Does Healthy Food Dogma Prevent or Cause Obesity?

“When we hear unqualified advice to eat more of this or that healthy food, we start to worry,” said Gary Foster recently at the Blackburn Course on Obesity sponsored by Harvard Medical School. Foster was reviewing a body of impressive community intervention studies he and his colleagues at Temple University’s Center for Obesity Research and Education have conducted in Philadelphia. His observations challenge us to stop and think. Does healthy food dogma prevent or contribute to obesity?

Foster referred to a recent study that found, among other things, that simply telling people to eat more fruits and vegetables can promote weight gain in the absence of guidance to reduce calories from other foods. In this study, Jenny Houchins and colleagues from Purdue were comparing the effects of beverages versus solid fruits and vegetables with the same calories on total energy intake and body weight.

Thus, labeling any caloric food as healthy and encouraging people to go for more can have unhealthy effects. It’s an unfortunate result of food marketers tapping into a consumer tendency to consume larger portions of anything labeled “healthy.” This is how yogurt has become a growing source of added sugar as Americans have become enamored with yogurt’s health benefits — all while overlooking how much sugar it has.

Your mother was right. Take everything — even healthy food — in moderation.

Click here to read the Houchins study. Click here and here to read more about halo foods that are sneaking added calories into the American diet.

Farmers Market, photograph © Ed Yourdon / flickr

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