Can coupons make you fat?

Can coupons make you fat?  A new study suggests that coupons, which tend to be for unhealthy foods, are not helping in the war on obesity.

Researchers looked at all of the grocery coupons offered by six large, national grocery chains during a one month period.

They wanted to see how many discounts were offered for nutritious vs. less nutritious foods (high sugar foods, snacks and “empty calorie” foods.)


Does this coupon make me look fat?

The month’s coupon clipping netted almost 1,000 coupons that were redeemable for food and beverage items. Here’s what they found when they broke down the coupons into categories:

  • Fully 25% of the coupons were for candy, processed snack foods and desserts.
  • 14% were for some form of prepared foods or meals (TV dinners, frozen entrees, etc.).
  • 12% were for juices, soda, energy drinks, sports drinks and other beverages.
  • 11% were for cereals (the researchers didn’t differentiate between high sugar cereals, whole grains or no added sugar varieties) and pastas.
  • 3% of coupons were for vegetables (either fresh, frozen, dried or canned).
  • 1% were for fruits (fresh, frozen, canned or dried).

These results seemed to be fairly similar no matter what region of the US the coupons were drawn from.

The researchers note that coupons are used to entice consumers to buy products yet, even with ever-increasing numbers of people looking for nutritious foods, major grocery chains are ignoring that group of customers.

“Healthful foods” generally include fruits and vegetables, legumes, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, unprocessed meats, and nuts and seeds; unhealthful foods are high in fat, sodium, and added sugars. By this metric, grocery stores’ online coupons in our study were dominated by unhealthful foods, including processed snack foods, candies, desserts, processed prepared meals, and cereals. Few coupons were available for more healthful alternatives, such as fruits, vegetables, and unprocessed meats. Our data are consistent with previous research showing that grocery stores infrequently promote foods that support a healthy weight.

They add coupons were “rarely” offered for fruits and vegetables. They would like to see more coupons offered for those, and other, healthy eating choices.

Mark Thoma, MD, is a physician who did his residency in internal medicine. Mark has a long history of social activism, and was an early technogeek, and science junkie, after evolving through his nerd phase. Favorite quote: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science... is not 'Eureka!' (I found it!) but 'That's funny.'” - Isaac Asimov

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36 Responses to “Can coupons make you fat?”

  1. The_Fixer says:

    For the purposes of my local grocery store’s savings card, I am C. Montgomery Burns with an address of a local sports stadium, and a phone number of a carpet cleaning enterprise in Chicago. I remember their number from the TV commercial where they sang it. I changed the area code to match ours.

    I’ve been doing that for years and they haven’t been the wiser. It’s not like they call around and send investigators to check the validity of that information. It’s just sold to marketing companies anyway.

    It’s my personal way of gaming the system, while protesting the pervasive collection of information that we see these days.

  2. Silver_Witch says:

    Thank the heavens for “harvest time”. You are right though – however, it is nice that we in this generation have more access to fresh veg/fruit all year essentially. Imagine when we could only get an apple a few months a year…or berries in the fall. Yuck.

  3. Silver_Witch says:

    Thank you for the assistance Monophylos….I love it! And thank you for the Perseus Project searchable lexica resource…who knew it existed besides a very wise Unicorn!

  4. Monophylos Fortikos says:

    Yeah. I mean, sure, the chief constituent of any cereal flour is going to be starch, but the proportion varies widely according to what grain is used and how much of it is used. Still I doubt you’ll find any flour that’s less than 50-60% starch.

  5. GarySFBCN says:

    Doesn’t it depend upon the amount of fiber?

  6. nicho says:

    Yes, but even cereal without sugar added is still a bowl full of sugar. Any farmer will tell you — if you want to make an animal fat, you take it out of the pasture where it’s eating plants, you pen it up, and feed it grains. Grains are sugar.

  7. Monophylos Fortikos says:

    I think you can say that about most foods that have come in American society to be the canonical breakfast foods. I think it’s a little funny how if you told people you had a slab of apple pie for breakfast they’d deride you for eating junk but if you told people you had a plate full of apple-cinnamon pancakes drenched in syrup they’d be fine with it. I guess it’s a holdover from the days of flinty farmer metabolisms that would burn off all the sugar and the fat by sunrise.

  8. nicho says:

    There’s no such thing as low-sugar cereal. Cereal is a sugar-delivery mechanism. Cereal is divided into high sugar,,sugar added to sugar, and OMFG sugar.

  9. Monophylos Fortikos says:

    Oh, not at all! I’m glad you like it. You wouldn’t believe how much time I wasted using the Perseus Project searchable lexica, as well as looking directly through Liddell and Scott (and Lewis and Short), looking for a different username.

  10. Silver_Witch says:

    .I think it is the lot of computer geeks to be stuck in the middle of the night in front of a vending machine.

    That is so funny….I tried so many names today in a search for one that fit. I have changed it at least 20 times…hoping one would gel. I hope you do not mind that I have take your suggestion…so far it feels very very homey…..

  11. HKDaniel says:

    Coupons come from competing products, you don’t have that with fruits and vegetables, hence no coupons.
    Cereal, soft drinks, and prepared foods all have many choices, so you get incentives. Same applies to Tea, coffee, spices, etc, except that with greater competition comes greater efforts at incentive.
    Not a dark conspiracy, just market forces.

  12. Monophylos Fortikos says:

    I think being chained to a desk promotes the eating of this crap. You can slip a cookie, cracker or candy into your mouth and it not only tastes good – it feels good as well.

    Oh, yeah. It’s a probably I’ve struggled with when working unsatisfying jobs. Impulse eating becomes a little refuge, a treat to get you through your day, and since the only food likely to be available immediately to hand is junk food from vending machines or coffee-shops that just means you’re getting your little escape from the grind in the form of empty calories.

    Not “Silver_Witch”? :)

  13. Monophylos Fortikos says:

    This is partly why, even though my mate and I would definitely like to save on our household budget where possible, we haven’t much bothered with coupons. There’s simply not enough to be found in them that’s useful. Much the same savings can often be found simply from avoiding name-brand items, since coupons tend to be for branded groceries.

  14. Graying_Witch says:

    I am so happy I live in a place where produce is more available and reasonably priced then when I lived on the East Coast.

  15. emjayay says:

    Actually sugar would be cheaper without federal tariffs (or whatever the mechanism is).

  16. emjayay says:

    Is it recycled?

  17. emjayay says:

    At harvest time local small supermarket chains in NYC as well as fruit and veg stores had giant bins of NE apples of various types for 50 cents a pound. Later Trader Joe’s had stalks of brussels sprouts – about 3 pounds of sprouts – for $2.99. That’s how it works for produce.

  18. emjayay says:

    Fruit and veg prices are pretty much dependent on market conditions, essentially supply changes. Like harvest time.

  19. emjayay says:

    And usually some house brand, particularly if it is on sale, is a lot cheaper. You have to make some match of insane sale and huge coupon to get anything out of it.

  20. Indigo says:

    That’s exactly what’s happening, they want us to spend more. I must be their devil, I go in with a shopping list and that’s usually all I get.

  21. Naja pallida says:

    Many grocers went to “savings cards”, so they could gather your personal information and track your spending habits, instead of straight up coupons. Stores around here also have internal coupons, that they don’t put in their circulars but you can pick up in store. They haven’t made it any more convenient for consumers to save money… but their goal really isn’t to save you money, but to convince you to spend more.

  22. judybrowni says:

    Yes, I noticed that, when I turned to coupon clipping.

    So, instead, I’d buy only the vegetables, fruit and meat the supermarket had on sale.

    Coupon clipping is only valuable for the non-food items, if that.

  23. Indigo says:

    I would be happy to use coupons for food items I use but the ones that show up in the circulars and local newspaper are mostlly for junk food that I dont use. Disappointing. Maybe that’s the only way the merchants can move those items. I get good coupons from my favorite bookstore and from my auto repair shop, why not the grocers?

  24. Graying_Witch says:

    Ohhhh sorry John. I will behave….


  25. Graying_Witch says:

    Possibly that is true. I keep very close watch on fruit (and veg – although that is a little more seasonal). Some weeks apples are .99 a pound, and another close to $2.00… I switch from apples to berries based on which is “on sale”.

    Banana coupons would rock though because they very rarely fluctuate…pretty constant here.

    An Apple A Day Keeps the Doctor Away is really really true…I highly recommend them.

  26. Naja pallida says:

    I’m sure most people never really keep track of the weekly price fluctuations in produce, so a coupon gives someone that tangible feeling that they’re actively doing something to save money on a specific thing they want.

  27. Because Mark wrote one huge post that was far too big for one post, so I broke it up into 3. Meaning, you got another one coming :)

  28. Graying_Witch says:

    Perhaps…I only eat food I cook from real things. I gave up processed food a long a while back (meaning food in a box or a can).

    I think being chained to a desk promotes the eating of this crap. You can slip a cookie, cracker or candy into your mouth and it not only tastes good – it feels good as well.

    I personally believe that it is a very very complex issue with a very big emotional component.

  29. Jessica J. Castillo says:


    ✼✼✼✼ ✼✼

  30. Strepsi says:

    You are partially right — exercise can change your life — but the majority problem is not stationery lifestule, it’s the North American diet. Processed foods are High fat, high sugar, high salt, and tons of corn syrup or hydrogenated oils, none of which our bodies are used to.

    Studies have been done on rural Chinese populations — where obesity and diabetes are almost unknown — and those same people after immigrating to North America and the results are shocking.

    Adult onset diabetes is 85% preventable by changes in diet alone. Never drink juice or soda and you’ll see a major change. Avoid canned and processed foods and you will see HUGE change.

  31. Graying_Witch says:

    Sorry I had to post this. Why are we focusing on “fat” people lately.

    I think the real problem is our stationary life style and the fat that people have to work at this stationary jobs for more hours to make ends meet.

    When I was young and active, outside, playing, swimming, running….never had a weight problem.

    It all started when I was chained to a desk with no sunlight – bound to a chair.

    We need to be active and in these days and times it is more difficult than ever.

    I have changed my life by walking to/from work. Saves gas and helps me stay swelt and happy (yes happy – the sunshine is a wonderful thing).

    No one should be chained to a desk, without movement or playtime – yet our bosses demand more and more from us…even getting up a moment is not allowed (think about checkers at WalMart…standing in one spot for hours and hours).

  32. Graying_Witch says:

    What is this FAT Week….

    Man…maybe we should just lay off the poor fat people (including this old graying witch).

  33. bkmn says:

    Just look at the parking lots of Costco or Sam’s. Those big SUV’s and huge cars are often filled with equally large people.

    I shop at Costco, but I also have a freezer that allows me to portion out that large pack of meat and freeze part of it to use later. And Costco toilet paper is a good product and priced well to boot.

  34. Naja pallida says:

    You almost never see coupons for fresh produce, or meat. They’re almost always for mass produced processed stuff, frozen TV dinners seem to be a popular coupon choice around here. Or for non-essential things, like cookies or chips.

    You also have to wonder how much buying in ‘bulk’ also impacts people’s dietary choices. Shopping at Costco or Sam’s Club, when you’re forced to buy a dozen muffins instead of six, because that’s how they sell them. Or a giant box of crackers, or gummy bears by the pound. Or even consider fresh meat, buying an entire rack of ribs instead of a cut that is enough for a single family’s meal. I’d like to know how much extra food people who shop this way consume, just so they don’t waste it.

    I’ve watched a couple of those shows on extreme couponing, and most of what I see is people buying a whole butt-loads of food that they probably won’t even get around to using before it expires. So what if they saved a bunch of money on it. Now coupons for things like toilet paper. Stock up! It ain’t going bad any time soon. :)

  35. bkmn says:

    There are only two times to use coupons:
    1. If there is a coupon for something you were going to buy anyway
    2. If there is a coupon on something you were thinking about trying anyway

    Yes there should be more coupons for healthy foods. There should also be less federal subsidies to growers of corn, soybeans, sugar (beets and cane), and other commodities that are made artificially cheap that fuel the obesity trend.

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