03/20/2013 02:30 pm ET

Comfort Eating Could Make You Feel Worse In The Long Run, Research Finds


We've all done it: come home from a difficult day and sought comfort in the form of our favorite junk food -- lots of it.

But new research out of Penn State suggests that binge eating can make you feel worse instead of better. Psychology research associate Kristin E. Heron, research associate Stacey B. Scott, professor of human development and family studies Martin J. Sliwinski and professor of biobehavioral health Joshua M. Smyth presented their findings on March 15th at the American Psychosomatic Society conference in Miami.

The team worked with 127 college-aged women who had "high levels of unhealthy eating habits and concerns about their body shape and weight," but did not meet the clinical criteria for an eating disorder diagnosis. Each woman was given a hand-held computer device that would prompt them to answer questions about their mood and eating behaviors five times a day for one week. They found that participants' moods were significantly worse after they had engaged in binge eating or "lost control" over their eating.

"There was little in the way of mood changes right before the unhealthy eating behaviors," Heron said in a press release. "However, negative mood was significantly higher after these behaviors."

A 2006 study from Ball State University investigating the relationship between stress and eating in college-aged women found that 62 percent of respondents reported an increased appetite when under stress. Furthermore, only 33 percent of respondents ate healthily when stressed, preferring sweet foods or processed items. A 2007 paper from UCSF posited that the reward value of certain foods depends on a person's mood. Participants attributed greater "reward value" to junk foods when they were experiencing stress than when they were not.

The new study indicates that we may perceive stress eating to be more rewarding than it actually is. The research suggests that unhealthy eating triggered by stress can make a bad mood worse instead of better.

"This study is unique because it evaluates moods and eating behaviors as they occur in people's daily lives, which can provide a more accurate picture of the relationship between emotions and eating," Smyth said in the same press release. "The results from this study can help us to better understand the role mood may play in the development and maintenance of unhealthy eating, and weight-control behaviors, which could be useful for creating more effective treatment programs for people with eating and weight concerns."