177132233A significant proportion of the global population believe that lack of exercise is a major factor that leads to obesity. Aneel Karnani, Brent McFerran and Anirban Mukhopadhyay explore the role of food and beverage companies in undermining the importance of dietary choices in the obesity debate – a process that has become known as “leanwashing”.

The three largest soda companies — Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and the Dr Pepper Snapple Group — recently pledged to cut the number of sugary drink calories that Americans consume by one-fifth in about a decade. Does this truly matter or is it a publicity stunt?

The pledge is welcome, even if it is only an implicit acknowledgement by the soda producers that their products contribute to the obesity crisis. The more crucial issue is whether the companies will change their messaging to reflect the medical consensus that excessive calorie consumption, and not lack of exercise, is the primary cause of obesity. The marketing, public relations, and corporate social responsibility campaigns of food and beverage companies consistently overemphasise the role of exercise as the cause of obesity. Corporate messaging almost never mentions diet, despite scientific evidence that it plays the central role in human obesity. We call this systematic misrepresentation about the causes of weight gain “leanwashing”, and argue that it is one of the hidden factors leading to obesity.

In response to public concerns about obesity, the food and beverage industry always argues that the consumption of their products is a matter of personal choice, and therefore is an individual responsibility. Our research, just published in the California Management Review, offers a novel perspective that places some blame on the industry even if we accept the premise of individual responsibility.

While obesity is influenced by many factors, such as poor diet, lack of exercise, genetics, and their interactions, overconsumption of food is the single most important factor. Indeed, a recent editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that, “Obesity results from overnutrition and the primary therapeutic target is preventing or reversing overeating… Exercise is associated with weight loss but its duration or intensity has minor effects on weight loss relative to diet.”

The medical field has converged on the view that an unhealthy diet is the primary cause of obesity, but what do laypeople think? Across a series of surveys conducted in five countries (Hong Kong, South Korea, the U.S., Canada and France), we found that about half of laypeople named poor diet as the primary cause of obesity and the other half named lack of exercise; other factors were barely mentioned. Two questions then: Does it matter that the public is misinformed? And where does the misinformation originate?

It matters a great deal that people are misinformed because it has consequences for their actual body weight. People who believed obesity is caused primarily by lack of exercise had significantly higher body mass index – a common measure of how heavy someone is relative to an accepted standard – than those who attributed it to poor diet.

What explains this pattern? People’s beliefs guide their actions, and people who believe overeating causes obesity, and want to lose weight, will monitor and restrict their eating. In contrast, people who blame insufficient exercise will try to increase their physical activity. But, as mentioned, it is harder to control weight using exercise rather than diet. Moreover, people generally overestimate how many calories they burn while exercising, and underestimate how many calories they eat. What’s worse, we reward ourselves for exercise with an indulgent treat, and end up consuming more calories than we had burned. Exercise has many health benefits, of course. But when it comes to weight control, people who just eat less simply tend to put on less weight.

Why are so many people, roughly half the population, misinformed about poor diet being the primary cause of obesity? Our answer is leanwashing by the food and beverage industry.

This conclusion was based on analyses of four types of corporate messaging – public statements, lobbying, philanthropy, and sponsorships of sports teams and events – avenues whereby food companies disseminate messages not directly advertising a specific product. The industry’s messaging is consistently and overwhelmingly focused on either exercise or a “balanced” lifestyle, but almost never mentions poor diet as the cause of obesity. For example, every major sports competition, be it the Olympics, the NFL, or the Indian Premier League in cricket, has food companies as significant sponsors. Food companies help build and renovate neighbourhood parks, playgrounds, and fitness centres, and launch initiatives called “Get In Step” and “Get The Ball Rolling”.

Food companies also influence policies that could lay more blame on food products. First Lady Michelle Obama’s ‘Let’s Move’ campaign to address childhood obesity pivoted soon after launch from criticising the food industry to promoting exercise, allegedly due to lobbying efforts. Indra Nooyi, the CEO of PepsiCo, responded to a question about her firm’s role in the obesity crisis by saying that children nowadays play on computers instead of outdoors – “lifestyles have changed.” “If all consumers exercised, did what they have to do, the obesity crisis wouldn’t exist,” she said. Such a statement, untrue in itself, still forms a discourse that the public hears, shaping public opinion away from science but towards food companies’ interests.

Even if we accept that individuals are largely responsible for their own diet and lifestyle choices, the individuals making these choices are guided by their beliefs. And in today’s environment, corporate messaging is one of the most prominent and consequential drivers of peoples’ beliefs. We should hold food and beverage companies responsible for how they influence these beliefs. We should not let them obfuscate the fact that reducing calorie consumption is a much more effective approach than increasing exercise to deal with obesity.

This article was written by Brent McFerran, Assistant Professor of Marketing at the Beedie School of Business, Aneel Karnani, Professor of Strategy at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business, and Anirban Mukhopadhyay, Associate Professor of Marketing at the HKUST Business School, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. It was first published in the European Financial Review.

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