Backing a losing NFL team isn't just bad for your pride.
It's bad for your waistline.
A study that links sports outcomes with the eating behavior of fans finds that backers of NFL teams eat more food and fattier food the day after a loss. Backers of winning teams, by contrast, eat lighter food, and in moderation.
After a defeat, the researchers found that saturated fat consumption went up by 16 percent, while after a victory it decreased by 9 percent. "After a victory, people eat better," says Pierre Chandon, a professor of marketing at the business school INSEAD in France. "After a defeat, people eat a lot worse."
In many ways, the research fits with what we already know about the psychology of eating. When many of us feel miserable, we'll down a big bag of candy. Call it a form of self-medication – when your happiness levels are low, junk food and high-calorie food provide the brain with much-needed pleasure.
Chandon and his co-author Yann Cornil, also at INSEAD, find the same thing happening with sports defeats. They tracked the eating behavior of people in cities with NFL teams and measured how eating changed after victories and defeats. (In cities such as New York that have more than one team, the researchers tracked the victories and defeats of the team with the most followers.)
It wasn't just about eating saturated fats, either. Overall calorie consumption went up by 10 percent after losses, and down by 5 percent after wins.
Chandon says the connection between eating and sports outcomes was off the charts in the cities where following the local football team was tantamount to a religion.
"When we look at the behavior of people living in cities where football is really important — places like Green Bay, Philadelphia or Pittsburgh, then the performance of the team has an even greater impact on what they eat," Chandon says.
After a loss, people in those cities eat 28 percent more saturated fat. A win swayed them over to eat 16 percent less saturated fat. "So, in those cities, people are even more responsive to the wining or the losing of the football team," says Chandon.
So why might this happen?
"When your ego is shattered you really think about instant gratification – you want to feel better, now," Chandon says.
In one part of their study, the researchers found that asking people to remember terrible sports defeats had even bigger effects on what they ate – defeats lead to a 45 percent increase in saturated fat consumption.
"It's an impact most people aren't aware of," Chandon says, "except that when we start pointing it out to people they laugh and say, 'yes, it's true, when my team is losing I want comfort food, I want unhealthy food and the hell with that diet.' "
Chandon points out that the research finding fits neatly with what we know about the effects of sports victories and defeats on other facets of human behavior.
"Sports defeats, especially football defeats, increase the chances of people getting a heart attack, it increases domestic violence and it also increases traffic fatalities," Chandon says.
The most interesting part of Chandon's research might not be the effects of defeats, but the effect that victories seem to have on fans. Winning seems to make people think long-term – they look forward to the next match, for example. The satisfaction of winning increases the capacity of people to withstand difficult choices – to pick the salad over the fries.
Indeed, Chandon and Cornil find that asking people to think about other things in their life that are valuable to them diminish the impacts of sports defeats on losing. Putting a sports loss into perspective, in other words, reduces how miserable you feel – and how much comfort food you crave.
Chandon says he had seen the effects of the research firsthand. The same thing applies to soccer, he explains: "As a Frenchman, both the performance and the behavior of the French soccer team were so distressing, I'm sure it's part of the reason why I gained so much weight lately."
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
OK. The NFL season is underway, which means millions of fans are going to be cursing their television sets Sunday after Sunday after Sunday. Now, nobody's going to be surprised to learn that fans of losing teams get depressed. I mean, it's part of your identity.
But there's new, scientific evidence that losing has another unfortunate consequence. NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam is here to deliver the bad news. Hi, Shankar.
SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.
INSKEEP: What's the bad news?
VEDANTAM: Well, it turns out that when you back a losing team, it actually changes what you eat.
INSKEEP: What do you mean?
VEDANTAM: Well, the new research looks into what fans do the day after a game.
INSKEEP: Wait a minute. So this is not just like, munching Doritos 'cause you're nervous during the game. This is Monday after the Sunday game, or whatever.
VEDANTAM: That's exactly right. A pair of marketing researchers at an international business school, they analyzed the eating behavior in every American city that had an NFL team. Pierre Chandon and Yann Cornil - they got detailed information of what people ate for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And here's what Chandon found.
PIERRE CHANDON: We found that after a defeat, there was a 16 percent increase in saturated-fat consumption and after a victory, there was a 9 percent decrease in saturated-fat consumptions. After a victory, people eat better. After a defeat, people eat a lot worse.
INSKEEP: Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. OK, part of that is just intuitive; but the other part of that - people eat better when their teams win?
VEDANTAM: Yes. And in fact, Chandon and Cornil are finding it isn't just about saturated fats. This has an effect on the overall caloric consumption. So overall calorie consumption goes up by 10 percent after a defeat. It goes down by 5 percent after a win.
INSKEEP: I go for a salad if the Colts won last weekend?
VEDANTAM: That's exactly right. Now, Chandon also looked at cities that were the most football-crazy cities. So in cities like Green Bay or Pittsburg or Philadelphia, the effects were off the charts. A defeat lead to a 28 percent increase in saturated fat, and wins led to a 16 percent decrease in saturated fat consumption. So, you know, as I was talking to Chandon, Steve, it made me realize that each Sunday, we think we're just watching sports.
In reality, we're actually conducting this massive public health experiment because there are lots of other studies looking at football - and also, other sports - that suggest that the consequence of winning and losing have huge effects, and not just when it comes to overeating. Here's Chandon again.
CHANDON: Sports defeats, especially football defeats, increase the chances of people getting a heart attack. It increases domestic violence, and it also increases traffic fatalities.
INSKEEP: Domestic violence, aggressive driving, violent behavior of different kinds - is this mostly about men, Shankar?
VEDANTAM: That's what I would have guessed, Steve. But Chandon says actually, no, it's not just about men. It's about women, too. It really comes down to how much fans identify with their team. The question is when your team loses, do you say, "they lost," or do you say, "we lost"?
INSKEEP: Oh, that's huge in the language.
VEDANTAM: Exactly. And when you identify with a team, when it's a close match against an archrival, that's when you see the biggest effects.
INSKEEP: Although I'm also thinking, I've noticed many, many people over the years who say "we won," "they lost."
INSKEEP: But I'm thinking about my hometown, Indianapolis, where the Colts a few years ago had a Super Bowl victory; and then they had the worst record in the NFL; and then, they began winning again. So I have this idea of an entire city that balloons and then gets fit, and then goes back out again - or something like that.
VEDANTAM: Yeah, I have to ask what happened to you. I mean, did you experience the same yo-yo?
INSKEEP: I didn't notice anything, particularly, but maybe I'm not following it as obsessively as someone else.
VEDANTAM: Well, this is the thing that Chandon points out; that a lot of the time, we are not aware of how it is we're eating, and the social forces that are acting on us at any given time. He conducted a laboratory experiment where he asked people to remember past seasons where they had huge victories or huge defeats. He found the same thing happened. After remembering these huge defeats, people reached for unhealthy food...
VEDANTAM: ...after remembering huge victories, they reached for the healthy foods. So what he found was that victories tend to make people future-oriented. So when you win, you look forward to the next match. You feel good about yourself.
And when you're future-oriented, you have more capacity to make difficult choices, and that leads to healthier eating. On the other hand, when you lose, you become very present-oriented because you're suffering so much in the present, and all you want is to reduce your suffering in the present, and you turn to comfort food.
INSKEEP: OK. So what should people do about this, other than try to follow a winning team at all times?
VEDANTAM: (Laughter) What Chandon thinks really does work is having people remember the things in their lives that actually are important to them. He finds that when people are reminded to value religion or family or work or their hobbies, the effects that losing seems to have on unhealthy eating are significantly reduced.
INSKEEP: Shankar, thanks very much.
VEDANTAM: Happy to be here, Steve.
INSKEEP: NPR's social science correspondent and football fan, Shankar Vedantam. You can follow him on Twitter at HiddenBrain. And of course, as always, you can follow this program on Twitter @MorningEdition and @NPRInskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.