Health & FitnessScience

‘Fitness’ foods stimulate more eating, less exercise

Foods like Clif Bars and Wheaties cereal are packaged to evoke connotations of promoting fitness, however, a new study says this sort of packaging actually encourages eating too much, undermining weight control.

"Unless a food was forbidden by their diet, branding the product as ‘fit' increased consumption for those trying to watch their weight," write authors Joerg Koenigstorfer and Hans Baumgartner. "To make matters worse, these eaters also reduced their physical activity, apparently seeing the ‘fit' food as a substitute for exercise."

In the study, the research team recruited 536 participants who were considered "restrained" eaters, who, conscious of their weight, were constantly trying to eat right.

They gave them trail-mix style snacks some of which were "fitness branded" — with a picture of a pair of running shoes on the package — and others were simply marketed as trail-mix.

The research team asked participants to pretend they were at home eating an afternoon snack and gave them eight minutes to taste the product and say whether or not they liked it.

In another experiment, they were given the chance to exercise as vigorously as they wished on a stationary bicycle after having consumed their trail mix.

For the most weight-conscious in the sample, the labeling took its effect, leading them to eat more when the snack was "fitness branded" than when it was simply presented as trail mix.

These participants exercised less vigorously when presented with the stationary bicycle, according to the study, which is forthcoming in the Journal of Marketing Research.

The authors concluded by suggesting such food items add a reminder to their marketing materials that exercise is still necessary.

Last year, a study at the University of Houston in the US examined the use of health-related buzzwords such as "antioxidant" and "gluten-free" to goad consumers into thinking they are healthy.

They concluded that nutritional illiteracy makes consumers vulnerable to the false sense of health these products offer, using Cherry 7-Up labeled as containing antioxidants as an example.

"Food marketers are exploiting consumer desires to be healthy by marketing products as nutritious when, in fact, they're not," said principal investigator Temple Northup.

Working with 318 participants, the research team presented them with an array of products and asked them to rate how healthy they were.

Products, which included Annie's Bunny Fruit Snacks — labeled "organic," Chef Boyardeee Beefaroni — labeled "whole grain," and Chocolate Cheerios — labeled "heart healthy" got higher ratings when they were presented with such trigger words than when they were not.

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