The Health Halo: How low–fat foods can actually make you fatter
Wansink, Brian and Pierre Chandon (2006), "Can "Low Fat" Nutrition Labels Lead to Obesity?," Journal of Marketing Research, 43:4 (November), 605-17.
A bag of crackers claiming to be low-fat.
Three recent studies done by the Food and Brand Lab found that putting low–fat labels on snack foods encouraged people to eat up to 50% more than those who saw labels without the low fat claim. Simply seeing the words 'low–fat' encouraged people in these studies to consume 84 extra calories! This happens because when consumers see the "low–fat" label on a product, they automatically assume it has fewer calories. On average, participants underestimated the calorie content of "low–fat" M&Ms and granola by 48% and 50%, respectively. Interestingly, people who are overweight seem to be extra–sensitive to low–fat labels: when given M&Ms with a low–fat label, they ate 60 more calories than normal–weight participants did.
So why do low–fat labels cause people to overeat? One of the three studies found that giving participants a food with a "low–fat" label caused them to increase their perception of an appropriate serving size by 25.1%, regardless of whether a participant was overweight or normal weight. Additionally, participants believed that foods labeled as "low–fat" had about 260 fewer calories, and all participants said they would feel less guilty for eating "low–fat foods," especially the granola. However, the last study included objective serving size information on bags of low–fat granola, and concluded that this strategy was effective in preventing the overeating and overestimating serving sizes that occurs with low–fat labeling. Participants who received labels telling them their bags contained two servings reduced their intakes by 50 calories!
Article Summary by Ashleigh Eberly
Full text paper: (available as a pdf by clicking here)
Fix It: suggestions to avoid the low–fat trap
- Read nutrition labels! Pay attention to the calorie count of foods, particularly low–fat foods. When the researchers went to a grocery store and looked at the fat and calorie content of popular chocolate candies, bars, cookies, milk drinks and muffins, they found that although the low–fat versions of these foods have 59% less fat than the regular versions, the drop in calorie content is only 15%, which is not large enough to justify our increased consumption
- Understand what health claims like "low–fat," "reduced fat," etc. really mean
- Be aware of serving sizes, there are many websites available to help you understand appropriate serving sizes
- Keep measuring cups handy and always put single servings into a bowl rather than mindlessly munching straight from the bag
- Measure out single servings of on–the–go snack foods and put them into baggies when you bring them home from the store
- Consider buying regular or full–fat versions of snack foods instead of the low–fat ones if you think you'll still be tempted to overeat. This is especially important for overweight people who showed a strong tendency to overeat low–fat foods, regardless of serving size labels. Also, some research shows that the ingredients companies use to replace the fat can actually make you hungrier, causing you to overeat