Grocery Shopping While Hungry Is A Terrible Idea

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One of the first lessons I learned in college -- right before figuring out how to do my own laundry; right after realizing that girls and boys don't share a dorm room, contrary to what "Saved by the Bell: The College Years" would have us believe -- was never, and I mean never, shop for groceries on an empty stomach.

Walk through the automatic doors of a grocery store when you haven't eaten for hours, and you're no longer in control of yourself. Pure instincts take over, leading your zombified body down each aisle, scanning for anything that looks good, emitting a soft "that'll do" grunt, popping it into the shopping cart, and moving onto the next aisle. If you're lucky, your final grocery bill will be a tad south of $100. But pulling the hungry shopper routine is not only dangerous for your bank account, it's also bad for your health. And now, thanks to the brainy folks at Cornell University, there's science to back this up.

To study the effects that hunger pangs have on a person's decision-making process, they set up a virtual grocery store at a computer and told a group of "shoppers," some hungry and some not, to start clicking on items they'd stick in their carts. The results:

The shoppers who didn't eat for four to five hours before filling their virtual food baskets bought the same number of items as the shoppers who snacked on crackers before clicking away. But the hungry shoppers selected more processed junk foods, 23 percent more on average. A follow up field test where researchers secretly followed shoppers who hadn't eaten for several hours found much the same.

But where the results of the study get even more alarming is how far-ranging of an effect that half-hour of poor decision-making has on the rest of a person's diet. Think about it: When you go to the store, you're not purchasing only food for a single meal. You're taking home a week's worth, maybe more, of groceries that you'll stash away in the pantry, fridge or freezer. Meaning, you now have a bunch of junk food sitting at your fingertips, ready to be devoured the next time you get a small hunger pang:

"It ends up cursing the rest of your week because you bought way too much of the convenience foods and not enough of the good stuff. So now there is less healthy food for you to choose from at home."

That said, sometimes there's no other option. There are so many hours in the day, and if you're really hungry it's not like you're just going to sit there and die. But just because you're Shopping While Hungry (S.W.H.), it doesn't mean you have to act like a grocery zombie. So, here's a handful of lifehacks I've learned over the years to keep yourself sane while grocery shopping on an empty stomach.

1. Drink two glasses of water before shopping.

Studies have shown that drinking water before eating a meal can help people lose weight, the theory being that it tricks a person's stomach into believing it already has calories inside of it, making them more willing to stick that last part of dinner in a doggie bag rather than in an already-bursting stomach. The same concept applies to grocery shopping.

2. Make a list when you're full.

Even if you can't make time to buy groceries until you're already hungry, you can always find time to scribble out a few items on a piece of paper (or, my own preferred method, on my phone's notepad app) after dinner. Then, when you actually get to the store, all of the guesswork's done. You can still walk the aisles like a zombie, but now you have directions from your "real" self as to what foods you should bring home.

3. Cap your spending.

Take out your wallet, remove all debit and credit cards, and leave only a modest amount of money (say, $20 or $30) inside. It will force you to stay within a very limited budget, so even if you do end up ruining your meal choices for that night, the rest of your week will be relatively safe from your evil S.W.H. side. You can do an actual, pantry-replenishing grocery run later in the week, when your stomach's nice and full.

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About the Author

Rick Paulas has written plenty of things, some of them serious, many of them not, scattered over the vast expanses of the Internet. He lives in Los Angeles and is a White Sox fan.
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