Just because the food label says Healthy! doesn t make it so

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Produce-at-Whole-Foods-Downtown-Miami-LocationThis week s U.S. News & World Report features an article by Health and Science Writer K. Aleisha Fetters entitled, Are Health Foods Making You Fat?--experts share how healthy foods can derail your diet.

The intentionally misleading title attracts attention, but of course her intent is to warn her readers not to be bamboozled by health claims prominently displayed on food labels, which upon closer inspection turn out not to be so conducive to a healthy diet as it seemed.

Some of her highlights include terms like zero fat, reduced sodium, and sugar free. Manufacturers use these claims on packages to show how healthy they are, which in reality might or might not be true, says registered dietitian Alexandra Caspero. No fat can be used to describe bagels, sorbets, sugar and jelly beans. Obviously, these foods aren't healthy, but they are no fat.

Of course, using the term healthy or unhealthy applied to a particular food item is already fraught: just about any product can be part of a well-rounded, healthy diet, if used in moderation. This includes fun foods like ice cream and hamburgers with all the trimmings. Moderation and of course portion size are all-important determinants of the overall healthiness of a diet. Ms. Fetters refers to this as well:

Those extra calories and grams of fat and sugar become an even bigger problem once you start looking at portion sizes. People are naturally more conscious of portion sizes when something is perceived as rich or highly caloric, Caspero says. There is a perception that healthy means, I can eat as much as I want without gaining weight.

In fact, in one Cornell University Food and Brand Lab study, when researchers labeled M&Ms as low-fat, participants ended up eating 28 percent more than those who thought they were full-fat. Overweight participants ate nearly 50 percent more when they thought the M&Ms were low in fat. Meanwhile, a 2013 study from The University of California Los Angeles found that people eat just as many calories at Subway as they do at McDonald s.

And, she points out, some health claims are completely unregulated and can mean whatever the marketer wants you to think they mean or nothing at all. Such labels include terms like low-carb, natural and energizing.

Another trap is psychological: fooling your own mind into thinking that your healthy diet is a substitute for exercise and similar healthful behaviors. As she puts it:

Unfortunately, healthy foods don t just lead to overeating; they also lead to under-exercising. According to new research published in The Journal of Marketing Research, the more fitness-branded foods consumers purchase (think: pictures of athletes and words like fit, active and sports), the more they eat and the less active they become. Rather than getting people in the mood to exercise, they act, at least in consumers minds, as exercise substitutes.

But eating healthy foods doesn t give you the leeway to start eating more than you were before, according to Caspero. Well, at least if you want to lose, not gain, weight.