'Healthy' Foods Could Be Contributing to America's Obesity Problem

April 10th 2016

Alex Mierjeski

"Healthy" foods have exploded onto American supermarket shelves at near-unprecedented rates in recent years.

But research suggests that those foods could be backfiring in an unexpected way. One recent study found that foods labeled "healthy" essentially trick some eaters into simply eating more — despite high calorie counts.

"From 2001 to 2010, the percentage of new food and beverage products with health-related claims has increased from 25 to 43 percent,” wrote Jacob Suher, a Ph.D. student at University of Texas at Austin's McCombs School of Business, who tested out the hypothesis in a January study.

“While this may appear to be a boon for the fight against obesity, psychologists have uncovered a paradoxical phenomenon whereby people tend to overeat foods that are portrayed as healthy," he continued.

For the study, researchers used a "multi-method approach" to look at how participants perceived the relationship between how healthy something is, and how filling it is. They found that the "healthy" label led to both stronger feelings of hunger and more consumption. They found that eating cookies labeled "healthy" left people feeling hungrier than eating the same cookies not labeled as such, for instance.

"When a food is portrayed as healthy, as opposed to unhealthy, consumers report lower hunger levels after consumption, order greater portion sizes of the food, and consume greater amounts of the food," the researchers explained about the study.

"Healthy" food

The uptick in the amount of healthy foods available to Americans might be a good thing in the overall response to the health costs associated with obesity in the U.S.

However, as the research suggests:

"The concurrent obesity epidemic and rapid increase in health-related food claims has led to the discovery of an ironic phenomenon whereby people overconsume foods portrayed as healthy."

There is a way to possibly overcome this tendency to over-eat foods labeled as healthy, the researchers wrote: "Consumers can use this knowledge to avoid overeating foods presented as healthy and to seek foods portrayed as nourishing when they want to feel full without overeating."

[h/t Upvoted]