Food labeling can greatly influence your purchasing decisions when you're shopping for food. A strategic maneuver used to motivate people to make smarter food choices at the grocery store is to label foods with nutrition information. Foods now have all sorts of health claims and labeling specifically targeting those who are trying to lose weight. Low-fat, reduced-fat, light, less fat, fat-free, sugar-free, no sugar added, and other terms are now splashed across food labels everywhere.
People seeking to lose weight sometimes choose these foods because they believe they're healthier or may aid in their weight-loss efforts. However, a recent study contradicts the idea that these "diet foods" are helpful in weight loss because of one flaw: people tend to consume more of these foods than their full-fat counterparts.
The recent study out of the UK sought to find out if labeling foods with nutrition information might actually affect how much of that product people eat. In the study, the researchers gave a group of normal and overweight participants (47 subjects comprising of 23 females and 24 males) the exact same lunch meals on three different days, but the meals were labeled as either "high fat/energy," "low fat/energy" and "baseline."
Even though the meals that were served were all identical, the differences in labeling made a significant difference in the amount the participants ate. When the meal was labelled as "low fat/energy" the participants consumed three percent more than the baseline. There was no difference in calorie intake between the high fat/energy and the baseline. The participants that ate the most in the foods marked low fat/energy (again, the food was identical across all tests but was simply marked differently) were the overweight or obese men.
What this Means for You
The findings of this study, and several other similar studies, suggest that labeling foods as low-fat or low-calorie may encourage people to eat significantly larger portions of that food, negating any benefits from choosing foods that contain fewer calories and less fat in hopes to lose weight or eat healthy. While low-fat and reduced-calorie foods can certainly be helpful in trying to lose weight, maintain a healthy weight, or eat healthy in general by cutting back on heart-damaging saturated fats, it's important to remember that foods labeled as such should still be eaten in appropriate amounts.
The Key to Losing Weight
One take home message from the results of this study is that portion control is highly important for all foods, not just those are higher in calories and fat. You could easily gain weight eating fat-free or low-fat foods all day long if you still consume larger portions and take in more calories than your body needs. When it comes to losing weight, you must consume fewer calories than your body needs (or burn calories through exercise). Additionally, food manufacturers often have to use artificial additives to make up for the flavor that is lost when fat is removed from foods. The best practice is to consume a wide variety of foods--mostly plants--and eat proper portions.
Kari Hartel, RD, LD is a Registered, Licensed Dietitian and freelance writer based out of St. Louis, MO. Kari is passionate about nutrition education and the prevention of chronic disease through a healthy diet and active lifestyle. Kari holds a Bachelor of Science in Dietetics from Southeast Missouri State University and is committed to helping people lead healthy lives. She completed a yearlong dietetic internship at OSF St. Francis Medical Center in Peoria, IL, where she worked with a multitude of clients and patients with complicated diagnoses. She planned, marketed, and implemented nutrition education programs and cooking demonstrations for the general public as well as for special populations, including patients with cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, obesity, and school-aged children. Contact Kari at KariHartelRD@gmail.com.