‘Health’ foods making Irish nation fatter

NewsBy Lynne Kelleher
‘Health’ foods making Irish nation fatter

Large servings of low-fat and healthy-sounding foods are helping to make Ireland one of the most overweight countries on the planet, according to a leading obesity expert.

New research has shown consumers tend to tuck into bigger helpings of foods with low-fat labels or wholesome sounding foods with fruit, nuts and seeds,  which many people wrongly assume are guilt-free when it comes to calories.

Safefood’s Director of Human Health and Nutrition, Dr Cliodhna Foley-Nolan, said low-fat versions can surprisingly contain as many calories as the ‘classic’ versions.

“It’s called the Health Halo effect. It is one of the contributors to our overweight epidemic in Ireland,” she said.

“We are inclined to eat foods that have any type of health claim when we’re trying to be good. People feel it is a licence to eat a bigger portion.”

While many quintessential health foods did have more calories, they tended to have much less sugar and fat than their confectionery counterparts.

Dr Foley-Nolan said people naturally tend to pile more low-fat food and foods labelled with healthy-sounding catchphrases on their plates, unaware of the true calorie count.

“If you use the specific example of ‘calorie for calorie’ on something like traditional coleslaw and coleslaw that is labelled low-fat, both have almost the same calorie count.

People help themselves to a bigger portion of the low-fat coleslaw, even though ounce for ounce it is the same calorie count.”

She said consumers can often mistakenly believe ready-made salads or foods containing fruit and nuts are low in calories.

“If you can fool yourself into thinking that something is more healthy then you feel more justified in eating more. With adults you are probably talking about, for example, some of the ready-made salads. Some of the bars which don’t mention chocolate, but mention nuts and honey can have the same calorie count of a meal or a lunch, but yet we think of them as a mild pick-me up.”

She urged parents to read the small print on foods which are seen to have health benefit, like processed cheese and yoghurts.

“Of course it is [putting on weight]. It is particularly for children as well. It sounds great and nourishing and therefore I can have as much as I want. In terms of kids there are some yoghurt products and packaged fruit snacks and some packaged cheese snacks. 

“Yoghurt is a very nutritious food, but if there is a half packet of smarties added to it... some of them have toppings or whatever else.”

She said new research has shown that portion control is vital when it comes to tackling the nation’s obesity epidemic.

“We’re not saying eat less carrots or spinach. We’re saying eat less of the energy dense food and just have slightly smaller portions. While we are now familiar with the idea of healthy eating, we’re probably less familiar with the idea of healthy portion sizes.

“We’ve been brought up to finish everything on our plate and we tend to equate bigger portions with generosity and value. But with two in three adults overweight or obese, the issue of portion size is relevant to all of us and we need to cut down.

“Children don’t need adult portions. A five-year-old should have essentially half of what an adult portion is and work up and down from that.”

She said it is up to consumers to analyse the labels of processed foods to gauge their true calorie count.

“It is the job of marketeers to make something as innocent as possible. A lot of processed food is very energy dense. Even if it has a fruit base or nuts and seeds, it still needs to be checked for the calorie count.

“Buyers must take the initiative. You have to be cautious if your first instinct is this product is a miracle and you can indulge and not pay the price. 

“Look at the ingredients. Traffic light labelling is very helpful in looking at the calorie content. 

“With words like ‘natural’ or ‘traditional’ or ‘home baked’ that often is the case, but you just need to be a little bit wary. If it looks and sounds too good to be true, it could well be that it is too good to be true.”