New research conducted at the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics of the University of Texas shows that people tend to order larger portions, eat more and feel less full when they consumed food labeled as ‘healthy’ than when it was labeled ‘unhealthy’. Researchers also found that the over-eating and the feeling of not being satiated could be countered by simply labeling the ‘healthy’ food as ‘nourishing’.
Earlier studies had shown that people associated unhealthy foods with the thought of feeling full and another study, which measured hunger levels, found that people eating a ‘healthy’ cookie tended to feel hungrier than those eating an ‘unhealthy’ cookie, even though both cookies were the same.
In the new study, people were presented popcorn that had been portrayed as either ‘healthy’, ‘unhealthy’ or ‘nourishing’. The participants were asked to order as much popcorn as they thought they would need to not be hungry until their next meal.
The researchers found that people ordered more and ate more if they had been told the popcorn was healthy, compared with students who were told it was unhealthy. Those told the popcorn was ‘nourishing’ ate less than those in the ‘healthy’ group, but more than those in the ‘unhealthy’ group. The effect of the word ‘healthy’ on food consumption held strong even for people who disagreed in a questionnaire that healthy foods are less filling, thereby indicating that people’s response to the word is ingrained in their subconscious and they react to it automatically.
There are a couple of potential explanations for why the word ‘healthy’ has become associated with less filling. People tend to come up with extreme examples when provided the words ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’, veering either to salad on the one hand, or hamburgers or pizza on the other. These biases could influence a person's eating habits.
The takeaway from the study is that we need to start addressing both the conscious and the subconscious in our messages about healthy eating and that people who want to improve their diet might try associating the word ‘nourishing’ with the word ‘healthy’ when they're food shopping or ordering at a restaurant.