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Don’t Let A “Health Halo” Bedevil Your Diet

The Health Halo Phenomenon

The concept of a health halo has been around for several years now, and new studies continue to document the potential dietary damage it can do.  For instance, say you want a small snack in the late afternoon to tide you over till dinner.  Stoically avoiding the chips and cookies in the vending machine, you help yourself to some organic pita chips and low-fat, transfat-free ranch dip.  But if you mindlessly munch on half the bag of chips and 4 ounces (4 servings!) of dip, you will end up ingesting way too many carbohydrate and fat calories.


Less Fat ≠ Less Food

Studies have repeatedly shown that putting a low-fat label on food causes people, especially those who are overweight, to underestimate its calories, to eat bigger helpings and to indulge in other foods.  Researchers believe low-fat labels mentally incite people to eat more.  “Because people are assuming these foods are healthier, they tend to eat more of them.  And they are less likely to take a hard look at the nutrition facts label or ingredient list on the back,” says Jenny Wan-chen Lee, a researcher at Cornell University who has studied the "health halo" phenomenon.

John Tierney wrote about the effect of health halos in the New York Times in December 2008. He participated in an interesting study with Pierre Chandon, a professor of marketing at the Insead business school in France, who has been studying what researchers have labeled the American obesity paradox. “Experiments showed that putting a ‘low fat’ label on food caused everyone, especially overweight people, to underestimate its calories, to eat bigger helpings and to indulge in other foods.”, Tierney writes.

Follow The Numbers

So what is the solution to the seductive marketing claims giving foods health halos?  The simple answer is: measure out your portions before you eat.  This is especially critical with nutrient dense foods that come in large packages, like nuts and dried fruit, which can easily be over-consumed.  Also, always read the Nutrition Facts panel on the back of the package, which gives you a reality check to counter the claims on the front of the package.  For instance, many sugar-laden cereals boast “made with whole grains,” but the Nutrition Facts and Ingredient List on the back tell the real, sugar-coated story. Apply this rule to health-haloed beverages, too.  Naked Juice and Odwalla juice and smoothie beverages contain 2 servings and amount to up to 500 calories per bottle, mostly simple sugars.

As in most aspects of life, emphasize quality over quantity in your food choices.

Holly Aglioloro
Guest Blogger and Fitness Enthusiast