'Healthy' foods may put on more weight

Friday 17 May, 2013. Foods marketed as "healthier" are seen by consumers as a licence to overeat and may actually lead in time to weight gain, interim results of new safefood funded research reveals.

The research, being led by a team from the University of Ulster, indicates that products with health and nutrition claims such as ‘low fat’ and ‘reduced fat’ may be contributing to people eating larger than recommended portions. It also indicates that many people assume that these foods with certain health claims are lower in calories than they are.

The aim of the research, conducted among over 180 adults on the island of Ireland who had a range of  body weights, was to compare what people thought to be the calorie content and reasonable portion sizes of ‘healthier’ and ‘standard’ foods.

Introducing the research, Dr Cliodhna Foley-Nolan, Director, Human Health & Nutrition, safefood, said:

There has been a huge increase in the number of food products with nutrition and health claims sold over the last 20 years, but we also know that the population’s weight has continued to increase. We commissioned this research to explore people’s understanding of these products given their popularity”.

Dr Foley-Nolan continued: “The research shows that these foods are viewed by some consumers as a license to overeat. However, in the case of many products, the fat that is removed in the ‘healthier’ product is replaced by other ingredients, such as sugar, and the calorie savings are small. Consumers need to relook at their portion sizes, as any benefit they might get from these ‘healthier’ processed foods could be undone by just how much of them they are eating."

Survey volunteers were shown 3 pairs of food - one marketed as ‘healthier’ and an equivalent ‘standard’ product. They were then asked to measure a recommended portion of each of these foods. They were also asked to rate how guilty they would feel if they ate what they perceived to be an appropriate portion.

The results showed the perceived appropriate portion sizes chosen by the survey volunteers was 28-71% larger than the recommended portion size on the label for five out of the six foods.

Principal researcher at the University of Ulster, Professor Barbara Livingstone, said: “This study supports what is described by many as ‘the health halo’ effect; that is, that consumers perceive these products to be healthier and with less calories than the ‘standard’ version food. They see them as representing the less guilty option and so eat more of them. Further education on what is a healthy portion size is warranted to overcome these misconceptions.”

The research report “Perceptions of ‘Healthiness’ of Foods” is available to download from the International Journal of Obesity.

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For further information please contact

Russell Lever


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Dermot Moriarty/Julie Carroll


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Mob: 00353 86 381 1034 (Dermot) / 00353 86 150 3047 (Julie)


Editor’s Notes

  • Overconsumption of approximately 50 calories daily can result in weight creeping up by 5lbs in a year
  • The terms ‘Reduced fat’,’ light’ and ‘lite’ mean 30% or less fat than the standard original product. If the standard original product is 20g fat/ 100g food, then ‘light’ = 14g or less fat/100g food
  • While the term ‘Low fat’ means < 3g fat/100g product