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'Fitness Foods' Could Actually Be Making You Fatter

Just in case you're still operating under the delusion that you can eat—and only eat—your way to health, take this as a gentle reminder that you're dead wrong. "Fitness" food might actually make you fatter.
June 23, 2015, 7:00pm

Being healthy is not easy. While some subset of the human species appears to be hard-wired to enjoy things like long-distance running and power-lifting for the pure fun of it, remember that these pristine endocrine freaks of nature work very, very hard to look, feel, and perform as perfectly as they do.

But we tend to forget that when—after an especially meat-sweaty steak binge or two-for-one tacos served from a drive-through window—we hit up our local overpriced health food store, whose aisles smell strongly of chlorophyll and are stalked by emaciated vegans and old women who probably collect crystals.

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There, we load up on $50 canisters chock full of esoteric seaweeds and powdered "greens," along with muscle-building energy bars that promise a fitter, more active lifestyle than the one we currently lead. Who needs a treadmill when you have all-powerful protein?

Well, just in case you're still operating under the delusion that you can eat—and only eat—your way to health, take this as a gentle reminder that you're dead wrong. "Fitness" food might actually make you fatter.

And no, it's not because energy bars tend to be packed full of sugar and other carbohydrate calories. According to a new study in the Journal of Marketing Research, weight-conscious consumers around the US are convinced that "healthy" foods such as Clif Bars and Wheaties are simply replacements for exercise, rather than foods that fuel it.

But it's not your fault! The study specifically looks at "fitness branding," which it claims "encourages consumers to eat more of those foods and to exercise less, potentially undermining their efforts to lose or control their weight."

"Unless a food was forbidden by their diet," write the study authors, "branding the product as 'fit' increased consumption for those trying to watch their weight." But those eaters "also reduced their physical activity, apparently seeing the 'fit' food as a substitute for exercise."

The study tested this theory by asking "restrained" eaters who are chronically concerned about their body weight to eat one of two identical trail mixes. One of them was labeled "Fitness" and featured a picture of running shoes, while the other was simply labeled "Trail Mix." They were then given eight minutes to taste as much of the two mixes as they wanted and rate them on flavor. They were also given the option of exercising on a stationary bike after eating the trail mix.

Lo and behold, the eaters simply tore through the "Fitness" mix, and expended little energy during the biking portion of the study. And all it took was a little bit of running shoe clip-art.

"It is important that more emphasis be placed on monitoring fitness cues in marketing," write the study authors. "For example, a brand could offer gym vouchers or exercise tips instead of just 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."