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Don’t shop on an empty stomach

Feeling hungry? You might want to delay going grocery shopping. Two recent studies suggest that people who shop while they’re hungry are more likely to put high-calorie foods in their basket.

BMJ Group News

What do we know already?

man with shopping basket

Making healthy choices at the supermarket isn’t easy. Often what looks most enticing isn’t what’s best for us, in terms of nutrition, fat, and calories. Selecting healthy items may be even more difficult when we’re hungry. Research suggests that the reward centres of the brain respond more to high-calorie items when we’re hungry than when we’re not.

But does hunger play a role in what foods we actually buy? To find out, researchers did two studies. In the first, 68 people were asked not to eat anything for five hours. Half of them were then randomly chosen to eat crackers until they felt full. The other half ate nothing. All 68 people then ‘shopped’ at a virtual supermarket online, which offered both higher-calorie foods (such as sweets, salty snacks, and red meat) and lower-calorie options (such as fruits, vegetables, and chicken breasts).

In the second study, researchers looked at what foods 82 people bought at actual shops, comparing purchases made when people were likely to be more hungry (from 4 to 7 pm) with purchases made when they were likely to be more full (from 1 to 4 pm).

What do the new studies say?

Both studies found that people chose more high-calorie foods when they were hungry. In the virtual shop, for example, people who were hungry selected nearly six high-calorie foods on average, while people who were not hungry selected around four.

How reliable is the research?

The findings involving virtual shopping should be fairly reliable. By randomly assigning people to either eat crackers or remain hungry, the researchers increased the likelihood that the connection between hunger and food choices is genuine. The researchers also tried to limit other factors that might have swayed people’s food choices - for example, they did not include prices in the virtual shop.

The findings involving actual shoppers are less certain. Although the researchers compared people who shopped during high- and low-hunger times of day, they can’t be certain that these people were actually hungry or not. There might also have been other factors that affected people’s shopping decisions, such as price.

What does this mean for me?

These studies suggest that, if you shop for food when you’re hungry, you may buy more high-calorie items. This is good food for thought, particularly if you’re trying to eat more healthily or lose weight. You might experiment with shopping when you’re full, and when you’re hungry, to see if there’s a difference in what ends up in your basket.

Published on May 07, 2013

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