A cookie by any other name

It is late afternoon and you have a twinge of hunger.  One of your co-workers sets out a plate of cookies and says, “I tried a new recipe for this high-fiber oatmeal snack made with healthy ingredients.  Whole grain oatmeal is good for your health because it contains soluble fiber. This oatmeal snack is low in saturated fat and has no trans fats.”  You help yourself to a cookie and begin to eat it.

How would it affect your eating if the cookies received a different introduction?  Same scenario, late afternoon, you’re hungry and a colleague offers you a tray of cookies, saying, “I tried this new recipe for gourmet cookies made with fresh butter and old-fashioned brown sugar.  These cookies are a real treat with a pleasant, sweet taste.”

Researchers at the University of Toronto used these two messages as they set out to investigate the effects of food-related beliefs about the healthiness of foods on the amount of food eaten during a snack.  In the study, undergraduate students were offered oatmeal raisin cookies under the guise of a market-research study involving a taste-testing task.  The students were offered identical cookies with one or the other introduction and invited to eat as many as they wanted after they had completed the taste-testing form.   Participants ate about 35% more when the cookies were presented as a healthy snack as opposed to when they were offered as a tasty treat.

Eaters often categorize food as healthy (good) and unhealthy (bad) based on their perception of the fat/calorie content of the food or the fattening nature of the food. The classification also comes from stereotyping based on the name of the food. In this case, oatmeal snack = good, gourmet cookie = bad. 

No matter the reason, when a food is deemed “healthy” it seems okay to eat more of it.  The categorization itself, then, influences how much you eat without you even realizing it.  Healthy/unhealthy food thoughts manipulate your eating rather than allowing you to trust your natural instincts about whether or not you want a cookie. And if you do, how much to eat of it. 

Giving yourself unconditional permission to eat all foods lessens the impact of food-related messages.  With enough practice, you begin to disregard good food-bad food labels. You can savor the foods you choose and eat as much as you desire.


Provencher V, Polivy J, Herman CP. Perceived healthiness of food.  If it’s healthy, you can eat more! Appetite. 2009; 52:340-344.


2 comments so far

  1. Butter vs Margarine on

    That’s very interesting. I never thought of it that way that you will eat more when something is thought of as healthier. It really isn’t that great for you when you consume it in large quantities.

    • Peggy Crum on

      It is paradoxical. Labeling foods as either good or bad takes you out of your intuitive self. My clients tell the most fascinating stories about their discoveries when they give themselves permission to eat any and all foods.

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