“We are seeing now a focus on clean eating, less toxic and more natural foods. … It is a good shift because we are having more avocados, olive oil, nuts, whole grains,” Lisa Young, a nutritionist and portion control expert, told FoodNavigator-USA.
“But, at the same time, we aren’t getting any thinner” because people still eat too much, she said.
She explained: “There is a very big health halo surrounding all of these things that people consider health food or products that are low-fat, organic and natural. They think they can eat as much as they want because it has an illusion of health food.”
And food and beverage manufacturers know that people will eat, and buy, more of a product that makes these claims and others, including non-GMO, no added sugar and no preservatives or artificial ingredients, she said. So, they play up these terms and try to downplay the unhealthy parts, such as that a product is still a cookie or chip.
“We delude ourselves that something is healthy if it has wholesome ingredients,” she said. “So, you are eating organic blue chips made with whole grains, but they are still chips and still come out of a bag.”
She offered weight-watchers the tried and true advice instead to “eat more fruits, vegetables and foods that don’t have claims screeching at you” because those are the foods that will be more filling with fewer calories.
Calorie counting or portion control are still necesary
“At the end of the day, you still have to watch how much you are eating,” she said, explaining in that regard the move away from being aware of how many calories are in a serving of food is hurting Americans more than helping them.
She argues the same unintended consequences come from single nutrient claims that are aimed at signaling health benefits or help maintaining weight.
For example, claims about fiber and protein are synonymous with satiety and weight management, but people still only need so much of each nutrient, Young said. She added just because a product is fortified with fiber or protein doesn’t make it healthy – especially if it is a calorie dense bar or cookie packed with sugar.
“If a candy bar has fiber, it is still a candy bar and not good for you,” she said.
She suggests Americans habit of focusing on only one piece of the weight management puzzle at a time, such as only calories or only healthy ingredients, is why obesity continues to plague the country.
“People need to look at the whole picture when they choose what to eat. We tend to look just at one piece and then move on to another piece, but at the end of the day we need to focus on both” calories, or portion control, and the ingredients.
Manufacturers can take action
She recommended manufacturers help consumers by reducing package sizes and offering more realistic single-serve options.
She also suggests shrinking or dividing the product into multiple pieces so that consumers feel like they are engaging with the food longer, which will help them feel fuller.
Manufacturers of healthy products can also fight back against America’s emerging obsession with decadent food by posting more photos of healthy options on Instagram so people are reminded and learn to crave them just as they have the over-the-top foods already posted on social media.
Likewise, she said, produce manufacturers should make their produce more accessible and portable – for example, pre-sliced apples or small bags of carrots.
But, ultimately, she said, it is up to consumers to watch what and how much they eat – and not just one or the other.
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