Another Potential Benefit of Gratitude: Healthier Eating
Gratitude-based interventions could help improve eating habits.
Posted Nov 15, 2018
Thanksgiving is around the corner. I don’t know about you, but on that day I plan to put on my Joey Tribbiani’s Thanksgiving pants and get ready to eat too much turkey, stuffing, gravy, and mashed potatoes. More importantly, the holiday is a time to count our blessings and give thanks—even if we have not felt as healthy, happy, and fulfilled this past year as we would have liked. For instance, many people have been struggling with losing weight and adopting healthy eating habits.
Previous research has shown that positive psychology interventions can help us feel better and live healthier. New research by Fritz and colleagues in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology expands on this work, examining the effects of gratitude on diet. The results suggest that spending only a few minutes engaging in a gratitude activity (specifically, writing a "gratitude letter") can motivate healthy food choices.
Feelings of gratitude and healthy eating
In the first study, which involved university students, those who felt more grateful showed healthier eating habits. However, because the intervention used failed to increase feelings of gratitude, a second study was conducted using a stronger gratitude intervention.
The second study required 1,017 9th- and 10th-graders to reflect on a benefactor’s support and read testimonials about the benefits of gratitude. Researchers randomly assigned study participants to one of three gratitude conditions—all requiring the completion of a weekly five-minute gratitude activity—and a control condition.
In the gratitude conditions, more specifically, participants wrote letters of thanks to a benefactor who had either expressed kindness (e.g., showed care during a difficult breakup), had offered academic help, or had provided help related to one's health and wellbeing. In the control condition, participants were instructed only to list their daily activities.
Participants in gratitude conditions were additionally expected to spend 30 minutes a week working toward improving themselves in an area related to their letter of appreciation (e.g., those in the academic condition worked on academics). In contrast, control participants worked on becoming better organized.
Results showed that those in gratitude groups (compared to control group) tended to report healthier eating over time. And, although the differences were not large, they also reported experiencing less negative emotion and more positive emotion (including feelings of gratefulness).
However, the relationship between healthy eating and gratitude exercises was only “marginally significant” at the three-month follow-up—so any continued benefit probably requires doing gratitude exercises regularly.
Feeling grateful helps regulate emotions
Why might gratitude result in healthier eating? One possible mechanism involves an indirect route: Through the effects of thankfulness on negative emotions. Negative emotional states make it difficult for people to regulate their eating. Being thankful reduces unpleasant feelings. So gratitude practices (e.g., writing a letter of appreciation) could facilitate adopting healthy habits, including healthy eating, by reducing negative affect—nervousness, fear, anger, guilt, sadness, general distress, etc.
When we feel upset, such as after an argument, we are more likely to engage in emotional eating. This includes eating fatty, sweet, and salty comfort food (i.e. junk food).
For example, after a bad date, you might feel rejected or worthless and experience a powerful sense of loneliness or shame. But if you spend several minutes recalling how a benefactor (a coworker, relative, friend) acted in a deeply caring way toward you, it may reduce your pain. Once in a better mood, you may no longer feel as inclined to self-soothe with unhealthy behavior.
Do not expect short gratitude exercises to heal your depression, cure your anxiety, or turn you into a super-healthy eater in a matter of days. But reflecting on how thankful and appreciative you are for the kindness you have received may, over time, result in change for the better.
Fritz, M. M., Armenta, C. N., Walsh, L. C., & Lyubomirsky, S. (in press). Gratitude facilitates healthy eating behavior in adolescents and young adults. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. doi: 10.1016/j.jesp.2018.08.011