Study: Credit Cards Are Making You Fat

No, it’s not that second Baconator I ate yesterday or the 6-pack of Schlitz I had afterward that’s causing my clothes not to fit anymore. It’s the credit card I used to pay for them — or at least that what the authors of a new study are theorizing.

According to a new study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, paying with a credit card instead of cash leads to more impulse food purchases, and most impulse food purchases are not of the healthy variety.

From the authors of the study:

Two factors contribute to this intriguing effect. First, there is a correlation between unhealthiness and impulsiveness of food items: Unhealthy food items also tend to elicit impulsive responses. Second, cash payments are psychologically more painful than card payments, and this pain of payment can curb the impulsive responses to buy unhealthy food items…

The relationship between these trends suggests that self-control is not entirely volitional; it can be facilitated or impeded by seemingly unrelated contextual factors that influence people’s visceral feelings.

After studying the shopping behavior of 1,000 households over a period of six months, the researchers say they found that “shopping carts had a larger proportion of food items rated as impulsive and unhealthy when shoppers used credit or debit cards versus cash.”

Do you find yourself buying more bad-for-you foodstuffs when you’re paying with plastic?

Cash Is Healthier? Credit and Debit Increase Impulsive Food Purchases [PDF via]


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  1. babyruthless says:

    Insofar as the farmer’s market vendors don’t take plastic, I guess I buy (really) healthy food with cash. I make pretty much all my other purchases with either credit or debit, though, I don’t think it matters much.

    Though, if I’ve got cash in my wallet (unlikely), I think I might be more likely to pop into Starbucks and spend too much for a megacaloric coffee beverage.

  2. pecan 3.14159265 says:

    So the lesson is: impulsive person is impulsive. Having the credit card allows impulsive snackers to distance themselves, and people can have an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality. If they aren’t physically handing over dollar bills, it becomes less of a ‘real’ loss of money. Impulsive people are also going to rationalize that they can overdraft on that debit card because they’ll get their paycheck deposited later today, and the grocery store buy won’t post until tomorrow. It’s also that cash is finite – you have what you have at a given time and you’re limited to that unless you stop at an ATM, which actually means your purchase is not impulsive at all.

    Credit cards don’t make impulsive people fat. It’s impulsive people using credit cards that are making themselves fat.

    • crashfrog says:

      Yes, but:

      1) everyone is impulsive, and
      2) “self-control is not entirely volitional”; i.e. it may not matter how much “will-power” you have, you’re still going to do things you know are bad for you.

      Frankly I think the “will-power” crowd needs a new schtick. Fatty-blaming and will-power fetishization have, over the past thirty years, more than doubled the average American’s waistline. Time and time again, we see that the champions of “will-power” and “self-control” are tearing themselves up inside with their own secret, shameful vices. The “you can be straight if you decide to be” guys are all fucking male hookers. The “I quit drugs by will power and you can too!” guys are all still on drugs. The “I lost 40 pounds and you can too, you lazy slob” guys are all slamming down cheeseburgers when no one is looking.

      I think it’s about time for you assholes to face up to the complete and total failure of shame and “will-power” to improve public health. Personally I think the solution is going to have to be the complete re-engineering of the human body to correct thousands of years of adaptation to starvation conditions that will never again exist for many human beings. (Of course, almost everywhere else starvation continues to be an enduring problem, I don’t mean to minimize that.) See “PEPCK supermice” for starters.

      • RadarOReally has got the Post-Vacation Blues says:

        Thank you! You succinctly turned my rabid, incoherent rant into something that made sense. Wait, are you reading my mind?

      • BomanTheBear says:

        You make a lot of great points, and Iike your delivery. I want to add an element to it that I see.

        American culture likes to talk one way and act another. The talk says “all fat people are fat because they’re lazy and eat too much.” The walk says “value menu: 7 pounds of food for $3.” Talk says “all sex before marriage is wrong.” Walk says “if you haven’t had sex before you’re 18, you’re ugly.” Talk says “If you drink every night, even if it’s just two beers, you’re an alcoholic.” Walk says “32 ounce tankers for $4 for the next three hours.”

        The point of that kindof same-y analogy paragraph is that people spend all day in public trying to save face an pretend to be perfect, and end up gorging on whatever vices they have while in private. I say there’s nothing wrong with the occasional binge as long as in general you’re doing the right thing. Someone who exercises and eats moderate portions (even of unhealthy food) most of the time and takes down a bucket of chicken every once in a while isn’t going to get fat. Someone who starves themself with a tiny salad in public and then eats five double cheeseburgers on the way home will.

        That make sense?

        • crashfrog says:

          Those are good points, and I would only add that we shouldn’t merely dismiss most Americans (or even most human beings) as hypocrites – and I’m not saying you’re doing that, of course – we should be trying to get to the bottom of why that kind of ultimately self-harming hypocrisy is so common.

          I think it’s because the human body evolved to maximize present caloric intake and retention to prepare for future starvation. I don’t think a sweeping plan of moral-character improvement can match evolutionary history, so I think the answer is genetic engineering of the human body. Either to make us enjoy fatty, sugary foods less, or to allow us to extract less fats and sugars from the foods we eat, or (as in the case of the PEPCK supermice) use the bulk of that calorie intake to maintain muscle and brain function at high levels, instead of around the bare minimum needed for life. But I guess I alluded to all that, already.

          Anyway good points.

  3. Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:

    I’d say the lack of cheaper healthy foods is making me fat. Subsidize fresh fruits and tax candy bars, then see what credit cards really do for your weight.

    • pecan 3.14159265 says:

      In general, I agree, but I got apples for $1.50 a pound last week, which means one apple (average weight is 5 ounces) is about 50 cents. That’s pretty darn cheap compared to a candy bar.

      • aloria says:

        …A snickers bar is about 250 calories for under a dollar. Apples (@ $0.50 ea) are about 160 calories for a dollar. If I’m running around all day and need to put something in me to keep me from fainting of low blood sugar, you bet your ass I am going to choose a candy bar over a couple of apples.

        • Oranges w/ Cheese says:

          Apple sugar, though will not be processed nearly as quickly as the HFCS in the candy bar. Granted, the bar probably has peanuts or some other sort of protein in it, so it will go a little further. So spend an extra 50c on a pack of peanuts at the register and split the difference without the unhealthy calories.

          Even if an apple is 160 + nuts = the same as a candy bar, its full of vitamins and NUTRIENTS, which make your body go instead of hollow chemically crap that makes your body go CRASH.

    • RadarOReally has got the Post-Vacation Blues says:

      Actually that’s about the same price as a candy bar. At least where I live.

  4. ParingKnife ("That's a kniwfe.") says:

    I care about people being fat why?

    • Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:

      Becasue they increase your health care premiums?

    • RadarOReally has got the Post-Vacation Blues says:

      Because you’re a human and you wish health for your fellow humans, out of a simple sense of human kindness? No? I got nothin’.

      • ParingKnife ("That's a kniwfe.") says:

        And yet, I don’t pick on my fellow human beings over any other health issue to the same extent.

    • UCLAri: Allergy Sufferer says:

      Because you will some day sit in the middle seat on a plane?

    • TheGreySpectre says:

      Fat people are ugly and you hate looking at ugly people.

    • ttw1 says:

      Because obesity increases government spending on healthcare?

      • ParingKnife ("That's a kniwfe.") says:

        As does speeding, smoking, drinking, exhaustion, caffeine consumption, sunbathing, OTC drug misuse/abuse, working, dieting, and living in general.

        The extent to which obesity is a primary causal factor in ill-health (and not just a correlative factor) is pretty minor when you look at the numbers. The five leading causes of death in the US, which account for over half the deaths every year, are ultimately not directly caused by obesity. In causes of death where obesity is a factor, it is often not the only factor, and not the most important factor. In other words, we’re heaping a lot of blame on a single “magic-bullet” factor. Guess what? Obesity can disappear tomorrow and health care costs will still be through the roof. And people will still get sick. And people will still die.

  5. Dover says:

    Well that explains why one my bank’s credit card design options is called “Slimming Black”.

  6. Alvis says:

    Really? I find that the kind of places where I’d impulse-buy snacks DON’T take credit.

    • Dover says:

      It was much easier to resist snack machines before they took cards; “I’d love that 100 Grand, but I don’t have any cash on me” doesn’t work anymore.

      • AnthonyC says:

        Amazing, though, that vending machines are taking credit cards, but convenience stores need to have a $10 minimum purchase to use one…

    • UltimateOutsider says:

      Yeah, very nearly all impulse food/drink items I buy are with cash. Vending machines, gas stations, McDonald’s. The story seems to be talking specifically about grocery stores though. If you’re at the grocery store and shopping with cash, you might just be trying to make sure you don’t put too much in your cart, so you overlook non-necessities, yeah?

      • Oranges w/ Cheese says:

        The local Community college has card swipers on their soda machines. Makes it really convenient to get a bottle of something if you’re out of cash. I never carry cash.

        • jamar0303 says:

          Ugh- the ones where I live have those too, but RFID-enabled cards (or phone) only. No mag-stripe swiper except at one machine at my college that’s excessively picky about which banks’ cards it takes.

  7. bsh0544 says:

    I wish they wouldn’t try to pass this crap off as science.

  8. Daverson says:
  9. bitslammer says:

    Seems backwards to me. I tend to grab anything with cash but tend to think more carefully when usgin my credit cards. Could be due to the fact that I’m choosy who I hand my pklastic over to. While I know I’m only liable for $50 should it be skimmed I really don’t fell like going through the hassle and cash jsut “feels” more disposable to me when I’m spending. Most of the stalls at are farmer’s market are cash only and I always end up buying stuff I struggle to use up.

  10. kickabout says:

    Hmm. Our vending machine only takes cash. Doesn’t seem to impede my willingness to acquire snickers bars when the craving hits. Course one data point does not a study make, so perhaps that’s just a statistical anomaly.

    • pecan 3.14159265 says:

      We have three vending machines in our office break room and I’ve only purchased something there once. I don’t usually carry cash with me, so if I want a snack, I have to walk across the street. By the time I consider doing that, I’m usually over the impulse to buy a snack.

  11. MB17 says:

    Say it with me people: correlation is not causation.

    • Michaela says:

      The study states correlation. Yay!

      Unfortunately, Consumerist’s headline implies causation, which honestly makes me cringe with displeasure (did the author not take logic?! statistics? heck, they even teach this in economics!)

    • YorkBiblos says:

      Seriously. Misdirection much?

  12. BBP says:

    I would have thought that a lack of willpower would have a greater causal relationship…

    Oh wait, it does. On several levels!

    Seriously, it has nothing to do with credit cards.

  13. TheGreySpectre says:

    I find it much easier to spend cash then money on my credit card. I keep very good track of how much I have in my account and I hate to spend it, but when I have cash that money is in my mind separate from my account and hence easier to spend.

    Also, correlation does not equal causation.

    • MB17 says:

      I’m the same way. For some reason, I don’t see cash as part of my bank account. After I withdraw the money, I already consider it spent. Therefore, I have no problem plunking down cash for random crap.

      Therefore, I rarely visit the ATM.

  14. Oranges w/ Cheese says:

    I find this somewhat true. I never carry cash, so I wouldn’t ever be able to splurge on coffee or snacks at the gas station unless it was for my debit (CC is specifically for gas ONLY) so, yeah. I probably buy more than I should.

  15. dwtomek says:

    Really? Do we need more things to blame obesity on? Really?

  16. energynotsaved says:

    I tend to do more impulse buying when I have cash. While I try to keep a few dollars with me, I tend to limit my cash in order to stay on budget. When shopping for groceries, I try (not always with success) to stay on the outside walls of the store. That is where the fresh fruits & veggies, breads, sea foods and dairy items are located. Alas, that is also where those evil people put the bakery….

  17. Jfielder says:

    Forget the Baconator, the McRib currently accounts for 100% of my pork consumption!

  18. Macgyver says:

    This is a bunch of harsheet.

  19. teqjack says:


    So, I go to the market and buy my weekly groceries, circa 100 bucks, and use plastic. But since this includes a package of chewing gum, I have used plastic to buy a “non-healthy” impilse item.

    Then I realise I forgot to buy an apple for dessert/snack. I return, and pay cash for the apple. Not “impulse,” and “healthy.” So, using cash OBVIOUSLY influenced my decisison to buy an “approved” item…

    No. Just that I do not stop at the bank before shopping and take out enough cash to buy food. I do not usually carry enough cash to do the grocery shopping.

  20. magnetic says:

    I’ve primarily used a debit card since I ever had grown-up money, so cash doesn’t seem “real” to me. If I have gotten cash, I feel like I’ve already spent it since my bank balance is lower, so it can go to whatever.

  21. ap0 says:

    Since I started keeping loose track of calories after not wanting to be a fat guy anymore, it’s very easy to resist the impulse purchases. I think I have an eating disorder now, though, but whatever.

  22. gman863 says:

    Too bad Monty Python isn’t planning a reunion. I can see the sketch now:

    “Would Mesiour like a WHAFER-thin credit card?”

    “I’m suffed. (burps) I couldn’t eat another bite.”

    “But Mesiour, it’s only a WHAFER-thin credit card.”….

  23. jamar0303 says:

    Yeah, no. I’ve been on the large side back when I was cash-only too. Having plastic didn’t make it worse, and on the other hand, I’ve been more carefully considering purchases with it since I’ll have to stare them in the face in the form of a statement.