Dieters can get out of ‘healthy’ food trap by checking ingredients

Dieters are more fooled by misleading health labels than people who don’t obsess about calories, a new study suggests. Dieters believed a heap of pasta shells, mozzarella and salami was healthier if it was called a “salad” instead of “pasta.” They also ate more jelly beans than non-dieters if they were presented as “fruit chews” instead of “candy.”

Dieters appear to be stuck in a trap—they try to be healthy in their food evaluations, but the attempt backfires. To make sense of the irony, we talked to one of the study’s authors, Dr. Caglar Irmak, an assistant professor at the Darla Moore School of Business, University of South Carolina. While not a nutrition expert, Irmak, who studies consumer behavior, has a specific interest in studying how consumers infer the healthiness of food.

Irmak found one reason dieters may overeat foods labeled as healthy: the food actually tastes better to them.

In one of his experiments, dieters thought “fruit chews” were tastier than “candy chews.”
“If they perceive the item to be tasty, they eat even more,” says Irmak.

Which is exactly what happened when the researchers gave dieters a bowl of “fruit chews” to snack on during the movie—the dieters ate more jelly beans than the non-dieters.

“That was kind of astonishing to us because it’s ironic,” says Irmak. “They try to be healthy, but because of that goal, they’re actually eating less healthy.”


So if dieters try too hard, it can backfire. Irmak is researching two theories as to why. Maybe dieters think they know more about nutrition than they actually do, or perhaps dieters tend to eat more in the first place and are trying to find an excuse to indulge.
According to Irmak, it’s true that dieters do know more about nutrition than non-dieters. He says in research studies, when people think they know a lot about a topic, they don’t spend as much time searching for new information than people who don’t think they are well informed. Dieters may be doing the same thing in his study.

“Maybe because they think they know more, they don’t think they have to think about the ingredients.”

So maybe—maybe—if veteran dieters tried to pretend they had just started dieting, they’d pay more attention to the ingredients, he says. Researchers could test that idea by comparing novice and experienced dieters, he says.

He has a second theory:

“Most dieters are in need of dieting because they are overweight, or they like to eat. They want to eat…but they don’t want to eat. There’s a conflict in their mind. That conflict is resolved when they eat something they think is healthy.
Once they find an excuse to eat, then they can eat more.”

Ah, that sounds about right. Better to get familiar with reading nutrition facts. The FDA has a quick tutorial.