Just in time for football season, a pair of French researchers report that NFL fans of losing teams will eat far more fatty foods and calories than the fans of winning teams. In other words, the agony of defeat doesn’t just make you sad – it also can make you fat. But, for anyone planning to watch the Buffalo Bills play the Patriots today, there is hope. The study also found a defense against the post-game letdown. The researchers compared next-day eating choices with game-day outcomes in 30 NFL cities. The study, titled “From Fan to Fat” and published in the journal Psychological Science, measured what fans ate on the Mondays after a Sunday game. They discovered that fans of losing teams ate 16 percent more sweet and fatty food than they normally would. Winning fans, on the other hand, ate 9 percent less than usual.
The research also supported what every true fan already knows – it’s the close games that really kill you.
Overconfident boosters practically wallow in fatty food the day after an unexpected loss, eating 28 percent more fat and calories than they usually do.
The study focused on data from the 2004 and 2005 NFL seasons, so no figures are available for fatty food consumption in Buffalo on Jan. 28, 1991 (the Monday after “wide right”). But that’s the kind of game they’re talking about.
As the study says, “Failures and losses are especially painful when success nearly occurred.”
That was Part 1 of the research.
Part 2 tested a theory on how to help those unhappy fans climb out of depression and back away from the refrigerator.
First, a little background. Pierre Chandon of INSEAD Business School in France has spent his career studying the influence of marketing, packaging and events on eating habits. Mostly, he tries to pinpoint the triggers for unhealthy eating and find ways to neutralize them. That was the goal this time.
Chandon and doctoral student Yann Cornil wanted to study the effects of “vicarious losing” on eating habits, and they found a good pool of subjects through the NFL, whose “supporters tend to perceive their team’s successes and failures as their own,” as they explained.
“If you’re the fan of a team, you don’t say they lost, you say we lost,” Chandon said in an INSEAD interview.
Of course, most people don’t follow a sports team because they want to feel like losers. Quite the contrary.
“One way we can feel good about ourselves is by associating with successful others. So, people are especially likely to use ‘we’ when they’re talking about their teams’ victories than about their defeats,” Kenneth DeMarree, associate professor of psychology at the University at Buffalo, explained via email. “By linking the self with a successful ‘we,’ the self is now bolstered.”
And the flip side? DeMarree says: “A loss can deal a blow to a person’s self-esteem to the extent that there is any association with the losing team” – for example, wearing a Bills jersey.
And there’s a reason that sports teams, with their individual colors and logos, are attractive.
“According to social identity theory, people are motivated to identify with groups that satisfy their need for distinctiveness as well as the need for belonging,” Lora Park, associate professor of psychology at UB, said in an email message. “Identifying with sports teams satisfies these two needs simultaneously. By being a Bills fan, for example, you differentiate your group from other groups but also feel a sense of belonging to the group.”
And, citing anecdotal evidence that already supports another of her conclusions, “Men in particular are likely to derive self-esteem from being part of groups. … Women prefer close relationships,” she said.
As Chandon and Cornil note in their paper, the potentially detrimental consequences of professional sports losses have been studied before – alcohol abuse, domestic violence and traffic accidents all tend to rise among fans after a beating on the field.
Called “self-regulation failures,” the behaviors show up when fans take a loss as a direct hit on their own egos – they become “vicarious losers.”
Adding the 16 percent uptick in junk food consumption by losing fans with the 9 percent decrease in calories eaten by fans after a win, the 25 percent swing from healthy to heart-stopping food choices was obvious to the researchers.
Since the vicarious winners were already making better food choices, the second part of their research was to see if they could alter the behavior of the depressed, losing fans.
“Fortunately, there is a solution that doesn’t involve switching allegiance to a winning team,” Chandon says in summarizing the results. “Simply listing all the things that are important to you in life, such as family, religion, or maybe another sports team, eliminates the effects of defeats on consumption of fats.”
It is called “self affirming,” psychological-speak for reminding oneself of the good things in life.
“In the standard study, people are given a list of values and asked to either rank order them or to pick out the ones that are most and least important to them,” said DeMarree, the UB psychology professor.
They would then reflect on why a value is important and, if possible, on when their behavior was consistent with this value, he said.
“This could include focusing on one’s strengths, important relationships, important identities, values and so forth,” DeMarree explained. “So, after a loss, a football fan might benefit from thinking about their family and friends, their religious convictions, or anything else that is important to them.”
It’s worth the effort, pointed out Park, the other UB psychology professor.
“When people’s self-image is threatened,” for instance, by a Bills loss, “they are motivated to repair their damaged self-worth. People do this by reminding themselves of their abilities, skills, values, etc., in another area of their lives unrelated to the threat,” Park said.
After thoughtfully reflecting on their blessings, the subjects in “From Fan to Fat?” were more likely to choose fresh fruits and vegetables to eat, instead of potato chips and chocolate. Crunching the numbers showed that affirmation completely eliminated the depressive effect of the game.
In Ralph Wilson Stadium today, inner harmony, true friendship and honesty could have their work cut out for them. Not only are the New England Patriots the favorite against the Bills this afternoon, they’re the biggest favorite to win among all NFL teams playing anyone, anywhere this week.
Or maybe calendar karma will kick in. Ten years and one day ago, Sept. 7, 2003, ecstatic fans saw this final score: Bills 31, Patriots 0. An upset like that could make tomorrow the day to start that winning diet.