Years ago in our family hedge fund business, we hired an assistant named Anne who was a terrific asset to the team and lots of fun to work with. We had a good time churning out projects. She was also very pretty (with gorgeous hair, electric blue eyes, and creamy skin) and maybe 50 pounds overweight. Anne wasn’t happy with her weight but couldn’t get herself to stick to any diet. She’d laugh and say, “I think I just have to accept that I love ice cream more than I love the idea of myself as a skinny girl!”

After a few years Anne moved on to launch her own business and we didn’t see her for several months. Then one day as I took a lunch break on the beach, someone called my name. I looked around, didn’t recognize a soul, and kept walking until I heard my name again. When I turned around this time, a woman was jogging to catch up. It wasn’t until she stood directly in front of me that I realized it was Anne—looking as if she’d just stepped out of a Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. Slim and toned, she had curves in all the right places; her body looked long and lean. Her face, minus the excess weight, revealed high, chiseled cheekbones, enormous eyes that took center stage over a perfect nose, and a chin that delicately gave shape to everything above it.

We hugged, then Anne stepped back. “What do you think?” she said, turning 360 degrees.

“I think you finally decided you don’t love ice cream so much! You found a diet that works,” I smiled. “Congratulations. What did the trick?”

At this Anne’s face became serious. “Depression.”

Anne’s answer sounds counterintuitive, but research supports what she discovered: Sorrow can be a powerfully effective enhancement to any diet regime.

In research led by Professor Brian Wansink at Cornell University, 86% of participants sought comfort foods—ice cream, cookies, and chocolate for women; ice cream, soup, and pizza/pasta for men—when they were happy versus only 36% who ate comfort foods when depressed.

A new study published in the Journal of Consumer Research suggests you can combat destructive eating habits by being a little bit sad. The story goes like this:

Researchers exposed participants to indulgent or neutral words or images. For example, one group looked at print ads that featured pleasurable foods like pizza or chocolate cake, while another was fed images featuring washing machines and electric cars. Immediately following, participants engaged in a writing exercise designed to make them feel sad. At the end of the assignment, participants were offered indulgent foods, including M&M’s and chocolate chip cookies.

Those participants who were initially exposed to pleasurable information (made to feel good) and subsequently made to feel sad experienced (1) a decrease in indulgent food consumption, and (2) an increase in recognizing how consuming such decadent foods might lead to health issues. Conversely, the group exposed to neutral images and then made to feel sad increased their indulgent food consumption.

Study authors Anthony Salerno and Juliano Laran from the University of Miami, and Chris Janiszewski from the University of Florida, conclude: “When people who are sad are exposed to pictures of indulgent food or indulgent words, their sadness highlights the negative consequences of indulging and encourages them to indulge less.”

So there’s science behind Anne’s response, as well as a good bit of urban-myth debunking: We are actually more indulgent when we’re happy. In Anne’s case, she reported that eating all the fun things she used to indulge in didn’t seem fun in her depressed state. Disconnected from the joy of her usual robust appetite, she watched the pounds melt off.

Whether you’re too sad to eat or more aware of the consequences because you’re sad, the moral to (the science of) the story suggests that a revision in our perspective on both indulgent foods and how to manage a propensity to overconsume them may be in order. Wansink’s exploration of our urge to overeat goes beyond the science of why we do it. His book, Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think (Bantam), suggeststhat we don’t overeat just because we’re hungry. Often, we overeat because we don’t focus on what we’re eating. In guidelines he offers to the American Heart Association, Wansink’s solution is to become more proactive about your experience with food. Among his recommendations:

  • Chew more slowly, and take the time to savor each bite.
  • Pay attention to your dish rather than other technological distractions like television and cellphones.
  • Use smaller plates and serving utensils.
  • Put away serving dishes so you’re not tempted with more.
  • Eat when you’re hungry, and prepare healthy snacks in advance so you can make positive decisions.

Anne’s period of depression is long gone now, but she remains at a healthy, comfortable, and beautiful weight. When I ask what’s changed in her eating habits, she responds, “Well, I still love ice cream! But I also love how I feel at this weight. The desire to hold on to this feeling helps me make better choices.”

Certainly, mood can influence behavior, but as Anne has discovered, the element of choice always exists. To begin, we can choose to become more mindful of what, how, when, and why we eat. Then we can extend that mindfulness to noticing our moods and also changing our response to them.

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