Can Eating Healthy Actually Make You Gain Weight?

Jennifer O'Donnell-Giles | February 2, 2016

When the average person thinks of healthy eating, they think of losing or maintaining weight, feeling good on the inside, and looking good on the outside. Though healthy eating can achieve these and more, a recent study shows that this may not always be the case.

Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin found people who eat foods that are labeled "healthy" tend to eat more than the recommended serving size. Because these foods are generally perceived as less satiating, consumers often overate, subconsciously believing they weren't full, and opted for more, leading to uncontrolled binge eating.

The study, published in the Journal of the Association of Consumer Research, took part in three phases. First, participants were shown photos of healthy and unhealthy foods and asked to relate them to words associated with "filling" and "not filling." People more often associated the unhealthy foods with feelings of being full.

Second, researchers measured hunger levels of participants after eating the same cookie, in different cases labeled healthy or unhealthy. Those who thought they had eaten a "healthy" cookie reported being hungrier 45 minutes later than those who thought they had eaten an "unhealthy" cookie.

In the final phase, participants were asked to order as much popcorn as they'd like, with popcorn portrayed as healthy, unhealthy, or nourishing. Those who thought they were eating the healthy stuff ordered more than the ones who believed their food was unhealthy or nourishing.

The study did not conclude that individuals overeat healthy, whole foods like fruits and vegetables. It looked more closely at consumer's perception of the word "healthy" and its use on packaged foods – signaling that, while the healthy food itself might be better for us, the associations we create based on food labeling can impact how much we eat.

It's all well and good when talking about natural, whole foods, but what happens when you come across a packaged food that claims to be healthy? Specific standards of practice do not regulate words like "nutritious," "wholesome," "fresh" and others, so you might be binging on something that isn't actually good for you.

Do you think you overconsume healthy food? Do you order larger portions when you think that the food is good for you? This study's findings are a crucial conversation starter among obesity experts. Maybe making the right food choices isn’t the issue, but deciding how much of those foods we actually eat can make all the difference.


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Jennifer O'Donnell-Giles

Jenn Giles, R.D., C.S.S.D. is all about health and wellness. She has over 15 years’ experience, including a dual master’s degree in Nutrition and Exercise Physiology from Columbia University. She is a Registered Dietitian (RD) and a Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD). She supplements all of this with her spin instructor certification and USATriathlon Level I Coach Certification.

Jennifer is passionate about (actually, obsessed with) the sport of triathlon. She has been personally participating in triathlons since 2000 and running road races since 1992. She is a two-time Ironman finisher and has completed countless numerous marathons. She has been a member of Power Bar Team Elite since 2006 and competed as a member of the 2006 Aquaphor/Active.com Sponsored Athlete Team. She was ranked as USAT All American Honorable mention in 2006 and 2011. Jennifer does all of this along side of her husband, Patrick, who is an equally accomplished triathlete and runner. They try as hard as they can to do all of their training and racing together.

She will tell you, however, that her most important, most rewarding and most challenging job is as a mother of four. She knows first hand the challenges of maintaining optimal fitness, overall good health and achieving goals while raising a family - of which good nutrition is the cornerstone.

Most importantly, she knows how to motivate, inspire and challenge athletes based on their own abilities, strengths and everyday lifestyles. She believes there is an athlete in everyone - no matter what their abilities are – and if those abilities are manifold, then there is an even better athlete in there!

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