Losing weight changes the way people respond to food marketing

Vancouver, British Columbia – “Would you like french fries with it?” It’s an age-old question that everyone who buys fast food knows. But is the relentless advertisement for sugary drinks and high-fat junk foods something people can get past? Researchers from the University of British Columbia and Pitié Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris say marketing programs tempt some people more than others, but weight loss can change all that.

According to lead study author Dr. Yann Cornil, an assistant professor at the UBC School of Business, people with weight problems have a soft spot for the almost constant bombardment of advertising campaigns designed to make us look for something to satisfy our sweet and salty cravings.

However, Canadian and French researchers found that this tendency to fall for the psychological selling point may change. When people simply lose a significant amount of weight – through diet, exercise, or surgery – it can change their susceptibility to marketing strategies.

Framing affects how people view healthy and unhealthy food

For the study, the researchers collected data on three groups of people over a period of 12 months. Two of the three groups included people with severe obesity. One of these two groups planned to have bariatric surgery, either gastric bypass surgery or some other type of weight loss surgery. The second group of obese patients had no plans for surgery. A third (control) group consisted of people of normal weight.

The researchers collected information about the study participants at three different intervals based on the surgical group’s schedule. These times include before the operations, three months after the operation, and 12 months after the operation.

The researchers designed the study to measure responses to the marketing tactics that influence food choices. These “framing effects” include how food is branded, advertised and labeled.

Study participants were first asked to estimate the number of calories in typical snacks and beverage marketers, often labeled as healthy (like apple juice and granola bars) and in others that are usually not considered healthy (like soft drinks and candy bars).

The researchers found that every single participant underestimated the caloric content of “healthy” snacks, but the estimate was especially wrong for people with obesity.

Size matters to consumers

To take the framing effect to the next level, the researchers provided nutritional information for some hypothetical servings of fast food fries. The three size options were constant – 71 grams, 117 grams, and 154 grams. What changed was the wording. In one case, the team labeled the servings as small, medium, or large. In another case, they referred to the servings as mini, small, and medium – a marketing scheme designed to trick consumers into believing that larger servings aren’t all that big.

“We measured how likely people would react to this framing and whether they would change their choice of the amount of fries depending on the labeling of the portions,” explains Dr. Cornil in a communication from the university.

He points out that people with obesity tend to let labeling influence their decisions and would likely choose a “medium” order of fries if the portion size is indeed large.

Although researchers confirm that people with obesity are more prone to food marketing, marketing strategies become less enticing to patients when those people lose a lot of weight after having bariatric surgery.

“People with obesity who are going to have bariatric surgery will be less responsive to marketing over time,” says Cornil. “And after 12 months your responsiveness to marketing reaches the level of people with a medically recommended weight.”

Is the fight against obesity more mental than physical?

Researchers don’t know whether the changes are due to physiological changes resulting from surgery – hormonal, neurological, or gut microbiota – or to different lifestyle choices after surgery. Cornil says another possible reason is that tastes can change after bariatric surgery.

“The results clearly indicate a bidirectional influence between weight status, psychology and the reaction to the environment – including marketing -“, says Cornil. “So it’s a complex relationship.”

The research team believes the study results give cause for optimism in the fight against obesity. If the results had been different and if there had been no change after weight loss, the researchers would say that this would mean that the cause of obesity is likely to be deeply rooted predisposition.

“That would mean that people are endowed with unchanging psychological traits that would make them more and more responsive to marketing – which would make it very difficult to maintain a medically recommended weight,” suggests Cornil. “But one of the positive things is that after significant weight loss people are less responsive to marketing, so sticking to a lower body mass index is more sustainable.”

Researchers say the study results are significant as it has been believed for years that junk food advertising is at least partially responsible for the obesity epidemic. But there wasn’t enough data to confirm this.

“Our results provide important insights for policy makers in charge of regulating food marketing to curb obesity,” concluded Cornil.

The results appear in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

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