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What Do Cupcake Cravings Have to Do with Online Shopping?

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"Never go grocery shopping on an empty stomach" is common advice given to people trying to lose weight—and it's a no-brainer, since you're more likely to give in and buy tempting junk food if you're starving. And while this is good advice, it doesn't go far enough, according to a new study. In fact, being hungry may make you more likely to buy, well, anything. (Find out How to Fight Food Cravings Without Going Crazy.)

See, when you're sticking to a healthy diet plan and don't want to give in to your cravins, your body can come up with some pretty creative ways to satisfy physical hunger without actually indulging in food. One of those ways is buying non-food items, according to research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Translation: Your late-night cupcake cravings may be the reason behind your late-night Amazon binge.

To test this theory, scientists devised three situations in which they could examine the relationship between hunger and purchasing behaviors. In the first scenario, they asked people to rate and review binder clips and then asked them to fill out a survey which included questions about the binder clips as well as their hunger level. The participants were then told they could take as many clips as they liked, to keep. The researchers found that people who reported being hungry took the most clips. (Because who doesn't want pockets full of binder clips?)

The next test asked subjects to come to the study location having fasted for at least four hours. Half the participants were fed pound cake immediately on arrival and were then treated to another round of discussing their binder clip preferences; the other half had to talk about binder clips before they got cake. Both groups were instructed again to take as many binder clips as they liked. Again, the hungry subjects took far more. (Psst... What Do Your Food Cravings Even Mean?)

Lastly, the researchers headed to a mall where they passed out surveys to exiting shoppers while they scanned their receipts. Shoppers who indicated on the survey that they were hungry had bought more non-food items (presumably not binder clips).

"Hunger is assumed to motivate eating, which satisfies the caloric needs underlying the motivation," the authors wrote. "However, hunger's influence extends beyond food consumption to the acquisition of nonfood items that cannot satisfy the underlying need."

And that's the kicker: People were subconsciously getting more stuff even though there was no way it could satisfy their hunger! This could have big implications for dieters, the researchers said, as their physical hunger could be manifesting in other problematic ways. In other words, you might be trading binge eating for binge shopping.

The key to counteracting this effect, however, may be as simple as just being aware of it. The study authors recommended asking yourself before buying something, "Do I really want this or am I just hungry?" And if the answer is hunger, walk away from your shopping cart (online or real) until you've had a healthy snack, at which point you can re-evaluate whether you really need another pair of brown booties. (We've also broken down The New Rules of Hunger to help you determine the difference between cravings and actual hunger.)


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