California Forum

Viewpoints: Bad football makes me fat

According to a recent study, if you root for a favorite sports team and it loses, you will eat unhealthy foods, high in fat and calories. In other words, a crummy football team will result in a crummy diet. So you can blame the Raiders if you’ve gained a lot of weight in the last few years. Of course, the opposite is also true: a winning team results in healthy food choices. Go 49ers. Go Fresno State Bulldogs. Help me lose weight.

The study was conducted by Yann Cornil and Pierre Chandon of INSEAD, an international research center and business graduate school. They examined eating habits of fans when their favorite NFL team won or lost. They also looked at European soccer fans and found similar results.

Prior studies have shown sports outcomes influence behavior, such as driving and heart attacks. The researchers examined how a win or loss impacted caloric intakes and the consumption of saturated fats.

The results were clear. The day after a defeat, fans ate 16 percent more saturated fats and 10 percent more calories. If your team won, it was the opposite: 9 percent less saturated fat and 5 percent fewer calories. In the most NFL-obsessed cities and regions such as Wisconsin and the Packers or Pittsburgh and the Steelers, the results were starker – with a defeat, these tormented fans consumed a whopping 28 percent more saturated fats. And if it was an unexpected loss or a narrow margin of defeat, unhealthy eating was more significant.

Hard-core sports fans take wins and losses seriously. They begin to speak in plurals. As researcher Chandon said: “If you’re the fan of a team, you don’t say, ‘they lost,’ you say ‘we lost.’”

It’s all personal. You internalize wins and especially close losses. You slip into the valley of defeat. You can’t separate your team’s defeat from who you are. You want to be loyal so you wear your team’s sweatshirt and cap – public reminders of a loser.

It stays with you for days. Other sports like baseball or basketball can provide the opportunity for quick redemption with another game the next day or two. With football, your depression can last for a week (or two with a bye week). For some awful teams, it’s a full season (or longer).

With a loss, you seek comfort food. Fats make you feel fuller as you try to fill the void left by the loss. Fats coat your tongue and sensory receptors, a pleasure sensation that triggers a hunger for more. (This may be similar to indulgence with “break-up” foods after a bad relationship. With a broken heart comes a quart of ice cream.) We self-medicate with junk food, a counterbalance to our negative memories.

Psychologists claim behavior is altered with a loss. You begin to dwell in the past (the loss) and can’t see the future. Mired in “what might have been” replays of the game, you make bad choices, especially with food, because you don’t look toward the future with much optimism. And high-caloric foods, like sugar, provide you with instant gratification as you try to cheer up. Eating becomes an extension of your mental state. You do anything to make up for the mistakes of the past (a dropped pass or a fumble) and try to fix the situation with more (food). Emotional eating consumes your life.

The pace of a weekly football game lends itself to self-destructive behavior. First, sports experts will analyze your team’s loss, piercing reminders of the defeat. Then news stories vividly show over and over a blown coverage or the “pick-6” (mercilessly over and over on ESPN’s “SportsCenter”). You relive the nightmare. It then builds to the next game and negativity dominates all thought. By the end of the week, you’ve set yourself up for another round of extremely bad eating with another anticipated loss, sometimes before the game starts or with the first interception or fumble.

But a win fixes everything. You feel happier and start to look to the future because suddenly you believe there is a future. Sports stories become friendly reminders of what good there is in the world. You celebrate the great play, cheer the coaching decisions, even the refs may seem fair.

The world looks good and you, too, want to look good. You make healthy eating decisions because you want to be part of a bright future. You want to be alive for the next game and the next. You have self control because you sense your team is in control of its destiny. Winning is a great deodorant of life.

Of course, the real answer lies in perspective. Football is just a game, life goes on with or without your team’s victory.

Emotions are triggers for eating and can possibly be a cure. One suggestion is that with a loss, list all the things that are really important to you, such as family or religion, to offset the effect of a defeat. But this assumes we’re rational beings. And we do live in a world where competition – in the workplace or with relationships and love – seems to be a dominant driving force.

End note: We will still love our sports no matter what happens and somehow want to believe in mottos even if our lousy football team makes us fat.

“Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” “Pain is only temporary but victory is forever.” “To be the man, you have to beat the man.” “We didn’t lose the game, we just ran out of time.” “I’d run over my mother to win the Super Bowl.” Finally, a lighter tone from Yogi Berra that may help provide perspective to our irrational fanaticism: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”