Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Using Food and Music to Cope

New research explores the link between emotional eating and music listening.

"You know what would make this day even better? Maybe later I can experience more shame, guilt, anger, sadness and distress. I am just not suffering enough. You know?"

Those are words said by pretty much no one, ever. As humans, we have a dominant preference for feeling positive emotions. We only want to feel bad in very limited circumstances, and even then for a very limited period of time (for instance when it might help us with an important goal). As such, the methods we use to cope with negative emotions are extremely important.

The appeal of emotional eating is that — of course — we love to eat tasty foods. Indeed, several neural effects associated with reward occur when people emotionally eat. It goes without saying though that eating to cope with emotions ("emotional eating") can have a wide range of negative consequences.

Music is another common means of coping with negative emotions. People are more likely to choose to listen to sad music if they are experience negative emotions. And, there is evidence that at least in some cases, for some people, doing so can have useful consequences, such as acceptance of a negative situation and one's associated feelings. This method also is accompanied by neural signals that are associated with reward.

Recent research headed by Annemieke van den Tol, a lecturer in psychology at De Montfort University (UK) and collaborators tested some potential relationships between music listening and emotional eating.

The results indicated that people who tend to listen to angry or sad music also tend to be the same people who engage in emotional eating. Among emotional eaters, listening to music for a wide variety of reasons (entertainment, diversion) was associated with better mental health (less stress and sadness). Emotional eaters who were less emotionally healthy tended to listen to a more narrow range of music focusing on sadness and anger.

Among people who engage in emotional eating, listening to music that is distracting and entertaining is more psychologically healthy than listening to music that is angry or sad. As such, a next step in research is to test if using music for these former strategies could help reduce emotional eating.


van den Tol, A. J., Coulthard, H., & Hanser, W. E. (2018). Music listening as a potential aid in reducing emotional eating: An exploratory study. Musicae Scientiae. DOI: 1029864918780186.