Double jeopardy: Do fitness foods make people eat more and exercise less?

By Niamh Michail

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Nutrition

Products flogging fitness may encourage weight-conscious consumers to eat more and exercise less – leading the scientists behind the research to call for closer monitoring of sports nutrition marketing practices.

It’s hard to imagine a sports nutrition product whose packaging is not fitness branded - that is, emblazoned with pictures of athletes, sports references or fitness accessories to incite consumers to get fit.

But a study published in the Journal of Marketing Research​ has suggested that such cues may actually be counter-productive for people who need them the most.

In three studies involving more than 500 people, researchers found that fitness cues for trail mix increased consumption and reduced physical activity afterwards – and the more weight-conscious the individual was, the greater the effect.

“One may have expected that 'restrained eaters’ would be more physically active in the presence of fitness-branded food, because the fitness label might prime an exercise goal and restrained eaters want to make up for increased consumption by burning additional calories.

"However, we show that the opposite is true,” ​they wrote.

For co-author Joerg Koenigstorfer, this could be because portion sizes for sports food were often smaller meaning consumers underestimated the appropriate serving or because they were labelled as low-fat and boasted ‘healthy-sounding’ names associated with natural ingredients of sport, thus implicitly giving the green light that the consumer could eat more guilt-free.

Instead of acting as a visual stimulus encouraging the participants to do exercise, the fitness imagery acted as a substitute for exercise.

Need for regulation?

That this was especially true for restrained eaters, who were more at risk of being misled by marketing. The researchers called for additional consumer protection for this vulnerable group. 

“More emphasis should be placed on monitoring food manufacturers’ marketing practices […], in particular when cues related to human fitness are used on food products.

“While there is extensive regulation about nutritional information (including health claims), public policy makers have largely ignored other elements of branding and product packaging.”

But Koenigstorfer said that he was not calling on sports nutrition companies to remove all fitness references on their packaging or branding. For one, some of their target consumers such as athletes needed a calorie surplus.

Instead, he suggested that a brand could offer gym vouchers or provide exercise tips on the packaging.

“[This] may decouple the link between the food product and restrained eaters’ weight control goal, thus inhibiting overconsumption and the kind of compensatory thinking that likely led to less physical activity in our studies,” ​he told NutraIngredients.

The study

For the first study, 162 male and female participants were assigned to one of two groups. The first was given a trail mix called ‘Fitness’ with a pair of running shoes depicted, while the second was simply labelled Trail Mix.

Eating behaviour of all subjects was assessed using a 33-item questionnaire. They found the restrained eaters ate more food bearing the fitness label than the plain label.

In study two, the researchers looked at the effect on eating patterns when a food was promoted as healthy (‘dietary permitted’) or unhealthy (‘dietary forbidden’).

For the healthy group, 231 mixed subjects were told about the vitamin and mineral content of the trail mix and its positive role in weight management. The second group was told it contained fatty acids, sugar and oils and could lead to weight gain. The higher the level of dietary restraint, the more ‘healthy labelled’ trail mix subjects ate.

Finally, the researchers evaluated the effect on physical activity. 145 subjects tasted the trail mix (labelled as before) and were then asked to cycle on an ergometer for as long as they felt like. Again, the restrained eaters exercised less after eating the healthy-labelled food.


Source: Journal of Marketing Research

Published online ahead of print,  doi:

“The Effect of Fitness Branding on Restrained Eaters’ Food Consumption and Post-Consumption Physical Activity”

Authors: J. Koenigstorfer and H. Baumgartner

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