Are you trying to lose the weight that you put on over the holiday period? You may have already been bombarded with articles on willpower, exercise regimes and dieting to help shift those extra pounds.
A big problem you’re likely facing, however, is simply the struggle to estimate the amount of food you are actually eating. Here, you’re not alone. Calorie under-reporting is commonplace, as most people have tremendous difficulty keeping track of exactly what they eat and what constitutes a healthy amount in relation to how much they exercise.
There are a number of forces working against us. Even after the holidays, food is everywhere and there are deals to be had on the chocolates, cakes and other festive goodies not sold in December. The presence of so much tempting food at every turn has been dubbed the obesogenic environment by scientists. It refers to the constant temptation we face to buy and eat more – a fertile environment for rising obesity. And it is also made worse by surroundings that don’t encourage activity, such as the presence of lifts and escalators.
People typically make their decisions about what to buy in supermarkets very quickly, which may mean that they do not fully comprehend what they are buying, its calorific content and nutritional value. When people do their supermarket shopping they are regularly evaluating thousands of products on a range of criteria in a very short time. Rushed in-store decisions often lead to people buying more than they want or need – it’s so commonplace that researchers have a term for it: passive consumption.
If decision-making in this obesogenic environment is such a problem, perhaps manufacturers and retailers could help in the way that they market and package their food? We should be so lucky – my colleague Veronica Gee and I recently studied the way food is presented to us in supermarkets and online, and found the opposite.
We looked at products (cereals, cereal bars and yogurts) from three leading UK retailers and examined how information about nutrition, calories and portion sizes were communicated online and in-store. We also examined the product images and words used on packaging.
What we found was a huge range in terms of the amount of information supplied, the type of information and inconsistencies between the suggested portion sizes and how the products were presented. At best this is confusing, at worst it is misleading for consumers.
For example, breakfast cereals commonly have a 30g recommended portion size but this does not correspond to the imagery on most packs. Typically, breakfast cereals are displayed showing full bowls. We tested the recommended portion size against a range of currently available cereal bowls and found that to fill the bowls in the manner displayed, the portion size would have to double alongside the addition of milk, thereby doubling the number of calories involved.
With cereal bars, the problem is that they are often packaged in twos or threes. Ostensibly this is for sharing – although, again, research shows that what often happens is that these bars are regularly consumed by the same person within the same day.
Packs of all these food items include extensive promotional messaging, which can often be misleading. A key element is images of healthy ingredients (such as fruit or oats) and no reference to the more unhealthy elements (such as sugar). We frequently found this to be the case on products with poor nutrition ratings such as figs on breakfast biscuits and strawberries on children’s yogurts.
Messaging can be confusing too. One product in our sample with a poor nutritional profile included the health message: “Helps build strong bones” on the front of the packet and a yogurt had the message: “Healthier lunchbox” on the front, despite having fat, saturated fat and fairly high sugar levels. So the messaging can make people think they can consume more, even if it’s not that healthy for them.
So those trying their best to stick to a January health kick have a tough job on their hands, even when they’re focused on buying what look like healthy options. Is government regulation the answer? For some this feels like a step too far into the “nanny state”.
But, in light of the evidence of companies playing on people’s inability to see through their misleading marketing techniques, it’s potentially time to stop over-stressing individual responsibility. It is certainly worth governments considering regulation against confusing messages from marketers – in the same way that advertisers can no longer airbrush ads that could be misleading or potentially harmful. These are complex issues that most humans need help with and regulation has a role to stop businesses taking advantage in the pursuit of profit.