woman wants to eat healthy

Are you buying healthy food products labeled as low-fat or reduced fat believing you are watching out for your health and weight this way?

Truth is, this could be a big mistake.

The question is why?

Food labeled this way really keeps its’ promise and actually has less fat than the conventionally produced standard product.

So what’s the problem?

License to overeat

Researchers led by professor Barbara Livingstone from the University of Ulster, conducted a study where they presented 186 people with three different pairs of food. Each pair consisted of a product labeled as standard and one labeled as a “healthier” version with claims like “reduced fat”. They asked the participants to serve themselves one portion of each food and to rate how guilty they would feel if they would eat their portions. The pairs consisted of reduced fat and luxury coleslaw, semi-skimmed milk and sprite and frosties and special K cereals. The “healthier” food products actually contained the same amount of calories as the ‘standard’ versions.

And guess what?

The participants served themselves much bigger portions of the ‘healthy food’ (even up to 72%). They estimated the ‘healthier’ versions as containing much less calories giving them a “license to overeat” without feeling guilty.

Yes, you got that right.

Food labels claiming health benefits can trigger overeating resulting in weight gain in the long run.

Consumers perceive products labeled as low-fat or with other nutritional claims as healthier and with less calories than the ‘standard’ version food.This is called the ‘health halo’ effect. The danger lies in the perception of these foods. Consumers see them as a less guilty option giving them a license to overeat¬† leading to weight gain.

Educating yourself about what healthy portion sizes are and what food labels actually mean can help you overcome this dangerous misconceptions.

To avoid this marketing label mess always buy whole foods and try to avoid processed food. If you can’t avoid buying processed food try to buy food that is one or two steps from a whole food e.g., if you can’t buy fresh tomatoes buy canned tomatoes instead of pasta tomato sauce.

5 nutrition labels likely to trigger overeating


If a food is labeled low-fat it means that it has 3 grams of fat or less per serving.

Always check the serving size on the nutrition label. The serving size on the label can be significantly smaller than what an average person would eat. If one cookie has less than 3 grams of fat it can be labeled low-fat, but do you eat only one cookie or more of them?
The reduced fat in low-fat products is often replaced with sugar to maintain the taste and texture properties of the food. Low fat doesn’t mean low calorie. In fact low-fat food is often packed with carbs and sugar with quite a few calories.


Whole grains are perceived as healthier than products made with refined flour, making us feel less guilty when we eat them and more likely to overeat on them. The fact is that whole grains are much healthier and contain significantly more proteins, fiber and vitamin E but they certainly don’t have less calories. It is healthier to eat whole grains then refined products but we should take care not to serve big portions since this will lead to weight gain.

Low calorie

If a food is labeled low-calorie it means that it has 40 calories or less per serving. Keeping in mind and checking for the serving size the producer defines on the label is essential here. Serving sizes on the label are often much smaller than what an average person would eat. That means that it is quite easy to overdo the calories on a few low-calorie products you buy.


Gluten free food is for people with coeliac disease or people who are intolerant to gluten. Consumers believe gluten-free food is healthier and will help them to lose weight. In fact gluten free food often has more calories because the missing gluten is replaced with fat and sugar so that the food becomes tastier. Gluten free products very often have less fiber than the standard version of food containing gluten. Gluten-free is recommended for people with coeliac disease but it is not a healthier less caloric version of standard food.

Trans fat free

Research shows that consumers believe that trans fat free food is less caloric and that they can eat bigger portion sizes. What it actually means is that food labeled trans-fat free has 0.5 grams or less of trans fat per serving. That means the manufacturer can claim that the product has zero trans fat if it contains less than 0.5 grams per serving. The recommended daily intake of trans fat for an adult on a 2000 calorie per day diet is about 2 grams (The American Heart Association). It is easy to overeat on calories and even the recommended daily intake of trans fat with trans fat free products! Always read the nutrition label and caloric value of these foods. If they state trans fat free check the ingredient list. If it states any kind of partially hydrogenated oil it contains trans fats. A manufacturer defined¬† “single serving”¬† is often less than what an average person eats.


Means that the food has half the fat, one-third the calories or half the salt of its regular counterpart. But the term can also be used to describe properties or texture of food that doesn’t affect the nutrition of the product. For example, “light brown sugar”, “light olive oil” ,’light and fluffy’. These products don’t have less calories, fat or sodium the term light just describes the product. This way the term light can be used on a wide range of products and can mislead consumers to believe that the product they bought is healthier than the standard version of the food. Watch out for how this term is used on the products you buy and read the nutrition labels to be sure.

Image credits: Designed by Freepik