Home The "Study" Guide True or False: Fitness-Focused Foods Actually Make You Healthier

True or False: Fitness-Focused Foods Actually Make You Healthier

by Erika Nicole Kendall
True or False: Fitness-focused foods make you want to work out more

The claim:

Foods such as Clif Bars and Wheaties, whose packaging suggests that they promote fitness, can actually make you healthy.

Unsurprisingly, this might not be the case.

“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 (Technische Universität München) and Hans Baumgartner (Pennsylvania State University). “To make matters worse, these eaters also reduced their physical activity, apparently seeing the ‘fit’ food as a substitute for exercise. [source]

We see this a lot – people who are new to active and healthy living will start to incorporate “healthier” alternatives into their diet, and then believe that because they did X, it’s okay if they ease up on exercise Y for the day… ultimately enabling a habit of making excuses to not work out. There’s a counter-argument here that they might’ve been better off eating their regular junky treat and being mindful of their portions when they consume, because at least they’d still be consistently working out.

That being said, there’s also the fact that people who think they’ve got a “healthy” item in their hands means they don’t have to worry about things like portion size or calorie amount or the sweetness factor of what’s in their hands. To be honest, that’s part of why I’m not a fan of these kinds of bars – they’re often maaaad sweet, and if I’m actively training my taste buds to prefer savory or tart over sweet, it doesn’t make sense for me to make something that sweet a regular part of my diet.

But even if I were someone who likes sweet flavors and doesn’t intend to completely give that up – don’t worry… deep down, we all are in one way or another – believing that it’s okay to overindulge because it’s “healthy” is a false flag.

A third component to this – if you think you’re training like an athlete, you likely believe you can eat a little more because you’re training like an athlete. This is something I see often with sports drinks. You think you need to drink all of that because you’re working out and “working hard,” but because you’re not working for long enough, you actually didn’t need what you drank at all. Just a bunch of unnecessary consumption and, ultimately, money wasted.

Here’s how the study played out:

Participants were given trail-mix style snacks marked either “Fitness” or “Trail Mix.” To make the “Fitness” snack appear even healthier, a picture of running shoes was added to the packaging. Participants were told to pretend that they were at home helping themselves to an afternoon snack, and were given eight minutes to taste and rate the product. Another phase of the study gave them the option to exercise as vigorously as they liked on a stationary bicycle after eating the snack.

For those who were specifically trying to watch their weight, the effect of labeling was significant, causing them to eat far more of the snack marked “Fitness.” Snackers eating the “Fitness” brand also chose to expend less energy during the exercise phase. [source]

It’s clear – to me, at least – that these brands are experiencing a kind of halo of health that, just because the packaging implies better health, leads people to believe that they don’t need to do healthier things just because they eat what they perceive to be healthier foods.

Except, just because something is healthier in nutritive value doesn’t mean it’s healthier as in calorie-light, which is what exercise affects.

Also? Considering the many other benefits of exercise – increased metabolism, improved quality of life, and so on – cheating oneself out of those benefits also affects one’s ability to achieve or maintain their goals.

It’s also worth noting that this research came from the Journal of Marketing Research for the American Marketing Association, presumably to research the kind of marketing language that encourages you to eat more food faster. If you eat it faster, and you actually like it… what happens? You likely will buy more of it, and buy it faster, quickly making you a loyal customer… who gives more and more of your money over. It’s solid for a business… it sucks for the rest of us, though.

What does this mean for you? Don’t be blinded by the pretty packaging – even though it leads you to believe it’s healthier than the average junk, you still shouldn’t overdo it. Mindfulness in all things. And, when worst comes to worst, never skip or cheat that workout!

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Dronile Hiraldo July 2, 2015 - 11:34 PM

Erika, thank you so much for this post! I used to be one of those people, who would reach for a Clif bar as a meal replacement and think “boy, look at how healthy I am being!” and whether unconsciously or consciously I did skip quite a bit of workouts during that time. The thing about those Clif bars was that I always ended up hungry 1-2 hours later, and that intake of sugar just made me want more. There were days where I needed to grab 2 bars between meals. It’s time consuming but I did find great recipes for homemade Clif Bars, that way one can get their fix of “healthy” and control the ingredients to ensure the snack adheres to their goals!

Robin July 13, 2015 - 5:39 AM

Ya, true. Should focus on one ingredient real food instead of meal replacement bars and drinks.

Real food taste better too.

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