Studies have examined the associations between emotions and overeating but have only rarely considered associations between emotions and specific food choices. The purpose of this secondary data analysis was to use mobile ecological momentary assessments (mEMAs) to examine associations between emotions and food choices among first-year college students living in residence halls.
Using an intensive repeated-measures design, mEMAs were used to assess concurrent emotions and food choices in a racially/ethnically diverse sample of first-year college students (n = 663). Emotions were categorized as negative (sad, stressed, tired), positive (happy, energized, relaxed), and apathetic (bored, meh). Assessments were completed multiple times per day on four quasi-randomly selected days (three random weekdays and one random weekend day) during a 7-day period using random prompt times. Generalized estimating equations (GEE) were used to examine between- and within-person associations of emotional status with a variety of healthy and unhealthy food choices (sweets, salty snacks/fried foods, fruits/vegetables, pizza/fast food, sandwiches/wraps, meats/proteins, pasta/rice, cereals), adjusting for gender, day of week, and time of day, accounting for within-person dependencies among repeated measurements of eating behavior.
At the between-person level, participants who reported positive emotions more frequently compared to others consumed meats/proteins more often (OR = 1.8; 99% CI = 1.2, 2.8). At the within-person level, on occasions when any negative emotion was reported (versus no negative emotion reported) participants were more likely to consume meats/proteins (OR = 1.5, 99% CI = 1.0, 2.1); on occasions when any positive emotion was reported as compared to occasions with no positive emotions, participants were more likely to consume sweets (OR = 1.7, 99% CI = 1.1, 2.6), but less likely to consume pizza/fast food (OR = 0.6, 99% CI = 0.4, 1.0).
Negative and positive emotions were significantly associated with food choices. mEMA methodology provides a unique opportunity to examine these associations within and between people, providing insights for individual and population-level interventions. These findings can be used to guide future longitudinal studies and to develop and test interventions that encourage healthy food choices among first-year college students and ultimately reduce the risk of weight gain.