How To Stop Buying Junk Food When You Shop Hungry

Collage of pub food including cheese burgers, wings, nachos, fries, pizza, ribs, deep fried prawns and calamari.

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Anyone who has ever gone to the grocery store while hungry knows what happens next: You find yourself at the checkout counter with a bunch of sugary, high-calorie items you would never normally buy. It is a terrible habit, yet  many of us feel like we just don’t have the time to eat healthy, and repeatedly find ourselves in this scenario. Why is it so tempting to binge on junk food when we shop hungry, and is there a way that people can train themselves to make healthier choices while fighting the pangs of hunger?

According to a recent study conducted in the Netherlands, the answer might just be ‘Yes’.


Hunger, Shopping and Psychology

The study was conducted by researchers at the Utrecht University in the Netherlands. The study leader, a doctoral candidate of psychology named Tracy Cheung, wanted to know how psychological factors play a role in the decision to buy unhealthy foods while hungry. She and her team suspected that when people are hungry, they are more likely to make impulsive decisions regarding what to eat.

When people think and act on impulse, what they are essentially doing is making use of heuristics. A heuristic is a sort of mental shortcut which the mind uses to arrive at a conclusion or make a decision faster. It does this to establish “decisional rules of thumb” so your mind has a default choice to make in certain situations (like shopping while hungry).

One of the most well documented forms of heuristics is the social proof heuristic, in which humans simply imitate what other people are doing. If a person sees a lot of people doing a particular thing, they start to think that must be the “right” thing to do. If one person sees a lot of people using one door to exit a movie theater rather than the other, they are more likely to simply use that same door because everyone else is using it.

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