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When an NFL team loses, its fans eat more junk food, study finds

The study, which was published online in the journal Psychological Science, also found that French soccer fans behave in much the same way.

French researchers have determined that fans of losing sports teams may seek solace in calories.

I’ve heard that the Vikings may have a challenging season this year. And that means the team’s fans may need to pay a bit more attention to their food choices.

For, according to a new (and somewhat amusing) study by two French researchers, when a team in the National Football League (NFL) loses a big game on Sunday, its fans are significantly more likely to feed their sorrow on Monday by increasing their consumption of fatty junk foods (such as pizza, cake and cookies) and overall calories than the fans of the winning team.

The study, which was published online earlier this month in the journal Psychological Science, also found that French soccer fans behave in much the same way.

Yet, sports fans can apparently overcome this unhealthful reaction to their team’s loss, the study discovered, by spending a few minutes expressing what’s really important to them in life — in other words, by putting the loss in perspective.

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Other research has linked football and soccer defeats with much more socially destructive behavior, including increases in traffic deaths, domestic violence and alcohol-related crime. Such effects appear to be especially pronounced in cities where the fan base is strong — and when the loss is a narrow one.

Putting a team’s defeat in perspective is, of course, something that many sports fans seem unable to do.

Three experiments

The current study, which was led by Pierre Chandon, who researches the effects of marketing on food choices at the business school INSEAD, is actually three separate experiments. The first one was conducted in the U.S., the other two in France.

In the first experiment, Chandon and doctoral student Yann Cornill examined data on people’s food consumption collected in more than two-dozen metropolitan areas during the years 2004 and 2005. Some of the cities had NFL teams; others did not. The data came from food diaries filled out by more than 700 individuals. The researchers looked at only two measures of unhealthy eating: how much saturated fat and total calories were consumed. Both factors, Chandon and Cornill note, are considered major contributors to heart disease and obesity. (As regular Second Opinion readers will know, there is a growing dispute about the extent of the contribution of saturated fat and total calories to those conditions.)

Overall, the researchers found that when an NFL team lost a game on a Sunday, the people in that team’s city ate about 16 percent more saturated fat and about 10 percent more calories on the following Monday than they normally did.

When a team won, however, its fans consumed 9 percent less saturated fat and 5 percent fewer calories than they normally did.

These trends held even when non-football-fans were included in the analysis, and they became even more pronounced when the game was a close one.

A French confirmation

To test these findings, Cornil and Chandon conducted two additional experiments in France. In one, 78 French volunteers were asked to write about either a win or a loss experienced by their favorite team or athlete. (Forty-seven chose to write about soccer.) They were then given an unrelated 10-minute word-seek task to complete. While engaged in the second task, the volunteers were free to munch on snacks presented to them in four bowls: potato chips, chocolate candies, white grapes and cherry tomatoes.

Those volunteers who wrote about their team losing were significantly more likely to consume the fatty and sugary snacks than those who wrote about their team being victorious, the experiment found. In addition, those individuals who had included a spontaneous positive statement about themselves in their essay (a self-affirmation) devoured fewer calories from the candies.

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In the second of the French experiments, 157 volunteers were randomly assigned to watch a seven-minute video of the highlights of one of three soccer games: one in which the French national team beat its archrival Italy, one in which the French team lost to that rival, or one that involved two Belgian soccer teams.

Afterwards, half the volunteers were asked to list and rank values of personal importance to them — and to write a few sentences about the values that topped their list. The other volunteers (the control group) were instructed to list the main attributes of a chair. Then all the volunteers were shown photos of the four foods used in the second experiment (potato chips, chocolate candies, white grapes and cherry tomatoes) and asked how likely they were to eat each one.

The study found that people who had watched the replays of their team’s defeat desired the unhealthful food significantly more than those who had seen the replays of their team’s victory. This effect was not found, however, among those who had taken part in writing self-affirmations.

“Even if you are rooting for a perennial loser, there is a solution if you are concerned about healthy eating,” Cornil and Chandon stated in a press release. “After a defeat, write down what is really important to you in life.”

Yep. I’m sure that’s exactly what die-hard sports fans everywhere will start doing.

Chandon has posted a link on his blog to a full version of the study