Food labelled 'snack' rather than 'meal' encourages obesity

By Nichola Murphy
Monday, 06 November, 2017

Obesity has become a pressing issue in many countries over the last few decades, with recent figures rising to 24.9% of adults in the United Kingdom and 29% of Australian adults deemed obese.

Researchers from the University of Surrey led by Jane Ogden, Professor in Health Psychology, found that advertising food products as snacks rather than meals leads to overeating and weight gain.

The study, published in the journal Appetite, examined how food labels of ‘snack’ and ‘meal’ impacted the eating habits of 80 participants. Each person was asked to eat pasta that was either classified as a snack — which was eaten standing up from a plastic pot with a plastic fork — or as a ‘meal’ — seated at a table from a ceramic plate and metal fork. They were then invited to consume as much food as they liked at a taste test including animal biscuits, hula hoops, M&M’s and mini cheddars.

The results showed that the pasta that was both labelled and presented as a snack encouraged participants to eat more at the taste test than those who ate the pasta labelled as a meal. Participants standing up ate 50% more total mass and total calories and 100% more M&M’s than those sitting down, suggesting the context in which the food was eaten impacted the amount a person consumed.

Researchers believe this could be due to the fact that people are more easily distracted when eating a snack, meaning they are not as conscious of their actions. Supposedly, memories for snacks and meals may also be encoded differently in the subconscious, making it harder for a person to remember eating a snack and therefore more likely to consume a higher volume of food. This explains why it is recommended that people sit at a table and focus on the food they are eating rather than watching TV or doing other activities at the same time.

“With our lives getting busier increasing numbers of people are eating on the go and consuming foods that are labelled as snacks to sustain them. What we have found is that those who are consuming snacks are more likely to overeat as they may not realise or even remember what they have eaten.

“To overcome this we should call our food a meal and eat it as meal, helping make us more aware of what we are eating so that we don’t overeat later on,” said Ogden.

This sheds light on the psychological impact of food. Taking into consideration the fact that many people rely on takeaway, convenient and on-the-go food, it is important to address how food is presented and how a person associates it with the feeling of being full. By presenting food as meals, it could help combat the mentality leading to overeating and obesity.

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