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The Economy Could Also Be Making You Fat

Whether we know it or not, when we're stressed about finance we become hoarders for our stomachs.

by Austin Considine
Jan 23 2013, 2:00pm

Many of us know the feeling: We get depressed or anxious and the first thing we want to do is pig out. As noted on Motherboard a few weeks ago with regard to sugary drinks (and drinks with synthetic sugar), reaching for something sweet and feeling depressed may be something of a vicious cycle.

But scary, depressing news about the economy, specifically, could make us more inclined to grab a Big Mac. This, according to a new study published in Psychological Science: People consume more high-calorie foods when they’re hit with messages that undermine their sense of economic well-being—nearly 40 percent more.

To test their hypothesis, researchers at the University of Miami School of Business Administration set up what they told subjects was a "taste test." In one test, subjects were asked to sample a bowl of M&Ms that experimenters falsely told them were made with a special “high-calorie” chocolate. A separate group was given a bowl they believed was filled with special “low-calorie” M&Ms. About six feet away and directly within the subject’s line of site, experimenters hung posters that contained either neutral or negative economic messages, in hopes of subconsciously influencing the tasters’ feeling of financial well-being (negative posters were loaded with words like “survival,” “withstand,” “persistence,” “shortfall,” “struggle,” and “adversity”).

Participants were told to eat until they were done, then fill out a form evaluating how the M&Ms tasted. In the neutral scenario, tasters of the ostensibly “high-calorie” M&Ms ate a little less than those sampling the "low-calorie" version. But, when primed with negative economic messages, consumption of the “high-calorie M&Ms” shot up by about 38 percent. 

Conversely, those who believed they were sampling “low-calorie” M&Ms actually ate 28 percent less when exposed to the negative messaging.

These findings are probably consistent with our own calorie-binging experiences (and those of, say, Harvey Weinstein, who, despite being diabetic was once seen eating M&Ms off a theater floor). But the researchers’ explanatory theories are surprising because they don’t combine depression and eating the way we usually do, where binging is the result of some kind of self-destructive impulse. The phenomenon, they propose, comes from a basic survival instinct: People worried their resources may dry up feel unconsciously compelled to get those calories while they can. They become hoarders for their stomachs. 

These candy-covered chocolates do look pretty tasty

The implications of this study are fairly profound. It’s common knowledge that poverty and obesity go hand-in-hand in this country, where lack of education and easy access to cheap, high-calorie food lead to high levels obesity, even among children. The typical “food desert” arguments about why this is so—the theory that fresh, healthy food is disproportionately unavailable in poorer neighborhoods—have been called into question by recent studies like this one, covered in the New York Times. This new study suggests something else may be afoot—the stress that comes with the simple instinct to survive.

Researchers were careful to note that the study does not measure the long-term effects of negative economic messaging on caloric intake. But such a link seems plausible given the consistent correlation between poverty and obesity (though that correlation may be softening as higher income people gain weight, too). Add to this the well documented links between advertising and eatingdepression and weight, and between poverty and depression--to say nothing of the extra pressures of this Great Recession—and we’re supping one nasty stew.

Source: "Life-History Strategy, Food Choice, and Caloric Consumption," in Psychological Science