Social Ladder May Control Your Food Cravings: Study


People who are lower on the social totem pole are more likely to crave fatty foods, new research has found.

Flickr Image Courtesy: Southern Foodways Alliance, CC BY-SA 2.0

These findings, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, show that it is often feelings of social inferiority that cause people to desire and consume unhealthy foods.

While past research shows that people lower on the economic spectrum tend to be obese more often than those with a higher social status, there has been little documentation regarding the cause of it.

Researchers Bobby Cheon and Ying-Yi Hong of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the Chinese University of Hong Kong conducted four studies that showed the likely factor was feelings of inferiority.  

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During the studies, researchers asked volunteers to imagine their place on the social and economic ladder. Some were asked to imagine a lower status, while others were encouraged to picture themselves near the middle or top.

The volunteers then answered a series of questions about their desire for foods at an imaginary buffet and which foods they craved the most. One of the experiments even invited volunteers to an actual buffet where they could choose from a variety of foods.

The studies revealed that volunteers who imagined a lower social status not only pictured themselves eating more at the buffet, but they also consumed more food when visiting the buffet in person.

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“Across four studies we found that participants who were experimentally induced to feel low socioeconomic status subsequently exhibited greater automatic preferences for high-calorie foods,” the researchers wrote.

The study also notes that the volunteers who imagined a higher social status consumed fewer calories.

So, why does social inferiority evoke this type of behavior? The researchers suggest the answer could derive from adaptive history – when people who didn’t have a reliable food source ate more when it was available, focusing on fattier foods that could be burned during lesser times.

Wealth and social status act as buffers or insurance against pressures, the researchers explained. An adaptive response may be to seize other key resources for survival that may be available, such as food.