Pizza, wings, chips, soda, beer — watching sports is already tied to unhealthy eating habits. For those who love sports, watching their favorite team is a weekend ritual. But have you found yourself gravitating toward the fridge to engage in some “emotional eating” after a big loss? Did you know that being a fan of a losing team could actually make you fat?
A new study published in Psychological Science, the journal of the Association for Psychological Science, found that on the Monday after a big football game, fans of the losing team consumed more foods full of saturated fats and sugar; conversely, fans of the winning team made healthier choices.
Researchers from the Department of Marketing at French business school INSEAD followed the outcomes of the 2004 and 2005 seasons of NFL games and people’s food consumption – a total of 475 games and 30 metropolitan areas with NFL teams. Over 700 participants were asked to keep a diary of their daily food consumption for two 14-day periods separated by one year.
The results showed that in cities with a losing football team, people consumed about 16% more saturated fat on Mondays following a game compared to their usual eating habits. By comparison, in cities whose teams won over the weekend, fans consumed about 9% less saturated fat compared to their norm. For people in cities without a team and in cities where the home team did not play that Sunday, saturated-fat consumption remained at the usual levels.
The effects were amplified in the eight cities with the most zealous fans; in these cities, saturated-fat consumption increased by 28% after defeats and decreased by 16% after victories.
These differences were present in total-calorie consumption as well. After a loss, fans consumed about 10% more calories, but after a win, caloric intake decreased by about 5%.
These results stood even when people who weren’t football fans were included in the sample, and the tendencies were especially strong when a game was a close one or one against a team of equal strength.
Corresponding research followed French sports fans. One study asked fans to write about the victory or defeat of their favorite team and observed their food choices afterward. Fans who wrote about a win chose healthier options such as grapes and tomatoes, while those who wrote about a loss craved more potato chips and candies.
Another study found that after watching the 2006 World Cup Final, which France lost to archrival Italy, fans craved more of the unhealthy chips and candy. On the other hand, after watching the Euro 2000 final, where France defeated Italy, they chose the healthier options.
While winning seems to boost self-control, researchers explain that the excessive eating may be an emotional response to seek “comfort food” against what they view as a personal loss.
Lead study author Yann Cornil proposes, “For many people, the football team that you support is part of your identity. When your team loses, it threatens who you are. When there is such threat to your identity, you compensate by eating something unhealthy, something uplifting.”
The Bottom Line
In a perfect world, our favorite teams would always win, and we’d have one less justification for excessive, unhealthy eating to worry about. But what does this mean for those of us whose teams aren’t doing so well or who have just watched a disappointing game?
The study authors suggest practicing “self-affirmation,” a practice that involves writing down what is really important to you in life. They found that doing so after a loss helped to counteract negative emotions and eliminated the effects of defeat.
Thinking about your family, your career, your hobbies, and defining yourself as something other than just a fan can help you get around the loss.
Also, practice mindful eating as you snack, both during and after watching sports. Try using visual cues to help cut your snack intake. Or engage in activities that that encourage mindfulness, such as yoga, to help encourage conscious eating.
Being a sports fan is supposed to be fun – not take away from your health and quality of life. Be a self-affirming fan and mindful of what you eat. You’ll find that it makes sports – and life – much more enjoyable!
David H. Rahm, M.D. is the founder and medical director of The Wellness Center, a medical clinic located in Long Beach, CA. Dr. Rahm is also president and medical director of VitaMedica. Dr. Rahm is one of a select group of conventional medical doctors who have education and expertise in functional medicine and nutritional science. Over the past 20 years, Dr. Rahm has published articles in the plastic surgery literature and educated physicians about the importance of good peri-operative nutrition.