By Mike Pomranz
Updated June 24, 2015
© Ewing Galloway / Alamy

“Fitness foods” like Clif Bars are intended to compliment a workout, not replace it. But a new study shows that some people feel like eating these types of foods is a healthy choice on its own, causing them to eat more and exercise less.

Set to be published in the Journal of Marketing Researcher, the study conducted by Joerg Koenigstorfer of Germany’s Technische Universität München and Hans Baumgartner of Pennsylvania State University looked at a group of “restrained” eaters – people defined as “eaters who are chronically concerned about their body weight.” Researchers wanted to see what sort of effects branding a food with “fitness” messaging and imagery had on this group’s consumption of those products.

“Unless a food was forbidden by their diet, branding the product as ‘fit’ increased consumption for those trying to watch their weight,” the authors discovered. “To make matters worse, these eaters also reduced their physical activity, apparently seeing the ‘fit’ food as a substitute for exercise.”

The research team came to their conclusion after giving participants two types of trail mix – one labeled “Trail Mix” and the other labeled “Fitness” and featuring a picture of a running shoe. In one phase of the experiment, subjects were given eight minutes to eat the product as if they were at home having an afternoon snack. In another phase, participants were allowed to exercise on a stationary bike as long as they wanted after consuming the mix. In both cases, the fitness labeling led people who were trying to watch their weight to make counterintuitive choices.

The study’s conclusion: “It is important that more emphasis be placed on monitoring fitness cues in marketing…. Reminding the consumer that exercise is still necessary may help counteract the negative effect of these fitness-branded foods.” My conclusion: Fitness food companies aren’t trying to sell you gym memberships; they’re trying to sell you fitness foods. And apparently they are doing a really good job at it.