Christopher Gates headed straight for the soft drinks when the Minnesota Vikings lost to the Chicago Bears last month with just 10 seconds left in the game.
"My biggest vice is sugar, and specifically pop," said Gates, a blogger for the Daily Norseman fan site who spends "my autumn Sunday afternoons living and dying with this football team." When the Vikings lose, he drowns his sorrows in a neon green river of Mountain Dew.
NFL fans seem to know instinctively that junk food is a balm that helps take the sting out of defeat. The idea that fans eat more calories and more fat when their team tanks is a theory many scientists and researchers have advanced over the years. Now that notion is bolstered by recent French research on eating by football and soccer fans. The way the team loses is also a factor: A close loss results in even more fat and calorie consumption than a blowout. Pass the nachos and chicken wings, please.
The change in eating patterns is the result of the intersection of two powerful forces: the emotional connection fans have with their teams and the effect food has on emotions. Foods high in carbohydrates and fats -- so-called comfort foods -- make us feel better, said Lesley Scibora, an assistant professor in the Health and Human Performance Department at the University of St. Thomas.
"Think of what comfort foods generally are," she said. "They're high-carbohydrate foods: mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, breads, pastas. And it's those foods, after we eat them, that increase serotonin levels in the brain, which is a natural but very powerful brain chemical that is a natural mood regulator."
There is no doubt sports fans get emotional about their team. That's because our personal identity is tied to our collective identity, said Carlo Veltri, an assistant psychology professor at St. Olaf College.
"We identify as 'self' or 'other,'?" he said. In short, everyone is either part of our group or part of some other group, a designation that dovetails perfectly with sports. "It's the Minnesota Vikings -- this is us -- and they, the Kansas City Chiefs or whatever, are the other," he said.
Put the two factors together and the outcome shows up at the waistline: When "we" (collectively) lose, we (individually) turn to comfort food to assuage the disappointment. Whether the Vikings win or lose, Dave Garza gets together with friends to analyze the game over food. But instead of eating out of depression, after a win, "I eat because I'm happy and jubilant."
That likely means he's eating healthier, according to the research by the French business school, INSEAD (Institut European d'Administration des Affaires). When their teams win, fans tend to eat less fat and fewer calories than normal.
The researchers approached the topic from a marketing standpoint. "But it raises some interesting things to think about" in terms of nutrition, said Megan Thomas, a registered dietitian at Hennepin County Medical Center. "I'm interested to see if this is researched further."
The researchers focused exclusively on professional football in the United States and pro soccer in France. They didn't break down the data based on the importance of the games; they don't know if the effect is greater for, say, a playoff game than games early in the season. And no, they don't know if it applies to fantasy football teams.
The eating habits of fans of both the winners and losers are the same before and during games. The change takes place when the game ends, the study found. Compared with their normal consumption levels, fans of losing teams increase their intake of saturated fats by 16 percent and calories by 10 percent, while the winning team's fans cut fat consumption by 9 percent and eat 5 percent fewer calories. The effect lasts a day. Whether their team wins or loses on Sunday, most fans are back to their normal diets by Tuesday.
Although the research focused on football and soccer, the findings likely are universal, Veltri said. "I think it will apply to any athletic team as long as we are personally connected to it," he said. The idea of disappointed fans consuming more calories shouldn't come as a surprise. It's called comfort food for a reason.
"When our moods are low, we tend to eat foods that make us feel better," Scibora said.
As for why a victory will result in healthier eating, the research points to a fan's self-image. "Supporters tend to perceive their team's successes and failures as their own, which has a measurable effect on their self-regulation abilities," researchers wrote. "This (is) consistent with results from studies showing that vicarious sports victories improve the self-esteem and perceived self-worth of supporters."