How do you choose your foods? If you're a healthy eater, you probably flip over the box and peruse the nutrition panel. That's a good start—but you may need to scan smarter. Women tend to ignore sugar content in protein- and fiber-rich foods, a new University of Iowa study shows.
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The researchers asked 263 women to rate the healthiness of 104 foods, such as baked tilapia, fried cheese sticks, gummy worms, and cinnamon rolls, on a scale of 1 to 100, with higher numbers indicating better-for-you foods. On average, the females placed most foods squarely in the middle of the scale.
However, certain nutritional qualities seemed to strongly sway their view of the foods. For example, the women tended to rely heavily on sugar content as an indicator of healthfulness (smart ladies!)—but they made a few critical, and worrisome, exceptions to this rule.
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When foods were low in protein, the study participants used sugar as a strong gauge of healthiness—for example, when comparing raspberries to candy. But when the protein content shot up—for example, judging barbecued meat versus fish—the women didn't seem to recognize the relevance of sugar to healthiness.
Similarly, when foods were short on fiber, the women used sugar as a guide in deciding where they fell on the healthiness scale. But, suddenly, when fiber content was high, they relied very little on the sweet stuff as a marker of nutritional merit.
Why the sugar blind spot? It may be the health halo effect: One positive attribute, like a hefty shot of protein or a dose of fiber, may obscure the not-so-positive nutritional aspects (like a load of sugar), the scientists say.
The takeaway is simple: Don't let protein or fiber distract you from a ridiculous amount of sugar. Rather, you should let the balance of all three, along with fat, calories, and sodium, inform your eating decisions.
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