Emotion regulation and dietary decision-making


Obesity is a global health issue, estimated to cause nearly three million annual deaths worldwide (Stevens et al., 2012). A key risk factor is poor diet, therefore it is important to investigate ways of improving dietary decisions and preferences. Previous studies have found that applying strategies used for cognitive and emotional regulation (e.g. reappraisal, which might involve thinking of the negative consequences of eating an unhealthy food) directly in response to images of foods can decrease the desire to consume unhealthy foods (Giuliani et al., 2013; Siep et al., 2012; Svaldi et al., 2015).    Incidental emotions (emotions that are unrelated to the food under consideration) may also impact food preference (Devonport et al., 2019), therefore the regulation of these emotions (incidental ER) has the potential to improve food choices. Morawetz et al. (2020) instructed participants to use reappraisal, an ER strategy that involves cognitively reframing a negative situation, in response to negatively-valenced images. They then viewed food images and indicated their desire to consume them. When participants used reappraisal, they indicated greater desire to consume tasty but healthy foods, compared to a condition in which they passively viewed the negative images – this provides initial evidence that employing ER strategies may improve food choice by boosting preference for healthy foods. However, the range of food stimuli in this study was limited, lacked an adequate control condition, and alternative ER strategies were not investigated.

Research Questions / Hypotheses

Does incidental emotion regulation reduce willingness to consume foods in general, or only foods that are considered to be unhealthy? If emotion regulation strategies reduce willingness to consume foods, is this a result of a reduction in negative emotion, or the regulation process itself?


288 participants participated in this study.


Prior to commencing the main task, participants completed a questionnaire assessing demographic information, eating habits, and emotion regulation tendencies.    Participants firstly completed complete a rating phase, in which they were shown images of various foods and asked to rate how tasty and healthy they perceive them to be. They then proceeded to the regulation phase, in which they were firstly randomly allocated to an ER strategy condition (either distraction or reappraisal) and viewed an explanation of how to use the according strategy. They then completed regulation trials – in each trial, a cue appeared, instructing participants to either “Look” (passively view) or “Regulate” (implement the ER strategy) in response to the upcoming image. A negative image then appeared (from the Nencki Affective Picture System; Marchewka et al., 2014; and the Socio-Moral Image Database; Crone et al., 2018) for 4 seconds, followed by a food image (a subset from the Food-Pics database; Blechert et al., 2014) and the question “How much do you want to consume this food right now?”. Participants indicated their desire for the food using a slider response scale.    There were additional trials, randomly interspersed with the main trials, in which no food image appeared, and after viewing the negative image participants instead responded to the question “How negative do you feel right now?”. This was to enable a control analysis to determine whether participants were effectively regulating their emotions.


The data will be analysed using a linear mixed effects model, using "willingness to consume" ratings as an outcome variable. This model will allow us to determine whether willingness to consume foods was influenced by factors such as perceived healthiness and tastiness, trial type (i.e., Look or Regulate), and regulation condition (i.e., Distraction or Reappraisal). We predict that participants will show lower willingness to consume foods directly after regulating their emotions, compared to directly after viewing them passively.


This research will further our understanding of the link between dietary decisions and emotions and give insight into the ability of emotion regulation strategies to reduce desire for unhealthy food. In the future, this may contribute toward the development of cognitive training programs that aim to improve people’s dietary choices and help people overcome cravings for unhealthy foods, which could ultimately help with the reduction of obesity rates.    The results will be available as published journal articles and conference presentations. These publications will be announced on our website and other media via the university.