Many subconsciously seem to consider it less filling, potentially leading to weight gain, researchers say
By Dennis Thompson
MONDAY, Jan. 4, 2016 (HealthDay News) -- Words matter when you're trying to eat right, new research suggests.
People tend to overeat when they're consuming food that's been labeled "healthy," undermining their own efforts to improve their diet, the study found.
People order larger portions, eat more and feel less full when they're consuming food that's been portrayed as "healthy" in its packaging, according to a report published recently in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research.
"It's quite ironic. The more we put out foods that are labeled healthy, we could be abetting the obesity epidemic rather than combatting it," said study author Jacob Suher, a doctoral student at the University of Texas at Austin's McCombs School of Business.
People appear to overeat "healthy" food because they subconsciously consider it less filling, Suher and his colleagues found.
But they also found that this effect could be counteracted if people are told that a healthy food is "nourishing" -- a word that appears to indicate the food is more filling.
"The word 'nourishing' brings up another unconscious intuition that seems to override the one attached to the word 'healthy,' " Suher said.
Registered dietitian Joy Dubost said the study shows the power of a person's subconscious in shaping eating behaviors.
"When people say mind over matter, it really does seem to be a big factor," said Dubost, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "What your perception is of the food you eat can be very different from how your body is responding to it. Clearly, we need to start addressing both the conscious and the subconscious in our messages about healthy eating."
The new study took place in three phases. First, researchers asked 50 college students to look at pictures of healthy and unhealthy foods, and words associated with either "filling" or "not filling." The investigators found that people associated unhealthy foods with the thought of feeling full.
Next, the research team conducted a field study in which it measured the hunger levels of 40 graduate students after eating a cookie that had been labeled as either healthy or unhealthy. Even though all the cookies were the same, students who were told they were eating a "healthy" cookie wound up feeling hungrier 45 minutes later than those who thought they were eating an "unhealthy" cookie.