Why bad moods and stress lead to diet slip-ups

woman lying on sofa and eating comfort foodsWeight loss and diet slip ups go hand in hand, but have you ever wondered why slip ups usually happen when you’re in a bad mood or under a lot of stress?

That it happens is hardly news to anyone who has ever dieted, including me.

I have no difficulty sticking to my diet at all – except when I’m very upset or stressed out. In that case I give up all attempts at healthy and productive behaviors and become one big chocolate-consuming, tv-watching slob. In the worst case my diet lapse can last as long as two weeks, so it also has long term consequences for my weight control.

Today I want share with you a piece of research I just read. It sheds some light on the issue of diet slip ups.* The research paper also reveals why it’s not a good idea in the long run to use food to control your emotions.


Emotionally distressed dieters are not the only ones likely to succumb to temptation. That holds true for many behaviors that require self control: abstaining from alcohol, smoking, procrastination, gambling and compulsive shopping just to name a few.

Researchers have several theories for explaining why people lose self control when they are emotionally upset. One such theory holds that emotional distress somehow gives rise to self-destructive behaviour. Another theory states that  it happens because you only have a limited amount of willpower/self control which is depleted under emotional upset or stress.

The last theory is that loss of self control is a strategic choice: when upset or stressed out, people simply choose emotion control over impulse control.

In other words, when things go down the drain people are more likely to decide that it’s more important to improve your mood than stick to your diet.

The researchers devised an ingenious experiment to test the theories. They created an experimental situation in which participants were led to believe that they could not change their mood for as long as an hour  (by using a placebo pill or aromatherapy candle that ostensibly “froze” their moods).  Part of the participants were “put” into bad mood, others in a good mood or neutral mood. Then the researchers measured how likely the participants were to give in to temptation by eating unhealthy snacks (or procrastinating on a task).

The result was that people where more likely to eat unhealthy snacks if they were upset. However, if the participants were also led to believe that they couldn’t improve their bad mood, they weren’t any likelier to eat snacks than people in neutral or good moods.

The researchers concluded that people consumed the unhealthy snacks in an attempt to lift their spirits. In emotional distress, emotion control was more important than the long term goal of weight control.


All this may not be very surprising to anyone who has read this far.

What bothered the researchers and what bugs me is that eating snacks didn’t really improve the participants’ mood in the study. There is also plenty of other research that has come to the same conclusion: eating doesn’t help improve your mood that much – the pleasure you gain by consuming your favorite foods may last only as long as it takes for you to chew the food.

In other words, eating as a form of emotion control is pretty useless. (I came to the same conclusion in my earlier post. )

In the last paragraph of the paper, the researchers conclude:

Because the long term costs of abandoning control can far outweigh and outlast the short-term gain in affect, this pattern may well constitute a legitimate and powerful instance of self-defeating behavior. —- Some people may end up paying a very high price for a better mood (p. 65).


This put me in a mood for thinking very seriously about learning better ways to control my emotions and stress.

Question: What triggers your diet slip ups?

*Tice, D.M., Bratslavsky, E. & Baumeister, R.F. (2001): Emotional Distress Regulation Takes Precedence Over Impulse Control: If You Feel Bad, Do It! Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: 80 (1), 53-67.


  1. Satu, I definitely relate to this.

    Like you say… I do realise that when upset or stressed I make a conscious decision to eat something unhealthy because I think that a ‘treat’ will pep me up. And it does – while I’m eating it. And then it’s gone and usually my mood will return to what it was before.

    My biggest challenge is reminding myself of this in the moment when the insane part of my mind is telling me how much I ‘deserve’ a bag of corn chips or chocolate to help me feel better. (Help me wallow is more like it!)

    I love these posts and that you’re able to source this information and summarise it so the less technical of us (ie. me!) can understand.

    Thank you!!!

    • Satu says:

      Hi Deb!

      I’m hoping that the next time I get really upset I will remember the research and be motivated to act differently.

      It’s also interesting that every time I eat my favorite treats I expect it to be more enjoyable than it actually is, whether I’m upset or eating just fo fun. I expect more than I get, and the fun lasts usually about 5 minutes…

  2. Marion says:

    Hi Satu!

    Well, I am currently of the camp of people who think that maybe it is a good thing to get crabby sometimes. Maybe people should know that we are not happy with what is happening. Crabbiness has often gotten me to get moving on something that is bothering me. Men are allowed to be crabby about things. I vote that we women show are true colors by feeling our crankiness instead of bottling what disturbs us up inside and then heavily sedating ourselves with food for comfort. And, yes, if we are the “skinny b” when we confront our feelings, oh well. 😀

    🙂 Marion

    • Satu says:

      You’re right, Marion! For some reason it is difficult to me to tolerate negative emotions. I intend to change that though!

  3. Such wonderful food for thought Satu. Thanks for this post! Hope you have a great week.

    • Satu says:

      You’re welcome, Roz! 🙂

  4. Aimee says:

    I am almost ashamed of myself reading this. I have tried to convince myself a million times “I’ll just eat this treat and I’ll feel better.” I never ever feel better after eating an unhealthy treat out of stress or emotion. Hormonal sweet/salty cravings can trigger me to eat mindlessly and then I am forced to deal with the regret. When will I learn? I am going to remember this article Satu.

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