After eating and drinking in excess during the holidays, many start the New Year making resolutions to eat healthier, drink less and exercise more.
But, it turns out most people might actually be eating more in January than the holiday season.
Lizzy Pope, dietician and professor of nutrition and food science at UVM, recently published a study on grocery shopping habits. She studied 171 households in central New York over a course of seven months, and found out that people actually buy more food in the months after the holidays.
“So what happens in January was the part of the study that really surprised us,” Pope says. “What we found was that people continued to buy just as much unhealthy food as they had been buying during the holiday period, but what happened was they bought about three times as much healthy food after the holidays as they were buying during the holidays.” If you add all of this food up, Pope says, the families were actually buying more calories after the holiday period.
Because of the popular resolution to eat healthier, Pope figured they’d find a decrease in the number of calories in people’s shopping carts following the holidays. “It’s almost like this healthy food is causing health halo over the unhealthy food, and so [people] are able to kind of vicariously fulfill their resolution to eat healthier without having to feel any loss about the [absence] of junk food in their cart,” Pope says. She thinks that purchasing all of the extra health food, along with junk food, makes them think they are achieving their goals. When in reality, they’re not.
The other surprising part of the study was the fact that people were spending more money on food after the holidays. “It’s also counter-intuitive because a lot of people face bills from the holiday season with all the gift giving, but for some reason the grocery spending does go up in that period,” says Pope.
So how did they decide what was “healthy” and “unhealthy” in the study? Pope says they wanted to make that as objective as possible, so they used a nutrient star rating similar to the one used at Hannaford stores. “Zero stars equals a less healthy food item, such as soda or chips, even Goldfish receives zero stars, unfortunately. Then, items that have one to three stars are more healthy.”
Although they didn’t interview the participants of the study, Pope thinks it would be interesting to see if they had any awareness that they were purchasing more food after the holidays.
To avoid over-spending and purchasing junk food on your next trip to the supermarket, Pope says it’s important to be aware and conscious while shopping. “Make a shopping list before you get to the grocery store and stick to it. Don’t get sucked in by the end-of-aisle displays or the candy at the end … you can also think about dividing your cart in half visually with your coat or purse. Fill half that cart with healthier items and then you can have a few treats,” Pope says.
When asked how she shops consciously at the grocery store, Pope says, “I always consider what’s in my basket. If you are a nutrition professor or a dietician and run into people you know at the grocery store and they see ice cream, Lucky Charms and cookies in there, it’s a little embarrassing.”