March Madness on the brain? Here's an interesting question for those of us with Seasonal Bracket-Obsessive Disorder:
What do you eat after you watch a game?
The answer to that question might help us be victorious over Lent this year. Here's how.
The October 2013 issue of Psychological Science published a study by two French researchers showing how sports fans tend to choose unhealthy foods after their teams lose. The study's abstract focuses first on American football:
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. These effects are greater in cities with the most committed fans, when the opponents are more evenly matched, and when the defeats are narrow.
The binging, according to the study, is especially dramatic in fanatical football cities, like Green Bay, Pittsburgh, and Philadephia. When the Packers lose, for example, a Green Bay resident is 44% more likely to console himself with foods high in saturated fats. Cheesheads? More like Bacon-Topped-With-Heavy-Whipping-Cream Heads.
What captivated me about this study is the way it carefully tracks eating habits after sports matches. People who identify strongly with sports teams--people who say "us" rather than "them" when referring to the team--make dramatically worse food choices when their teams lose. But the choices are largely unconscious. In an NPR interview, Chandon explained that when researchers showed participants their eating habits, they would ackowledge the truth of the matter, laughing: "yes, it's true, when my team is losing I want comfort food, I want unhealthy food and the hell with that diet." Interestingly, when a favorite sports team wins, fans tend to make healthier food choices, reducing saturated fat in their diet and generally consuming fewer calories.
I heard about the study while listening to the news on the way to work, and I found it all fascinating. Just as I was pulling into the parking lot, I caught the end of the interview, which blew my mind. NPR correspondent Shankar Vedantam shared the researchers' professional conclusions about the study, and I knew the first thing I had to do when I walked into my office was pull up the October 2013 issue of Psychological Science on my computer. Chandon and his research partner Yann Cornill conclude that fans, living vicariously through their favorite teams, make healthier food choices when their teams win because "the satisfaction of winning increases the capacity of people to withstand difficult choices – to pick the salad over the fries."
A losing team causes hopelessness, driving people to seek instant gratification; a winning team allows fans to think of the future. They focus on upcoming games, and on the long-term in general, unconsciously choosing nutrients that may not taste like deep-fried yummy, but that increase life expectancy.
Though I'm not a huge sports fan, I actually whooped loudly in my car as I listened to the researchers' conclusions. What these French researchers concluded could be on every vision statement of every Christian institution in the world: When we are filled with hope and the promise of victory, we can endure privations because we know how lofty our final goal is. The implication of this sports-fan study suggests followers of Christ wouldn't think of owning a fat fryer; we'd turn down potato chips and curly fries for hummus and celery at every NCAA basketball party. This is because Christians have in Jesus Christ the winningest MVP in human history. We know what the final score will always be: God-infinity, Death-zero.
As St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians,
Death is swallowed up in victory.
Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brothers, be firm, steadfast, always fully devoted to the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (1 Cor 15:54-58)
Lent is a wonderful time to consider this truth, because Lent calls us to a little more simplicity, a little less food. Choosing the sacrifices of Lent shows that we remember the score. Jesus has destroyed death and will come again in victory. We live in hope. We can opt out of instant gratification, choosing instead the poverty of spirit which gives life.
No matter how dire things look for "Team Jesus" around the world right now, we know Christ has already won. Sustained by that hope, we can offer our own sacrifices. We can contribute to the salvation of the world.
Again, St. Paul:
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lackingin the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church, of which I am a minister in accordance with God’s stewardship given to me to bring to completion for you the word of God, the mystery hidden from ages and from generations past. But now it has been manifested to his holy ones, to whom God chose to make known the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; it is Christ in you, the hope for glory. (Colossians 1:24-27)
Jesus invites us to participate in the salvation he offers to the whole world. We may be rooting for different sports teams this month, but we can join our hearts and sacrifices together in union with the Heart of Jesus. The remarkably beautiful truth is that, in Jesus, we can all win.