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Weight loss may reduce our vulnerability to food marketing

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New research examines how weight loss changes women’s response to food marketing. Fairfax Media/Getty Images
  • A study found that women with obesity were more responsive to food marketing strategies.
  • Bariatric surgery, which involves changes to the digestive system to promote weight loss, reduced their vulnerability to marketing to the same level as that in women with moderate weight.
  • The research suggests that a person’s susceptibility to food marketing is not a permanent personality trait.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the prevalence of obesity among adults in the United States increased from 30.5% in 1999–2000 to 42.4% in 2017–2018.

The prevalence of severe obesity almost doubled over the same period, from 4.7% to 9.2%.

One of the factors behind the steep rise in obesity rates may be the intensive marketing of high calorie, nutrient-poor food in restaurants, on screens, and on billboards.

Past research suggested that children with excess weight or obesity are more susceptible to food advertising, which may cause a cycle of weight gain and overeating.

Whether adults with obesity are also more prone to food marketing was unclear, however.

Researchers in Canada and France have found that women with obesity also appear to be more vulnerable to marketing — but that weight loss due to bariatric surgery can free them from the cycle.

If the scientists had found that marketing still holds sway over people after weight loss, this would imply an inbuilt vulnerability to overeating.

“That would mean people are endowed with unchangeable psychological characteristics that would always make them more responsive to marketing — which would make it very difficult to sustain a medically recommended weight,” says the study’s lead researcher Yann Cornil, Ph.D., from the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver, Canada.

“But one of the positive things is that after significant weight loss, people become less responsive to marketing, such that it is more sustainable to remain at a lower body mass index,” he adds.

The research, which was a collaboration between UBC and the Pitié-Salpêtrière University Hospital in Paris, France, appears in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

The scientists compared the susceptibility to food marketing of three groups of women:

  • Group one: Comprising 73 women with severe obesity who were due to receive bariatric surgery (gastric bypass or band), which involves surgically altering the digestive system to promote weight loss.
  • Group two: Consisting of 41 women with moderate weight, who the scientists referred to as “lean controls.” The team matched these individuals to the first group in terms of their age, gender, income, employment, and marital status.
  • Group three: Comprising 29 women with obesity who were not in line to receive bariatric surgery or any other weight loss procedure.

The researchers tested the patients with obesity who were due for surgery before the procedure, then 3 and 12 months afterward.

They tested the second group twice, 6 months apart, and the third group only once.

The tests measured participants’ susceptibility to three common marketing strategies that portray food and portion sizes as more healthy than they actually are.

The first strategy, called the “health halo” effect, involves framing a product as natural or healthy.

The researchers asked participants to estimate the calorie content of 4 “healthy” snacks, including apple juice and granola bars, and 4 “indulgent” snacks, including a can of cola and chocolate bars.

In reality, the “healthy” snacks all contained more calories than the “indulgent snacks.”

The second marketing strategy involves downplaying portion sizes by renaming them, which tends to make people overeat.

The researchers asked participants to imagine choosing a portion of fries or a drink from a range of three options.

There were labels providing the actual size of each portion in grams or centiliters (cl), but these names either understated the sizes (as “mini,” “small,” and “medium”) or overstated them (as “medium,” “large,” and “extra-large.”)

The third marketing strategy involves omitting the smallest option in a size range, which can also lead to people choosing larger portions.

In this test, participants chose from a menu with 47, 65, and 95 cl size options, or from a menu with 24, 47, and 65 cl size variants.

The tests revealed that women with obesity were significantly more responsive than those with a moderate weight to the health halo and size labeling effects.

Crucially, however, women with obesity who underwent bariatric surgery were no more susceptible to these marketing ploys 12 months after the procedure than the control group with moderate weight.

In their paper, the scientists note neuroscientific research suggesting that brain regions involved in reward and motivation are more active in those with obesity.

They add that bariatric surgery may “rewire” the brain’s reward system in favor of more healthy food choices.

Alternatively, they write, the psychological impact of undergoing radical surgery to reduce their weight may motivate patients to eat more healthily.

At any rate, it remains unclear whether people who lose weight through other means, for example, through exercise or dieting, also become less responsive to food marketing.

The authors acknowledge that their study had some other limitations.

For example, they tested women with obesity only up to 12 months after surgery, so the durability of the effects beyond this point is unknown.

In addition, all the participants were adult French women. “Future research should therefore examine a larger and more diverse sample of people with obesity, including men and adolescents,” they write.

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