French Fries for the Soul: Why Economic Recessions Make Us Fat

One might say that Oliver Twist didn’t ask for more gruel just because he was hungry; he wanted all the gruel he could get because his inner economist had heard that hard times lay ahead. Matt Cardy/Getty

It has long been known that high-calorie food can act as a balm for anxiety and bad moods, but now a series of new studies published in Psychological Science suggests that high-calorie food may be a balm for economic anxiety, too, and one that we are primed to apply whenever we perceive trouble in the world.

In one of the experiments, people who were exposed to words suggesting tough times, like "adversity," "withstand," and "struggle," were prompted to eat more high-calorie food and less low-calorie food than a control group did—even though these words were in the background, on a poster, and not directly apprehended. Taste didn't come into it; neither did pleasure. "The cues I used did not change people's mood," says lead author Juliano Laran, a University of Miami marketing professor who specializes in consumer psychology and self-control, "and I specifically found that people were not looking for pleasure, but rather for food items that can keep them fed for longer periods of time."

The inspiration for the studies came from New York City's policy of posting calorie counts in restaurants, which Laran noticed did nothing to decrease the consumption of high-calorie food. "This signaled," he says, "that misinformation was not the main issue, that there was something else going on."

On this account, one might say that Oliver Twist didn't ask for more gruel just because he was hungry; he wanted all the gruel he could get because his inner economist had heard that hard times lay ahead.

"I think this is a terrific series of studies," says David Allison, the director of the Nutrition Obesity Research Center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, who points out that Laran's findings fit into "an exciting, ongoing, and emerging set of research results" examining the idea of "energetic uncertainty"—a general tendency among animals and humans to gobble up calories whenever they perceive that lean and hungry days lie ahead.

Of course, it isn't quite that straightforward. As Allison points out, feeling socially subordinate is also a factor in energetic uncertainty. "It may be that lower socioeconomic status contributes to obesity in humans not because of low purchasing power per se, but because the perception that one is low on the social totem pole leads to feelings of energetic insecurity, which in turn leads to increased fatness from greater food intake and/or physiological changes."

In other words, the poor get hit with a one-two environmental punch: repeated perceptual cues that the world is harsh and getting harsher, followed by constant reminders that they are powerless. If these findings hold true, it means that public-health strategies for combating obesity that sound coercive—such as a ban on large sodas—will end up being counterproductive. Indeed, from the perspective of energetic insecurity, it may be a lot more useful to try to make "people feel more empowered and in control of their lives and food," says Allison, "and less subject to the whims of fate or other more powerful people."