Well Being

You’re Eating Too Much Because Of Labels, Not Hunger

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Think what you order at a restaurant or how much you choose to eat at the dinner table has anything to do with how hungry you are? According to a new study, there's a good chance it doesn't. It likely has more to do with the label on the food.

The researchers at the University of Michigan looked at the impact of labels on what we eat. But it's not necessarily labels that trick us into thinking we're eating healthier than we really are, like we have seen before. Or even portion sizes being misrepresented. This time it's about labels that are inconsistent from one brand and one eatery to another. And it's about the psychological effects of their sizes.

For instance, in one study people were given cookies that were labeled either medium or large. Without knowing it though, the amount of cookies in each package was identical, so the only difference was the label telling them what size they were getting.

The researchers tracked how much they ate, and guess what happened?  People ate more cookies when they were labeled “medium.” In other words, instead of gauging their eating by hunger levels, people were eating according to what the labels said. Only a “medium” serving? I can eat the whole thing. A “large” serving? Better not eat it all.

It's the same psychological effect that some of us have when we go shopping. When given two pairs of jeans that fit identically, of course we're going to choose the ones whose label says size 8 versus size 10. Am I right?

Researcher and marketing professor Aradhna Krishna explained this phenomenon:

Just because there's a different size label attached to the same actual quantity of food, people eat more. But also, [they] think they've not eaten as much.

It's the same thing we see with the inconsistency of soda sizes at fast food restaurants, she says. A 32-ounce soda at McDonald's is a large, but the same soda at Wendy's is considered a medium. And even if we don't intend to drink the entire soda, when it's in front of us, it's awfully tempting, and we may end up mindlessly consuming more than we thought we would.

With all of  these labeling variations, it's easy to see why some Americans overeat and consume more than their share of calories. Perhaps instead of focusing on banning Big Gulps and other extra-large sodas, we should strive to develop consistent labeling procedures across all foods and restaurants so people truly know what they're ordering and consuming.

Do you think this would help with our obesity crisis?

Photo: shutterstock.com