fat foods when they’re in a particularly negative (or positive) mood. The findings shed new light on the already complicated relationship between food and feelings, reminding us that eating is never just about fueling our bodies. Instead, our relationship to food involves complex psychological and biological factors that even scientists still don’t fully understand.
What’s the Deal?
The study is supposedly the first to test the effects of both affect (a neurophysiological state such as tension or relaxation) and mood (an affective state that may or may not have a specific cause, such as feeling irritable after an argument) on our sensitivity to different tastes. Researchers led by Petra Platte of the University of Wurzburg in Germany recruited 80 men and women and asked them to fill out a bunch of paperwork, including the Beck Depression Inventory (which measures depression), a self-report measure of anxiety, and a questionnaire about their bodies and lifestyles. Then everyone watched three different movie clips: a sad scene in which a boy watches his father die, a happy scene in which a man reunites with his girlfriend, and a neutral clip of a documentary about copper. After watching each of the movie clips, participants were asked to drink a series of liquids and report what they tasted like.
Turns out, those who scored higher on measures of anxiety and depression (and who didn’t have a clinical disorder) were more sensitive to sweet and bitter tastes after watching the happy and sad movies. But those same participants were less sensitive to the taste of fat after watching the happy and sad movies. In other words, they couldn’t tell the difference between high-fat and low-fat liquids. (The neutral movie had no effect on taste sensitivity.)
The researchers aren’t sure exactly how the relationship between mood, affect, and taste sensitivity works, but they think it has something to do with our neurotransmitter systems, or the chemicals in our brains. Moreover, they suggest that their findings might mean mildly depressed people are at special risk for unhealthy eating habits.
Why It Matters
This study is hardly the first to suggest a link between our thoughts and emotions and our eating habits. Back in 2006, researchers found drugs that upped levels of serotonin (a neurotransmitter related to mood regulation) increased people’s sensitivity to sweet and bitter tastes, while drugs that increased levels of noradrenaline (a stress hormone and neurotransmitter) made food taste more bitter and sour . Both neurotransmitters are thought to play a role in clinical depression, and news outlets across the globe reported that it might soon be possible to come up with a “taste test” for depression. This could help doctors figure out which drugs to administer based on people’s sensitivity to different tastes.
More recent research confirms the connection between affect and taste sensitivity and suggests severely obese patients who prefer sweet tastes more than others are also more likely to be clinically depressed . At the same time, it’s also worth noting that some researchers say non-clinical depression and anxiety doesn’t have any affect on our taste sensitivity  .
Still, even a bout of short-term stress has been shown to change our ability to detect certain tastes — though researchers aren’t yet certain as to how. While some research suggests food tastes less sweet when we’re stressed, another study found we’re actually more sensitive to sweet and salty tastes when we’re feeling harried  .
Beyond taste sensitivity, our mood and affect have a big impact on our relationship to food in general. Studies have found food is more rewarding when we’re stressed, and that eating fatty food can actually lift our spirits when we’re feeling blue  .
Together, all this research suggests that the way we’re feeling, in both the short and long term, can influence our preferences for certain foods over others. Every food choice we make — whether that’s eating a box of donuts for dinner or opting for the Cobb salad — is the result of complicated biological and psychological processes. But being aware of the decisions we’re apt to make when stressed or depressed can help us override our taste buds and make healthier choices. At the very least, we can choose to reach for an avocado instead of a plate of French fries.
Do you notice that your preferences for certain foods change when you’re stressed, depressed, or in a good mood? Let us know in the comments below or tweet the author at @ShanaDLebowitz.