Most people could tell you that digging a spoon into pint of ice cream can be the best way to cope when life gets tough—whether it be after a bad breakup, a long day at work, or an emotional movie scene that’s causing you to get upset. When rational, most people also know that each heaping, comforting spoonful of mint chocolate chip ice cream comes with an onslaught of fattening calories.
New studies have shown, however, that your decision to ignore fat content in favor of comfort may not be entirely your fault. Research has revealed that these temporary periods of intense sadness can cloud your ability to taste or register the amount of fat you are eating. The study gathered 80 men and women between the ages of 19 and 47 who already reported feeling slightly blue.
Researchers exposed the participants to sweet, sour, bitter, umami, and fatty flavors in different concentrations while showing them one boring video, one happy video and then one sad video. After the latter two showings, participants were able to distinguish the difference between the various concentrations of each flavor except for the fatty drink.
How does it work? Strong emotions have the ability to confuse taste perception—stress heightens your ability to detect bitter, sweet and sour tastes in foods. This heightened perception is useful in situations where danger triggers a stress response, as it protects the body from poisonous substances.
In the case of stress-eating, however, this response can be disastrous for your waistline, because as your sensitivity to bitter foods increases, the ability to distinguish fat levels in food diminishes drastically. These findings aligned with other studies that have indicated that the prevalence of people who are both overweight and clinically depressed may not be a coincidence.
So, next time you come home at the end of a long day feeling blue, think twice before reaching for that bag of chips as a hopeful pick-me-up. Or, at least be aware of how your taste buds will react when you do.