Grocery Shopping While Hungry?

When I rented my first off campus apartment at Penn State two years ago, my mom gave me some strange advice. “Never go grocery shopping on an empty stomach, you buy more food” she said in Russian over the phone during my first week settling into my new place. I shrugged this off as some typical weird mom advice that made no sense. Two weeks later, I was all out of water and found myself at Weis. There was just a slight problem, I was starving. What was supposed to be a quick trip to the grocery store for a case of water turned into a shopping cart full of Doritios, Oreos, and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. As I am checking out and see my grocery total rising astronomically with every food item that gets scanned, I hear my mom in my head saying “never go grocery shopping on an empty stomach.” The whole car ride home the only thing I thought about was if she was true. Do you actually spend more money at the grocery store when you are hungry?




In this case, the null hypothesis is that you do not spend more money at the grocery store and the alternative hypothesis is that you do spend more money at the grocery store when you are hungry because something is going on. Scientists can either accept the null hypothesis or reject it. After giving this question some thought, it actually does make sense. The hungrier you are, the more food you buy. However, just because something makes sense does not mean that it is true. For example, Dr. Benjamin Spock thought that by having babies sleep on their stomach this would reduce the risk of them choking on their own vomit and dying in their sleep. Makes sense, right? However, his intuition was not backed by any scientific evidence and what was thought to be a good idea and logical ended up killing thousands of young children. So if you actually do spend more money at the grocery store when hungry, we are going to have to prove it by using the scientific method.


A study was conducted by The JAMA Network that tried to examine if you actually bought more items at the grocery store when hungry. The study was a randomized controlled trial where the researchers gathered 68 participants and randomly allocated them to one of two groups, the control group and the “treatment” group. The participants were told not to eat anything within 5 hours of showing up for the study. When the participants showed up, the treatment group was told to eat as many Wheat Thins as you want so you do not feel hungry while the control group was not given any food. Then, the participants were told to do some grocery shopping in a virtual grocery store. There was a variety of options available for purchase including healthy items like apples and broccoli and some not so healthy items like Twizzlers, Doritos, and red meat.



The results of the study were incredibly interesting. Unlike I had thought, the total amount of items purchased between the treatment group and the control were fairly similar. This meant that hungry people did not buy more items than the non-hungry group. The amount of healthy (low calorie) items was also fairly similar between the groups. However, the control group that did not eat Wheat Thins prior to going virtual grocery shopping, actually ended up buying a significantly larger amount of unhealthy, high caloric items. Although the hungry individuals did not buy more total items, the ended up purchasing more unhealthy items.



So if hungry people buy more unhealthy and caloric items, why is this so? A study conducted by the Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology says that people who are hungry tend to struggle weighing risk against benefit. The bag of Doritos might sound more appealing than the kale chips because your hungry mind may not being thinking about nutritional facts as much as what would taste the best right now. A person that is not hungry might take an extra couple minutes to think about the decision.

With that said, I do have a few concerns about the actual study. 48 out of the 68 participants were female. Would the data look different if there were more males in the study? Are males more likely to buy junk foods? Additionally, the grocery shopping was done online. According to Statista, only 0.4% of consumers prefer to shop online for their groceries. How would the data look if the participants were taken to a physical grocery store? Nonetheless, if you are concerned about buying too many unhealthy things at the grocery store, it won’t hurt if you have a snack before going shopping.



Works Cited:

“Hunger Affects Decision Making and Perception of Risk.” Max Planck Gesellschaft. Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology, 25 June 2013. Web. 19 Oct. 2016.

Mela DJ, Aaron JI, Gatenby SJ. Relationships of consumer characteristics and food deprivation to food purchasing behavior.  Physiol Behav. 1996;60(5):1331-1335

Tal, Aner, PhD. “Fattening Fasting: Hungry Grocery Shoppers Buy More Calories, Not More Food.” The JAMA Network. N.p., 24 June 2013. Web. 19 Oct. 2016.


8 thoughts on “Grocery Shopping While Hungry?

  1. Yixiao Jiang

    Hi, I really likes this topic, because it can be applied to my real life situation closely. Actually, I met the same problem several weeks ago. I always want to pick up different things to fill up my cart when I was going through the shelves in super market. Since I am really hungry at that time, I might pick up extra things that I do not need. And it ends up cost more money. After reading your essay, I learned what cause my actions. It taught me a lot.

  2. Pengji Wei

    Hello Brendon. Great article. When I read your blog, I found out it is surprise that the hungry people people did not buy more stuff that the non hungry people. Every they bought more unhealthy stuff. Maybe because this experiment is based on online shopping or maybe in this experiment, the number of female is greater than the male. But despite these factors, I think this is might true. Because according to my experiences, I always get more junk food when i am hungry. But if I go shopping after I ate, I usually get more healthy stuff. So I agrees with you on this experiment. And I think the reason behind is when people is not hungry, they tend to buy less caloric stuff, like you said in the blog. Because they might think these things might can help them restore the energy really quick. And here is a link that can explain more about why people tend to buy more unhealthy thing when they are feel hungry.

  3. Monica Lynn Powell

    You did a great job with this blog post! You clearly related it back to concepts that we have been learning in class which made it easier to understand. I’m glad that you pointed out some areas of the studies that you think could have been improved upon. I’m curious why the participants were given wheat thins. What if they didn’t like wheat thins? The other thing that makes me curious is as to why they all weren’t instructed to eat the same amount of wheat thins. If they chose not to eat any than that might effect the data. I find the results, like you, very interesting. You don’t necessarily buy more but just unhealthy food instead. Even though there wasn’t solid proof, making sure you have a snack before you go grocery shopping wouldn’t be a hard thing to do to ensure that you only buy what you need. Here’s an article on how to be better grocery shopper that I found helpful!

  4. Dominic DeCinque

    I think the answer to this question is a subjective one. Personally, when I go grocery shopping on an empty stomach, I’m extremely inclined to buy more food, especially prepared food that I could crack open on the car ride home. However, my mom (a grocery store pro) can go through her entire pre-written list without even looking at something else on the shelves that she considers a “want.” I always make sure I go food shopping on a full stomach, because it saves both my diet and my wallet!

  5. Daniel J Lehecka

    I think it’s an interesting concept and it makes sense in theory. If you are hungry you start to think about yourself eating all the foods that you see in front of you and thus are inclined to buy more. But studying this wouldn’t be an easy task because of all the third variables. You would have to get people into a store where other peoples shopping wouldn’t effect impulsive decisions. Also as Tyler said, being in the store is a completely different experience that would lead to different results. So many things effect how people shop for food, color being one of them. I found this link that briefly outlines the psychological effect of seeing different colors alongside food.

  6. Raegan S Pechar

    Interestingly enough, my mom has always told me the same exact thing. And truth be told, (at least for me), she’s always been right. When I walk into Wegmans with an empty stomach, I walk right to the frozen foods and junk food sections, because I’m craving an easy fix. However, when I walk in having just eaten, I find myself taking time to go through the organic section instead. For the study, however, I was a bit shocked that they had the study online. I feel as if the individuals had physically walked through the grocery story the results would have drastically differed. I also agree with Tyler above, that they study was too small and brings a greater risk to a null hypothesis / chance being the source. All in all, it’s a really interesting concept to explore, but I think the potential third variables could have a role in the outcome.

  7. Tyler Olson

    That’s an extremely thought provoking study. Two possible problems I can see with it, however, are the sample size and the fact that it was at a virtual grocery store. Sixty-eight individuals is not a very reliable sample size and greatly increases the probability that those results are due to pure chance rather than the null hypothesis that hungry and full people would spend the same amount of money at the store being the actual reality.
    Also, the virtual grocery store doesn’t perfectly mirror what an experience in a real life store would be like. With the smells of foods coming from all corners and vivid colors of the fruits right in front of you instead of through a computer screen, I feel like this could be a possible confounding variable here.

    1. Derek William Drotman

      I completely agree with the alternative hypothesis which states individuals will purchase more when they are hungry. From personal experience i know if i am hungry I will buy way more food and pick up more unhealthy snacks than “kale chips”. For this reason at home i actually use an PeaPod which is Stop and Shops online shopping option. This saves my family time by not having to physically go to store especially when we are hungry and is convenient for us because it is delivered right to our house. I believe online shopping will help people save money and eat healthier. Here is a link if you would like to find out more about PeaPod is.

Leave a Reply