Seeing More Food as Less May Drive Obesity

In the battle of the bulge, how we see food may be the cause of our nation’s obesity epidemic. The issue? We tend to underestimate the calories on our plate.

A new study finds that our eyes can play tricks on us when it comes to counting calories. According to the findings, people think if they pair healthy food with more fattening food, they consume less calories. This tendency to see more food as less can lead people to consume more than their body needs, contributing to the current obesity epidemic.

Alexander Chernev from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University conducted an online experiment asking 934 people to estimate the amount of calories in four different meals. About half were shown unhealthy meals, like cheeseburgers or meatball-and-pepperoni cheesesteaks. The other half were shown the same meals with healthy side items, like celery, a small side salad, or an apple.

Chernev found that participants’ perception of how many calories were in a fat-laden food item depended on whether they saw the high-calorie food or the healthy side item first. For example, those who saw the cheeseburger first estimated that it had about 699 calories, while the participants who were first shown the salad and then the cheeseburger estimated that the combined meal had only 656 calories.

The tricks our eyes and brains seem to play on us—subtracting calories when adding a healthy food item—can cause us to eat more without realizing it.

“People believe that adding a healthy option can lower a meal’s calorie content, the negative calorie illusion can lead to overconsumption, thus contributing to the obesity trend,” said Chernev.

Interestingly, dieters were more likely to underestimate the number of calories in a particular meal. The study found that dieters doubled the underestimation of calories when compared to those who were indifferent about their weight.

The complete study appears in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

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