“Healthy” Fitness Foods May Inspire More Eating, Less Exercise

woman grocery store nutrition label buying jamWhat was the last healthy snack you had? Can you remember what made you think it was healthy? Food producers put large amounts of time, creativity, and money into designing their food packaging to make you buy it, even if that packaging might be a little misleading, and health foods are no exception. New research recently released has revealed that the marketing around the health snacks you eat may be leading you unknowingly into weight gaining behaviors.

How does food-branding affect buying decisions?

Branding has become a part of life that many of us take for granted. We see so many ads on websites, flashy drink labels and blaring TV commercials that it’s easy to forget that companies are constantly trying to influence the stores we want to go to and the things we want to buy. But these obvious and hidden messages are very carefully designed to nudge us in certain directions so that we pick certain brands over others. Fitness branding is one example of how marketing has been used to nudge buyers towards purchasing a food they think is healthier.

Imagine you’re looking to lose a few pounds and have just jumped on the exercise bandwagon to help get there. You head to the store to buy a few snacks to keep your energy up during the day. Which snack do you buy? Chances are good you’ll look at the packaging to get a sense of which snack will be best for you. This is where companies can hook you with branding, perhaps by putting someone sporty on the wrapper and emphasizing the protein content. When push comes to shove, you’ll probably pick a snack that looks made for sports over one that doesn’t, even if the nutritional makeup is exactly the same.

Why does this branding matter?

In some cases, the packaging on foods can help us to make good decisions. Seeing a “no added sugar” label can help you to cut unnecessary calories out of your diet by choosing a lower sugar product. But in some cases, branding is also used to push you to make associations that aren’t really justified. For example, you might go to the store looking for a drink for a party and pick a “healthy” soft drink because the label says it has vitamin C. The problem is, the drink is still loaded with sugar and is very unhealthy. But seeing that vitamin label has made you associate the drink with being healthy, which then leads you to pick it over others and think you’re making a healthy choice when you’re actually not.

What did the study look at and what did it find?

The research team wanted to see how fitness branding on snacks might change a person’s eating behavior and lifestyle. They performed several studies. In the first, they wanted to see how the health factor influenced a person’s food preferences. They gathered 162 men and women and broke them into two groups: those who were concerned about their weight and regularly cut back on their eating and those who weren’t concerned about their weight. The team had them sample two “different” types of trail mix that were actually the same, one labeled “Trail Mix” and the other labeled “Fitness” with a pair of running shoes printed on it. The participants had eight minutes to sample and then the team asked them which one they preferred. They found that those concerned about their weight tended to pick the “fitness” snack and ate much more of it, whereas those unconcerned sampled both equally.

The researchers then wanted to see how that health factor might influence how much people exercised after eating. They gathered another group of weight-concerned people and gave them either a fitness-labeled trail mix or a regular trail mix. They were then given the option to exercise for however long and at whatever intensity they chose immediately after. Those who ate the fitness brand actually exercised for shorter periods of time at lower intensity than those who got the regular trail mix.

How does this affect me?

The study shows how thinking a food is healthy changes how we behave around it. Thinking a food is healthy can make it seem like it’s okay to eat more of it because we think it doesn’t count as unhealthy. The problem is that much of the “health” factor in the snacks we choose has to do with branding, not how healthy a food actually is.  Unless you’re eating fresh fruits or vegetables, snacks are snacks regardless of what the label says. But the study also shows how that health aura can spill over into other aspects of our life, making us wrongly think that since we’ve gone the healthy route, other important lifestyle changes like regular exercise are less important.