Leanwashing: How do Food and Beverage Companies Talk About Obesity?


How does messaging from the food industry influence obesity beliefs? Professor Aneel Karnani’s research looks at the “leanwashing” phenomenon.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The medical research is clear: Diet is a significantly bigger factor in obesity than lack of exercise. Yet about half the population doesn't believe that, and it is likely that messaging from food and beverage companies helps shape those mistaken beliefs, according to new research.

Michigan Ross Professor Aneel Karnani and co-authors Brent McFerran of Simon Fraser University and Anirban Mukhopadhyay of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology analyze the public statements, philanthropy, lobbying, and sponsorships by the food and beverage industry and finds evidence of what they call "leanwashing" — perpetuating the notion that lack of exercise is at least as important as diet in causing obesity.

Previous research showed that people who believe exercise is a bigger factor in obesity weigh more than those who believe that diet plays a bigger role. Karnani and his co-authors argue that food and beverage companies are at least partially responsible for this misperception by deflecting the role of diet.

Karnani"It's not that they're deliberately trying to mislead, but the industry says things and creates messages that are conveniently favorable to their business," says Karnani, professor of strategy. "That perpetuates the mistaken lay theory that lack of exercise is the main culprit for obesity when, in fact, it's diet. This really matters, because people who are misinformed about the causes of obesity are heavier than people who are well-informed."

Karnani says it's a delicate argument to make. Exercise, of course, is good for everyone and in general people need more of it. There are multiple benefits to exercise beyond weight loss.

"But in terms of dealing with the crisis of obesity in this country and other countries, it's a red herring," he says.

Obesity has become a serious public health problem. Until 1980, less than 10 percent of the population in industrialized countries was obese. Today those rates have doubled or tripled, and in some countries two out of three people are projected to be obese within 10 years. Obesity is linked to many chronic health problems and significant costs.

People obtain lay theories about what causes obesity from various sources. About half the population believes that lack of exercise is a key contributor to obesity, despite scientific evidence to the contrary.

Karnani, McFerran, and Mukhopadhyay focused on the public statements, sports marketing, lobbying, and philanthropy of the ten largest food companies in the world. What they found was consistent messaging that put much of the blame for obesity on lack of exercise, or statements that made the causes of obesity sound complicated. "Balance," for example, was a common word.

Given the scope of the food industry's marketing, messaging, lobbying, and sponsorships, it's not a stretch to suggest it helps reinforce the mistaken lay theories, Karnani says.

"We found four channels of corporate messaging food companies have used to deflect the public discourse from bad diet to exercise and other factors, likely leading to misinformed lay theories of obesity, which in turn is associated with increased actual obesity," he says. "It's not the only reason people are misinformed, but you can't say it has no impact. These companies spend hundreds of millions of dollars on these campaigns. If it has no impact, then you'd have to believe they're wasting all that money."

So what's the solution? Some countries have imposed a sugar tax, similar to a sin tax on tobacco and alcohol, or banned food advertising from children's programming. But those steps, especially a tax, seem unlikely in the U.S. Instead, an organized public education effort should be launched to spread the word about the effect of diet on obesity.

"Overall, our recommendation is for systematic public health communications to promote the diet theory," Karnani, McFerran, and Mukhopadhyay write. "This would educate the public that bad diet is the primary cause of obesity and thus help fight the obesity crisis, even while supporting individual choice and responsibility."

Their paper on the topic is titled, "Leanwashing: A Hidden Factor in the Obesity Crisis," and is set for publication in the California Management Review.


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