What on earth could be bad about eating low-fat foods? Quite a lot, as it turns out. Food psychologists Brian Wansink and Pierre Chandon (2006) have discovered that foods labeled as “low fat” can lead to increased consumption and contribute significantly to obesity. How does that happen? The researchers point to two major reasons:
- Low fat foods increase perceptions of the appropriate serving size
- Low fat foods decrease consumption guilt
In their study, Wansink and Chandon (2006) showed that “all people – particularly those who are overweight – eat more calories of snack food when it is labeled as low fat than when it is labeled as regular.” Food nutrition labels can provide both objective and subjective consumption cues. Objective labels tell us exactly how much of a particular food constitutes a single serving and discreetly packaged items such as a 12 ounce can of soda, make the recommended serving size pretty obvious.
[showmyads] In other situations however, such as with a one pound bag of candy, serving size is subjective and more ambiguous. People tend to assume that low-fat products are guaranteed to be lower in calories and this is not necessarily true. This incorrect assumption can encourage persons to eat more, in order to compensate for the calories they think they are missing. Wansink and Chandon (2006) found that persons who were exposed to low-fat labels increased their perception of an appropriate serving size by more than 25%.
“A lot of research has shown that emotions and, particularly, anticipation of consumption pleasures and guilt can play a central role in determining how much a person eats” (Baumeister 2002; Dhar and Simonson 1999; Shiv and Fedorikhin 1999; Wertenbroch 1998, cited in Wansink & Chandon, 2006). Due to the participants’ general belief that low-fat foods contain fewer calories, the participants stated that they would feel less guilty about eating more than the recommended serving of these low-fat products.
So how can we avoid the low-fat trap? Consumers are encouraged to find out what the information on labels really mean; reduced fat does not mean low cholesterol, low cholesterol does not mean low fat, low fat does not mean low calories. Wansink and Chandon (2006) also showed that low-fat labels containing objective consumption cues were effective in preventing overeating and the overestimation of serving sizes. Additionally, foods that do not have explicit serving sizes can be portioned out into small serving bowls rather than being mindlessly eaten straight from the bag.
Wansink, B., & Chandon, P. (2006). Can “low-fat” nutrition labels lead to obesity? Journal of Marketing Research, 43, 605-617. doi: 10.1509/jmkr.43.4.605
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- Dieters be warned: ‘low-fat’ foods may be just as bad (independent.ie)
- So-called ‘low-fat’ foods have similar calorie count to standard products, experts warn (itv.com)
- Companies to make better tasting mid-calorie snacks (metronews.ca)
- Calorie warning over low fat foods (express.co.uk)