Why people who consume 'fitness foods' often end up eating more

Subtle packaging can undermine consumers' good intentions, new study finds

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 July, 2015, 6:18am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 July, 2015, 6:18am

Have you been making a conscious effort to eat healthy food, but the diet's still not working? A new study published in the Journal of Marketing Research offers an explanation.

Foods such as energy bars and breakfast cereals are often packaged to associate them with the idea of fitness, but a new study shows that such "fitness branding" actually encourages consumers to eat more of these foods and exercise less, potentially sabotaging any efforts to lose or control one's weight.

"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 of Technical University of Munich and Hans Baumgartner of Pennsylvania State University.

"To make matters worse, these eaters also reduced their physical activity, apparently seeing the 'fit' food as a substitute for exercise."

Marketers frequently use fitness cues such as product names referring to fitness or pictures of athletes on food packages, say the authors. For example, Nestlé's cereals and cereal bars called Fitness are sold worldwide, and Kellogg's often shows athletes on the boxes of its cereals.

"We call these strategies 'fitness branding', because the brand image strongly builds upon the concept of fitness," the researchers say.

In three studies involving a total of 536 university student participants, the authors investigated the effects of fitness-branded food on consumption and physical activity in "restrained" eaters - defined as eaters who are chronically concerned about their body weight.

In all studies, participants were told that the purpose was to investigate their opinion about a new food product that was going to be introduced into the market.

In study one, participants were split into two groups and given the same trail-mix style snacks but marked either "Fitness" or "Trail Mix". Apart from the product name, the packaging was similar except for a pictorial element of a pair of running shoes added to the packaging of the fitness label.

Participants were told to behave as if they were at home, having an afternoon snack, and were given eight minutes to taste and rate the product.

For restrained eaters, the effect of labelling was significant, causing them to eat far more of the snack marked "Fitness".

Study two built on study one's findings. The goal was to find out whether a fitness label had a differential effect on food consumption for restrained eaters, depending on whether the food is framed as dietary permitted or dietary forbidden.

The researchers found that fitness labelling makes restrained eaters consume more food if they perceive the food as dietary permitted. But this effect disappeared when consumers were warned that the food was dietary forbidden (that is, the food did not support their long-term weight goals).

As both studies dealt only with food consumption - that is, one side of the energy balance equation, energy intake - the researchers wanted to address energy output, too. So, the third study assessed the impact of fitness cues on post-consumption physical activity.

Restrained eaters were less physically active when exercising on a stationary bicycle after consuming fitness-branded food, but this was not the case for diet-branded food.

"It is important that more emphasis be placed on monitoring fitness cues in marketing," the authors say.

"For example, a brand could offer gym vouchers or exercise tips instead of implying fitness via a label or image. Reminding the consumer that exercise is still necessary may help counteract the negative effect of these fitness-branded foods."