Ever wonder how some people manage to stay thin while others struggle to take and keep weight off? The answer may be in that little black and white square on boxes at the grocery store – reading the food label!
A study conducted by an international team of researchers found that people who read food labels – women in particular – are thinner than those who don’t. The findings are published the journal Agricultural Economics.
Data was gathered from the 1998 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and it included more than 25,000 observations on health, shopping, and eating habits. The primary observation researchers focused on was whether participants read food labels, and if so, how often they did.
Data was analyzed about the demographic groups that read the nutrition labels before purchasing food, and it was correlated with their weight.
Who Reads Labels?
Researchers found that urban residents were the most frequent and careful readers of food labels (49% of those surveyed). So were the educated, with people who attended high school (40%) and college (17%) reading nutrition labels more carefully.
At 74%, women beat out men (58%) as the more frequent label-readers based on gender. On average, women who read nutrition labels had a body mass index 1.49 points lower than those who did not, compared to a difference of just 0.12 points in men.
There were differences with regard to ethnic background as well. Topping the list were white women in urban areas, who read food labels most often and weighed about nine pounds less than their non-label-reading counterparts.
Smokers, however, were one of the demographics that paid little attention to nutrition labels. Authors suggest that people who engage in this unhealthy behavior may also exhibit less care in other health habits.
The study authors state, “These findings imply that health education campaigns can employ nutritional labels as one of the instruments for reducing obesity. Campaigns and public policy can [also] be designed to promote the use of nutritional labeling on menus at restaurants and other public establishments for the benefit of those who usually eat out.”
The Bottom Line
The premise of this study is deceptively simple: when you’re conscious of what you’re consuming, you’re more likely to eat healthfully and stay thin.
Nutritional information labels, which can be found on most packaged foods including meat, provide consumers with information about the product’s portion size as well as calorie, fat, sugar, sodium, protein, fiber, vitamin, and mineral content.
However, knowing how to read the labels is equally important, if not more important, than simply reading them. Quite often, the information on labels is mystifying. Portion sizes and nutritional content of ingredients such as sugars are listed in grams, which few of us can convert into an understandable amount, and the Percent Daily Value of ingredients like sodium is too high for many Americans who struggle with cardiovascular disease or hypertension. The key here is educating yourself to understand what you read and make shopping decisions based on your specific nutritional needs.
And remember, the best diet requires little label-reading. Fresh, in-season fruits and vegetables and unprocessed foods – the best foods for weight management – don’t come with or need labels, after all.
David H. Rahm, M.D. is the founder and medical director of The Wellness Center, a medical clinic located in Long Beach, CA. Dr. Rahm is also president and medical director of VitaMedica. Dr. Rahm is one of a select group of conventional medical doctors who have education and expertise in functional medicine and nutritional science. Over the past 20 years, Dr. Rahm has published articles in the plastic surgery literature and educated physicians about the importance of good peri-operative nutrition.