The Super Bowl isn't just one of the biggest sporting events of the year. It's also one of the biggest eating events. And whether your team wins or loses the big game can influence how you enjoy your food – and how much of it you consume – even the day after.
That's according to neuroscientist Rachel Herz, who is on the faculty at Brown University and Boston College and author of Why You Eat What You Eat.
"Many, many chickens die for the Super Bowl, and it's estimated that people consume, in the four to five hours of the game alone, 2,400 calories," Herz notes, pointing to a popular estimate released by the Calorie Control Council.
Herz says that theoretically, everyone is eating a lot of chips, guacamole or whatever else is on the menu during the game, regardless of which team they are rooting for. But "what's more interesting is what happens Monday," she says — because research has found that one day later, fans who were pulling for the team that lost are likely to keep making unhealthy food choices.
I spoke with Herz about the intersection of psychology, our senses and our relationship with food — especially during the Super Bowl. Excerpts from the conversation have been edited for length and clarity.
On a study that tracked the eating habits of more than 700 Americans living in major U.S. cities during the 2004 and 2005 National Football League seasons. The study looked at results of more than 475 games and 30 teams. In cities where the home team lost a Sunday night NFL game, there was a 16 percent spike in consumption of high-fat, high-calorie processed foods like pizza and pastries on the post-game Monday, compared with a regular Monday.
This was a study done specifically looking at both NFL scores and the degree of fandom. So this is especially the case with more committed fans, for more important games — and obviously, the Super Bowl is one of them. And [the effect was most pronounced] when there is a tight spread and the two teams are well matched in terms of rivalry. [ In those cases, consumption of comfort foods spiked by 28 percent.]
People feel such passion and also identification with sporting teams. Those people are actually really emotionally affected by loss and turn to comfort food the following day. So committed fans — on the Monday following an intense football game — who are on the losing side tend to eat much more of the high-calorie comfort foods than they would on a regular Monday. And on the following day, Tuesday, they don't compensate for their extra consumption.
Now interestingly, the winning side — although they've eaten tons during the game — because they are feeling so elated, they actually consume less high-fat, high-calorie foods on that Monday than they would on an average Monday.
It's akin to when you're really excited — like when you're in love, or you're so excited about what's going on you sort of forget to eat. From a neuro-chemical perspective, your body is actually feeling the sort of high that you feel like you don't even need food, so your appetite is reduced.
On the neuroscience of comfort foods
If my team loses and Monday, I'm completely dejected, down in the dumps, I need some pleasure. And food is a great way of providing that in an immediate sense. Foods that are high fat and high carbohydrate give you dopamine and endorphins and serotonin. And it's dopamine, in particular, that's the reward-and-pleasure neurotransmitter. And endorphins actually soothe our pain, both physically and mentally. The higher in fat the food is, the more endorphins you're going to experience with that.
On what, besides using willpower, we can do to minimize the chance of over-eating at Super Bowl parties
If you're the host and you want to help your guests not over consume, there's other work that shows if you use small round plates, you'll eat a lot less than if you use square plates — just because of the way food falls on the plate. If we have small plates, we can only put so much on it. And if people have big plates, we will put as much on it to fill it. So small plates are helpful.
Secondly, red plates have the effect of making us pay attention to the fact that we're eating — and also how much we're eating. The color red has been shown to draw our attention much more than other colors do. And this is basically because both in our built and natural experiences, the color red is about attention and danger and vigilance. So you know, flashing red lights for sirens, stoplights. I mean we're hardwired, I think, to notice red because it is something that could mean we need to be careful.
One of the difficult things that happens in a lot of these parties — it doesn't have to be the Super Bowl — where you're serving hors d'oeuvre and so forth is we're highly distracted by the conversation and whatever else is going on, and we're not paying attention to how much we're eating. But if you can draw people's attention, even slightly, to the fact that they're eating, this will help curb excessive over-consumption.
On why chicken wings — especially spicy ones — can make a pretty good food for Super Bowl fans' emotions from a neuroscience (if not a diet) perspective
The sensation of pain from the burn [from the capsaicin, the heat-inducing chemical in peppers] also actually releases endorphins. That's one of the reasons why so many people who have muscle aches use capsaicin creams, which they put on their skin. The creams cause a burning sensation, but also trigger a release of endorphins so that the aching goes away.
One of the things about chicken wings which helps them in this category — probably even above and beyond [being] spicy, but the two things synergize — is that fat helps increase endorphin production. So the chicken wings are nice and fatty because they're fried, plus there's a lot of fat in there in the first place, and then they're spiced.
On how taste perception is affected by whether your team wins or loses
What's interesting to me is the degree to which we as humans, when we're fans, affiliate and identify so much with a sports team that their defeats and wins become our own personal defeats and wins. So you can feel as bad or as good if you personally were in a sporting event as you do for this team with whom you super-affiliate.
What's been found is that when people are stressed and upset, there is an increase in the neurotransmitter noradrenaline. And that actually increases sensitivity to sour taste and decreases sensitivity to sweet. So if you were, for example, eating something that had a sweet-sour profile, you would taste the sour much more if you were upset.
So the losing team — at whatever time the game ends on Sunday — if they were asked to eat a lemon or lime sorbet at that moment, that sorbet would taste much more sour to them and less sweet than if they were on the winning side and eating that same sorbet. Because winning increases the neurotransmitters that magnify the perception of sweetness. So things taste sweeter when you're happy. The sweetness is going to be less sweet when you're upset, and therefore, you may eat more to experience pleasure.