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Simplistic health labels may not lead to healthy food choices

Niamh Michail

By Niamh Michail+

16-Oct-2015
Last updated on 16-Oct-2015 at 16:39 GMT2015-10-16T16:39:04Z

"An all or nothing' response to minor dietary transgressions may lead to temporary abandonment of the diet and overeating," write the researchers.

Thinking of food in black and white terms such as ‘health’ and ‘unhealthy’ can hinder weight management by encouraging an 'all or nothing' approach to eating - so what does this mean for food labels?

Researchers from the University of Wageningen in the Netherlands have found that dichotomous thinking – or thinking in binary oppositions such as 'good or bad', 'black or white', 'healthy or unhealthy', has an impact on our ability to manage weight.

“Such simplified and dysfunctional thinking styles should be avoided, since they have the potential to induce a rigid response to dietary transitions, and therefore impede people’s ability to maintain a healthy body weight,” write the study authors.

“It is believed that an “all or nothing” response to minor dietary transgressions may lead to temporary abandonment of the diet and overeating.” 

The researchers found there was 142.4% increase in the odds of regaining lost weight compared with maintaining the weight loss with each unit increase of dichotomous thinking related to eating habits.

Lead author Aikaterini Palascha told FoodNavigator she imagined that all labelling schemes could to some extent induce dichotomous beliefs.

"Consumers have only limited time to spend on shopping and try to quickly pick the products they need. However, I think that consumer nutrition education and education on how to interpret nutrition labeling schemes plays a more important role in this respect. It's likely that dichotomous thinking goes together with lower knowledge on nutrition issues, but this is something that needs investigation with empirical research," she said.

"My message to the food industry would be to contribute to consumer education with regard to nutrition labelling in order to help developing more complex thinking styles."

Past studies conducted on people classified as weight regainers, weight maintainers and those with a healthy weight have shown that dichotomous thinking is one of the best predictors of weight regain - but very little research has been done into the relationship between dichotomous thinking, dietary restraint and weight gain in the context of obesity, according to Palascha et al.

“The study findings imply that people who are inclined to think in black and white terms in general aspects of their lives, also tend to restrain their food intake, and the dichotomous beliefs about food and dieting play a key role in this effect. Therefore, we could argue that rigid beliefs about food and dieting (e.g. “I think of food as either good or bad” or “I view my attempts to diet as either successes or failures”) is what underpins restraint eating behavior.”

The study

In total, 49 men and 192 women aged 15 to 74 years old participatedand completedonline surveys to assess the extent of their dichotomous thinking in general and for food as well as eating restraint.

Sujects were also asked to report whether they had lost weight in the past five years and whether they had regained some or all of it. Height and weight were also taken to calculate body mass index.

The authors write that their findings, published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Health Psychology, are relevant to the general population and not only obese or overweight people.

However they write that their findings are limited by the observational aspect of the study, as well as the fact that a majority of subjects were women. They call for further research to involve intervention studies with more population-representative subjects.

Source: Journal of Health Psychology
“How does thinking in Black and White terms relate to eating behavior and weight regain?”
Available May 2015, Vol. 20, pp. 638–648    doi: 10.1177/1359105315573440
Authors: Aikaterini Palascha, Ellen van Kleef and Hans CM van Trijp

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