Food Fumble: Why We Stress Eat After a Sports Loss

Emotions can power food choices when your favorite team falls short
Stressed fans eat pizza while watching game.

Three seconds remain on the clock as your beloved football team lines up for what should be a game-winning field goal. It’s a chip shot sort of kick … the kind that splits the uprights 99% of the time.

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But today is that 1%. The kick hooks wide right to finalize another heartbreaking loss for your team. It’s a painful outcome that hurts your team in the standings.

It also might not be good for your diet. Research shows that tough losses on the football field often lead to poor mealtime choices and overeating the following day. (Talk about a game weighing on you!)

To learn more about this food-based fumble, we turn to health psychologist Grace Tworek, PsyD.

A review of the stats

Researchers spent two NFL seasons analyzing the eating habits of fans the day after games. Pulling up the instant replay on their findings shows that:

  • People in cities where the team lost on Sunday ate food with about 16% more saturated fat and 10% more calories than their usual consumption. The percentage went up if the game was a close or tough loss, too.
  • A big win on Sunday led to people eating food with about 9% less saturated fat and 5% fewer calories than their regular diet. (Who knew a “victory salad” was a thing on Mondays?)

Those food choices following a win or loss illustrate the enormous influence that sports hold over our lives and emotions. Other studies have found connections between big games and heart attacks.

How emotions power food choices

Let’s face the facts: Seeing your team lose is a bummer. So, when the scoreboard tells a sad tale, many fans seek comfort food to ease the pain and anxiety. (Think baked goods and greasy fast food menu items.)

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“It may not change the outcome, but it allows you to feel better or even serve as a distraction for a brief moment,” explains Dr. Tworek.

Emotional eating is a common coping mechanism — and there’s a biological reason behind it.

When you feel stressed or upset, your body cranks up the production of a hormone called cortisol. This surge of cortisol naturally makes you crave sugary, fatty foods that deliver a soothing effect.

So, when your favorite quarterback tosses an interception at the goal line, you might be tempted to reach for an extra handful of chips. (Or eat the whole bag.)

Your team winning, on the other hand, seems to boost good choices and self-control. “You feel good about the game and connected to those around you,” says Dr. Tworek. “This may make reaching for food as a method to cope much less appealing.”

Tips to avoid stress eating

Want to avoid overeating after a tough loss? Then it’s best to get a game plan together. (And maybe if your team had taken the same approach ahead of the game, this wouldn’t even be an issue for you.)

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“Preparing yourself ahead of time no matter the outcome can make a big difference,” says Dr. Tworek.

Here are three things to try:

  • Pack a healthy lunch. Load your lunch cooler with fruits, vegetables and whole-grain foods. “It’s easier to avoid unhealthy options if you have a prepared set of healthy choices ready to go,” states Dr. Tworek (Need ideas? Check out this list of foods that help relieve stress.)
  • Get moving. Exercise is a proven way to work through stress and frustration. An added bonus? Physical activity (such as a brisk walk) also reduces the urge to gobble down sugary snacks.
  • Keep busy. Idle time can lead to snack time. Make plans to do something you enjoy the day after your team’s game to refocus your energy and take your mind off the final score. Or try a stress-busting relaxation technique such as yoga.

The final call

Bottom line? Don’t throw a penalty flag if you downed an XL “meatza pizza” to soothe your soul after your team lost. It’s just one bad day of eating after one bad game by your team.

“Make it a learning experience,” advises Dr. Tworek. “Take note of what hasn’t worked well in the past versus what has worked well — and use this to inform future situations and develop a set of effective coping skills.

Then, you’ll be ready for the next time your team takes one on the chin. Because as you know from watching football, success is all about making mid-season adjustments.

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