Fitness foods make you fat

Many people who want to lose weight do so by eating less. They become ‘restrained eaters’. But according to health scientists Joerg Koenigstorfer and Hans Baumgartner, food manufacturers can easily break these people’s willpower and get them to eat too much. All they have to do is promote their foods as ‘fitness foods’.

The researchers, who work at the Technical University of Munich in Germany and Pennsylvania State University in the US, studied the effect of fitness branding on eating behaviour. In the article they recently published in the Journal of Marketing Research they describe experiments they did with a group of students, average age 19.

In one experiment the researchers divided the students into two groups. Both groups were given a pack containing a mix of nuts and raisins. The pack given to one group had nothing special on it; the pack given to the other group had exactly the same contents but was labelled ‘Fitness Snack’ and had a picture of trainers on it.

Well nuts and raisins aren’t the unhealthiest kind of food, although the calorie count is on the high side. But when the mix was packed in a bag labelled ‘Fitness Snack’ and with a picture of sports shoes on it, the students who were being restrained eaters started to eat more, as the figure below shows.


In another experiment the researchers got their subjects to cycle after they’d eaten as much as they wanted from their packs of ‘Trail Mix’ or ‘Fitness Snack’. The figure below shows that the restrained eaters cycled less after eating nuts from the ‘Fitness Snack’ pack.


“Restrained eaters want to manage their weight, but their weight control behaviors are not always successful”, Koenigstorfer and Baumgartner wrote.

“Fitness branding in food marketing can exacerbate this problem because fitness cues make eating dietary permitted food compatible with weight control, and increased consumption of fitness-branded food may even serve as a substitute for actual physical activity.”

The Effect of Fitness Branding on Restrained Eaters’ Food Consumption and Postconsumption Physical Activity

Hans Baumgartner is the Smeal Professor of Marketing, Smeal College of Business, Pennsylvania State University (e-mail:
The authors thank Lisa E. Bolton, Rik Pieters, and Karen Page Winterich for their valuable feedback on the manuscript. The constructive comments of the review team are also greatly appreciated. This work was supported by a fellowship within the postdoctoral program of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). James Bettman served as associate editor for this article.


People who want to control their body weight often aim to regulate both energy intake (by reducing food consumption) and energy expenditure (by increasing physical activity), thus addressing both sides of the energy balance equation. Marketers have developed fitness-branded food that may lead restrained eaters (i.e., consumers who are chronically concerned about their body weight) to believe that they can achieve these two goals at the same time by consuming the food. The purpose of this research is to investigate the effects of fitness branding in food marketing (i.e., the integration of fitness into the branding of food) on consumption and physical activity in restrained (vs. unrestrained) eaters. The authors show that fitness branding increases consumption volumes for restrained eaters unless consumers view the food as dietary forbidden. Restrained eaters are also less physically active after consuming fitness-branded food, and food consumption volumes mediate this effect in restrained eaters. Fitness branding may therefore have undesirable effects on the weight-control behaviors of restrained eaters because it discourages physical activity despite an increase in consumption, which is contrary to the principle of energy balance.

©2016 American Marketing Association


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