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How 'Health Food' Marketing Contributes to Obesity

According to a recent study, consumers implicitly believe that healthy food is less filling than unhealthy food and that can lead directly to overeating.

Nick Rose

Nick Rose

Photo via Flickr user Brandon Dimcheff

People who eat healthy food feel empty inside.

Not spiritual or existential emptiness, but worse: the nagging, physical emptiness we call hunger.

That's not armchair psychology, but the main conclusion of research carried out by Cornell's Food and Brand Lab in a recent study, titled "Eating healthy or feeling empty?"

Published in The Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, the psychologists looked at what they call the "healthy = less filling intuition," which is a fancy name for the suspicion that healthy food isn't quite as filling as "unhealthy" food.

Their research synthesized three separate experiments, the first of which included 50 undergraduate students at a large public university and established "an inverse relationship between the concepts of healthy and filling," the Cornell team wrote in a press release.

The second study measured the hunger levels of 40 graduate students who had eaten a cookie that was either portrayed as healthy or unhealthy "to test the effect of health portrayals on experienced hunger levels."

READ: Why a "Healthy" Wrap Can Be as Bad for You as Eating a Whole Pizza

The third and final experiment undertaken by the team of psychologists looked at the impact of health portrayals on how much food subjects ordered before watching a short film versus the actual amount of food eaten.

Together, these studies confirmed that consumers implicitly believe that healthy food is less filling than unhealthy food and that can lead directly to overeating. Because of healthy food's association with dieting and weight loss, it would appear that labelling can cause health-conscious consumers to overeat food which they, at some level, perceive as less satiating.

"When a food is portrayed as healthy, as opposed to unhealthy, consumers report lower hunger levels after consumption, order greater portion sizes of the food, and consume greater amounts of the food," the Food and Brand Lab team wrote.

It would also appear that healthy food labelling can even override the intellect of consumers who consider themselves savvy. "Surprisingly, even consumers who say they disagree with the idea that healthy foods are less filling than unhealthy foods are subject to the same biases."

By extension, the research suggests that when consumers eat what they consider to be healthy food, "they eat more than the recommended serving size because they associate 'healthy' with less filling."

READ: Burgers and Fries Might Actually Be Healthy for Your Muscles

But that's not the only counterintuitive finding unearthed by the Cornell team. Perhaps the most damning implication of the team's results is the fact that "healthy" food labels could be doing more harm than good in the fight against obesity.

"The findings suggest that the recent proliferation of healthy food labels may be ironically contributing to the obesity epidemic rather than reducing it," the Food and Brand Lab team wrote. "Consumers can use this knowledge to avoid overeating foods presented as healthy and to seek foods portrayed as nourishing when they want to feel full without overeating."

In other words, when the abyss stares back at you, it's not looking for healthy food.