What Nicki Minaj, Ariana Grande and Sam Smith's music can do for you when you're tempted to stress eat

Listening to your favourite songs may help you avoid comfort eating.
Listening to your favourite songs may help you avoid comfort eating.
Getty Images/Eugenio Marongiu
  • Emotional eating is fairly common, although most people dig into unhealthy foods and snacks when stress strikes. 
  • New research suggests that listening to music can help you avoid overeating when feeling down or stressed.
  • A study showed that comfort-eaters who listened to music ate less than those who sat in silence before being given snacks.

You’re stressed about meeting a deadline. You and your best friend just got into a fight. Or you’re simply bored and reach for a bar of chocolate or bag of salty chips. Whatever the trigger of your emotional eating, the next time you’re about to race to the pantry for something to eat, consider bringing out your playlist.

Music can be a medicine for your soul, but it’s also a healthy alternative if you have emotional eating tendencies, according to the findings of a new study.

It’s common for us to reach for food when we’re feeling down, stressed or simply tired. As Healthline explains, because our bodies need food to survive, eating lights up the reward system in your brain and makes you feel better.

READ MORE | How to put the brakes on 'emotional eating'

Unfortunately, in your attempt to soothe your emotions, you’re likely to overeat, especially on foods high in sugar and unhealthy fats with low nutritional value. 

But there are some coping strategies, like keeping a food diary, taming your stress and snacking on healthy foods. And as researchers recently discovered, music can be a powerful tool to stop you from powering through your snack drawer to feed your feelings.

The team from the University of Lincoln and De Montfort University recruited 360 women to find out how food and music can be used to alleviate negative emotions.

Choosing three songs

All the participants were asked to list three songs they regularly listened to when they were sad or stressed. 

Then, they were asked to recall sad memories. Following this, they listened to their pre-selected music for three minutes, while a control group was left in silence for the same duration. The next step was to take part in a snack test, although they were told that the snacks were there simply for their enjoyment and didn’t form part of the research.

Those who ate in silence consumed over eight grams of snack foods, such as crisps, chocolate, popcorn and sweets; on the other hand, the group that listened to music ate significantly less – between four and five grams.

READ MORE | A dietician’s tips on how to manage stress and anxiety with food

Emotions play a crucial role in overeating, yet there is little research to understand practical strategies for reducing overeating in response to a negative mood, such as stress, sadness, boredom or anxiety, say the researchers.

Lead author of the study, Dr Annemieke Van den Tol, senior psychology lecturer at the University of Lincoln, explained in a university news release:

Our research indicates the possibility that music listening may also be used effectively to reduce the urge to overeat. I hope this research will ultimately support people to use healthier strategies for coping with negative moods and emotions.

The genre of the music, however, was an important factor in Van den Tol and colleagues’ study.

Genre of music

The three songs participants were asked to select had to fit three categories:

  • Solace (a song that the individual found soothing).
  • Diversion (distracting positive music).
  • Discharge (angry or sad music to listen to when wanting to blow off some steam).

When a participant was sad, the discharge category of music led to the least amount of emotional eating. When stressed, a participant tended to eat the lowest amounts when listening to music in the solace category.

As per the Telegraph, the most popular music chosen by the group was by Stormzy and Nicki Minaj, while Ariana Grande’s music was a common choice for diversion. Ed Sheeran’s music was commonly chosen for discharge, and Lana Del Ray for solace.

Amy Winehouse’s Back To Black, Eminem’s Mockingbird, Linkin Park’s In The End, Coldplay’s Fix You and Sam Smith’s Lay Me Down also made the list, the Independent reports.

“Many people turn to various genres of music as a self-medication when they experience negative emotions,” says Van den Tol. “This can be a helpful and effective avenue for releasing or alleviating sadness, stress or anger.”

It’s not exactly clear how music helps you to eat less, but researchers hypothesise that it could be linked to the release of the ‘happy’ hormones, dopamine and serotonin.

The findings of the study were presented at the British Science Festival hosted by De Montfort University in Leicester this year.

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