It goes without saying that typical game-day snacks are not the healthiest fare. But a recent study suggests that football fans who root for a losing team are more likely to eat unhealthful, high-calorie foods—even the day after the game. On the flip side, fans of a winning team are likely to make better food choices than they normally do. “Backing a losing team isn’t just bad for your pride,” says National Public Radio’s science correspondent Shankar Vedantam in a recent broadcast called Diet of Defeat. “It’s bad for your waistline.”

The study, published in the journal Psychological Science, was conducted by marketing researchers at the international business school INSEAD. Authors Yann Cornil and Pierre Chandon explain, “Using archival and experimental data, we showed that vicarious defeats experienced by fans when their favorite football team loses lead them to consume less healthy food. On the Mondays following a Sunday National Football League (NFL) game, saturated-fat and food-calorie intake increase significantly in cities with losing teams, decrease in cities with winning teams, and remain at their usual levels in comparable cities without an NFL team or with an NFL team that did not play.” The study also shows that these effects were greater in cities with the most committed fans, when the opponents were more evenly matched, and when the defeats were narrow.

In the NPR story, Vedantam suggests that the most interesting part of this 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,” he says. “The satisfaction of winning increases the capacity of people to withstand difficult choices—to pick the salad over the fries.”

What do you think? Do the wins and losses of your favorite team affect your eating habits? PAR wants to hear from you, so leave a comment and join the conversation!
Last October—during National School Lunch Week—the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced it was giving $2 million to scientists to research ways to use psychology to improve how children and adolescents eat at school. As part of the package, a new center—the Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs at Cornell University—was established, and 14 other research projects in 11 states were also given funding.

Based on “behavioral economics,” the theory behind the initiative states that there are subtle ways to trick kids into making healthier choices in the lunch line.

For years, researchers have noted that small changes in a cafeteria line make big differences. A 2005 study published in Food Quality and Preference[1] discovered that changing generic names of foods to more descriptive ones (e.g., “Seafood Filet” to “Succulent Italian Seafood Filet”) increased positive feedback about the food. (Never mind that the phrase “seafood filet” is vague enough to make you wonder what you’re really eating.) The study was conducted in restaurants, but the concept can easily be adapted to a younger crowd: “Broccoli” becomes “Bangin’ Broccoli;” “Carrots” becomes “Caliente Carrots.” Similar research[2] was performed on U.S. Army soldiers, with results suggesting that, when it comes to taste, our brains can be easily fooled by labels.

Additional research has proven or suggested that:

  • Manipulating food prices (e.g., taxing sales of junk food) is generally not effective at improving Americans’ diets.[3]

  • The likelihood that children will choose healthier foods decreases as the number of tempting but less healthy options increases.3

  • Giving individuals the option to preselect healthy foods may improve well-being.3

  • Lighting, odor, and temperature can affect consumption.2,[4]

  • Displaying healthier options more prominently in the school lunch line can increase the salience of those foods; conversely, placing unhealthy foods in dimly lit, hidden, or hard-to-reach areas may decrease their salience.3


The researchers at Cornell, headed by David Just and Brian Wansink, have established a Web site (http://smarterlunchrooms.org) that updates visitors about how the initiative is going. Visit the site and let us know: Do you think these using psychology-based ideas will have the intended result? Does our subconscious really play that large a role in our decision making? What do your kids like to eat at lunchtime?


[1]Wansink, B., van Ittersum, K., & Painter, J. E. (2005). How descriptive food names bias sensory perceptions in restaurants. Food Quality and Preference, 16, 393-400.


[2]Wansink, B. (2007). Mindless eating: Why we eat more than we think. New York, NY: Bantam Dell.




[3]Just, D. R., Mancino, L., & Wansink. B. (2007). Could behavioral economics help improve diet quality for nutrition assistance program participants? Economic research report no. 43. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture.




[4]Wansink, B. (2004). Environmental factors that increase the food intake and consumption volume of unknowing consumers. Annual Review of Nutrition, 24, 455-479.