Chelsea Roff: Is the news making you fat?

Two marketing experts at the University of Miami just released a new and very provocative theory about the causes of America’s  obesity epidemic.

It’s not your genes. It’s not your brain. It’s not your family upbringing.

New research suggests you can (at least partially) blame the news for that extra cookie you ate last night. Specifically, the two researchers (Juliano Laran and Anthony Salerno) claim that when we hear alarming information about the economic crisis, food shortages, and adversity, we shift into a live-for-today mindset. This gotta-get-it-now mentality makes people focus only on what’s right in front of them — which in this case, is often a McDonald’s hamburger and chocolate ice cream.

Loran and Salerno cite unconscious mechanisms instilled by evolution, saying that living in a harsh world makes people focus on immediate reproductive success. What does that mean? Well basically, they’re saying that when you hear about food shortages in Africa, your (subconscious) mind goes, “Better get my food and make babies right now!” Essentially, when we think resources are scarce, we start consuming them more so that we’re able to pass on our genes.

At least that’s the theory anyway. Here’s the evidence they cite to back it up:

The psychological scientists tested [the theory] in a few experiments. In the first one, they invited passers-by to join in a taste test for a new kind of M&M. Half the volunteers were given a bowl full of this new candy, and were told that the secret ingredient in the new M&Ms was a new high-calorie chocolate. The others—the controls—also got a bowl of M&Ms, but they were told that the new chocolate was low-calorie. All the volunteers were told they could sample the product until the next part of the study.

This was a ruse. The scientists were actually measuring their consumption. But during this waiting period, some read a text that emphasized harshness and deprivation, with words like survival, persistence, shortfall, and adversity. The controls read a text with neutral words. The idea was that those who were subconsciously primed to think about scarcity and struggle would eat more if they were offered high-calorie food—more than if they were offered a low-calorie option. And they did. And as reported in a forthcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science, they also ate more of the high-calorie candy than did controls, and less of the low-calorie candy.

In other words, they were responding to their (perceived) world of deprivation by packing away the calories.

The research is obviously still preliminary, but the theory is definitely provocative. In my opinion, the researchers are guilty of oversimplifying a bit — we know very well that genetics, economic status, and family upbringing play a significant role in weight and eating habits. Still, I think it’s definitely plausible that the information we’re consuming is a factor as well.

How does this research match up with your experience? Do you find yourself eating more after watching the nightly news?

photo by: Benson Kua