Here's something to chew on as the National Football League prepares to kick off a new season Thursday night: Sports fans turn to junk food to console themselves when their team goes down to defeat, new research suggests.
In a series of studies, researchers found that both U.S. football and French soccer fans seem to consume extra fat and sugar in the wake of their favorite team's loss. Experts said depressed fans may be using comfort food as a way to deal with their emotions -- a tactic familiar to many people, sports lovers or not.
"Past research shows that when people are feeling down, they tend to consume comfort foods in order to feel better," said Yann Cornil, a Ph.D. candidate at the graduate business school INSEAD in Singapore.
In the case of sports, Cornil said, fans can take the team defeat as a "personal defeat" and threat to their self-esteem. On the other hand, fans of the winning team get a morale boost -- and may opt for healthier food.
Cornil and colleague Pierre Chandon found evidence of that in the first part of their study. Using data from Americans who took part in a nutrition study, they looked at how people's eating habits shifted when their city's National Football League team won or lost.
They found that on the Monday after a team loss, people ate 10 percent more calories and 16 percent more saturated fat, compared to their typical habits. In contrast, they ate slightly fewer calories and less saturated fat on the Monday after an NFL victory.
There were no such Monday fluctuations among people who lived in cities without an NFL team, the researchers reported in a recent online issue of the journal Psychological Science.
To dig deeper, Cornil and Chandon then recruited 78 French sports fans and asked them to write about a favorite team's victory or defeat. (Most of them chose a soccer team.) After their writing task was over, the men and women then worked on a word puzzle -- during which they could snack on their choice of chocolate, potato chips, grapes or cherry tomatoes.
In general, participants who'd written about a team defeat preferred junk food -- downing more saturated fat and sugar than those who'd written about a victory.
But is it a big deal if you prefer chips to grapes after your team loses?
"It could be an issue if a person regularly engages in these behaviors," said Kelly Pritchett, an assistant professor of sports nutrition at the University of Georgia.
Pritchett said that although junk food may not be on par with drugs, people who eat fat and sugar to regulate their emotions may, over time, need more and more to be satisfied.
And the consequences may show up on your bathroom scale, said Pritchett, who also is a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
So what can depressed sports fans do? Cornil's team found one potential answer.
In a third phase of the study, the researchers had about 160 French adults watch highlights from three different soccer matches. One featured the French national team in a big win over archrival Italy, another showed footage of France's loss to Italy in the 2006 World Cup final and the third was a "control" video that focused on two Belgian soccer teams.
Afterward, half of the study participants performed a "self-affirmation," in which they wrote about a core value in their life -- such as their relationships with their family or friends. Next, everyone in the study looked at photos of healthy and not-so-healthy foods, then rated how inclined they were to eat each.
It turned out that people tended to prefer junk food after they watched France's crushing defeat -- except those who'd done the self-affirmation. They preferred grapes and tomatoes to chips and chocolate, no matter what match they'd just seen.
"[Self-affirmation] helps you 'restore' your identity that has been threatened by the defeat of your favorite team," Cornil said. "In other words, affirming your values prevents the sport defeat from affecting your self-esteem."
The technique is easy to do, Cornil said. If you're feeling down after your team loses, he said, you could simply write down some things in your life that are important to you, other than football.
Pritchett said some studies have found that self-affirmation can be helpful for people with addictive behaviors such as smoking. So if fat and sugar are your addictions, it's possible that self-affirmation could help.
But, Pritchett said, more research is needed to see whether the technique actually does help people cut down on junk food during stressful times.
She suggested some other tactics for combating "emotional eating" such as:
- Writing down what you eat, so you become aware of how your diet changes in response to stress.
- Thinking ahead and having healthy snacks on hand if you know you're going to be in a stressful situation.
- Trying noncaloric stress relievers such as taking a walk, soaking in a bubble bath or doing yoga.