The promise is good: fuel exercise with healthy ingredients. But are calorie-packed nutrition bars cutting your motivation to move?

By Markham Heid
Corbis Images

Your stomach's growling and you're planning to hit the gym in an hour. Do you reach for a Snickers or a fitness bar? A Coke or a Gatorade? The answer may seem obvious, but check the nutrition facts on these products' labels, and you might be surprised how similar they are. Plus, nutrition aside, grabbing the sporty food or drink may lead you to overindulge-and skip part of your workout, suggests a new study in the Journal of Marketing Research. (But if you make them yourself, you'll know exactly what you're putting into your body. Here are 10 Easy Recipes for Homemade Energy Bars.)

In the study, researchers gave people nutritionally identical trail mix samples before a stationary bike workout. The catch: Some of the trail mix samples came in packages marked "fitness" and featured pictures of running shoes. Among those trying to watch their weight, people given the "fit" trail mix ate more and exercised less than those who received food samples without sport-oriented labels.

Marking a food as "fit" or "for athletes" wipes out much of the conflict going on in your brain when it comes to weight control and eating enjoyment, says study co-author Jörg Königstorfer, Ph.D., chair of sport and health management at Germany's Munich Technical University. Königstorfer's experiments (and several other previous studies) show that the same thing happens when foods are labeled "healthy": Weight-conscious eaters tend to down more of these products without feeling conflicted. But Königstorfer's research is among the first to show sport-labelled foods may actually lower your motivation to workout.

Because your mind lumps fitness-related things together, eating a sport-branded food may somehow trick your brain into thinking you've hit part of your weight-loss goal just by eating it, his study suggests. "The fitness-branded food serves as a substitute for exercise," he explains.

And here's the kicker: There are no laws or regulations when it comes to labeling foods with fitness-related words or images, Königstorfer says. Just because the thing you're holding says it's a "sports nutrition bar" and shows a picture of an athlete doesn't mean it's any healthier for you than a candy bar. (It might be, but the point is that there are no rules restricting this sort of thing.)

In fact, a recent study found fast food meals were as effective as sports supplements at helping athletes recover from a punishing workout. Most media outlets translated the findings as, "Awesome! You can eat fast food after exercise!" Instead, that study points to the high sugar and carb contents of many "sports" foods. Your body needs that stuff to bounce back after a punishing workout, but not if you're only running a few miles or taking a yoga class.

"Fitness branding may put restrained eaters in double jeopardy," Königstorfer adds. "It makes them eat more and exercise less." Something to think about the next time you're at the grocery store-or gearing up for a workout.


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