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Want to fuel your personal performance? You’re probably choosing the wrong foods

Male eating an energy bar inside a gym.
Posted 2020-07-30
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A new study from the UBC Sauder School of Business shows people incorrectly believe that sugary, fatty foods will supercharge their activities.

Whether they’re prepping for a big presentation, cramming for a final exam or striving to hit new workout goals, people constantly push themselves to perform their best — and many use food to help fuel those endeavours. 

But are they eating the right foods? According to a new study from the UBC Sauder School of Business, consumers are choosing high-calorie foods, even those that are low-nutrition, believing they’ll help them hit their performance targets — but in reality, their choices could be doing just the opposite.  

For the study, titled Food as Fuel: Performance Goals Increase the Consumption of High-Calorie Foods at the Expense of Good Nutrition, researchers conducted a range of experiments that studied the impact of performance goals on food intake. They also asked participants if, when it comes to food, they saw their bodies as temples, as playgrounds, or as cars requiring fuel.

In one experiment involving 205 male undergraduate students in Canada and France, participants were given handgrips and told their performance would be compared with that of their classmates; participants in a control group were given handgrips to play with, but had no performance goals. The researchers also made potato chips available.

“We specifically chose potato chips because these foods provide absolutely zero nutritional benefits, and we observed how many they would eat prior to engaging in a physical task” says lead author Yann Cornil, who co-authored the study with Pierrick Gomez and Dimitri Vasiljevic from the NEOMA Business School in Mont-Saint-Aignan, France. 

“And we found they would eat many more potato chips when we activated performance goals for a physical task.”

In a similar experiment with 146 undergraduate students at a Canadian business school, researchers asked participants to perform a cognitive test that involved doing brain teaser-type puzzles, and told them their results would be ranked; a different group did the puzzles simply for fun. Both groups were given M&Ms. 

Again, the group that had to perform ate more of the sugary candies. “We know that M&Ms do absolutely nothing to increase cognitive performance,” says Cornil. “But we have evidence that people eat more M&Ms because they believe it's going to give them energy.”

What’s more, the participants most likely to consume the low-nutrition snacks were those who see the human body as a car requiring fuel; in other words, their consumption was more driven by the belief it would help them perform than it was by pleasure.  

So why are people getting it so wrong? Cornil says we’re misled by marketers who advertise snack foods as sources of energy, even though they provide little, if any, benefit.

Cornil notes that a product like Nutella contains a lot of fat and refined sugar, but some advertising campaigns position it as something that fuels daily activities and will give kids energy to go to school, which can be misleading. 

Indeed, the researchers also surveyed nutritionists who confirmed that the best fuel, for instance prior to a task requiring energy, can be found in natural, non-transformed carbohydrates such as fruits, vegetables and nuts, and not in high-calorie, highly processed snack foods. 

Cornil says the findings show that people need more nutrition education, especially when it comes to which foods provide fuel. He also believes there should be stricter limits put on advertisers when it comes to making claims about a product’s energy potential. 

Meanwhile, consumers needing a performance boost should stick with nutritious whole foods — even if marketers tell them sugary, fatty and heavily processed items will help them hit the mark.

“A Mars bar or a Snickers bar can be a quick pick-me-up given the amount of sugar they contain, but the energy won’t last for long. And pretty soon there's going to be a crash,” says Cornil. “So, if you want to play a football game or work on a big presentation, it's probably not a great idea.”